Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

Random House 2001 239 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

I hope I’m not the first (and certainly won’t be the last) to say that Alan Furst is one of the most engaging writers of English-language fiction alive.  I resort to hand-waving hyperbole because I recently learned that Furst, author of six unforgettable novels of pre-World War II espionage and intrigue, doesn’t even have an American paperback contract.  With the publication of Kingdom of Shadows, Furst’s literary fortunes are sure to improve, even if his protagonists remain in small dark hotel rooms, smoking cigarettes, anxiously waiting for both daylight and the impending German domination of Europe. 

Paris, 1938.  The city is awash in foreigners, strolling uneasily down the boulevards, arranging clandestine meetings, and, in concert, raising a metaphorical finger into the air, testing it for Germany’s intentions.  No country is more likely to be affected than Hungary, bordering as it does on Austria and independent Slovakia, and sitting just a tank ride away from the German-speaking Czech Sudentenland. 

Nicholas Morath, forty-four, a Hungarian aristocrat, moves among the polyglot denizens of Paris with a smoothness born of long practice.  “He had black hair, thick, heavy, combed back from the forehead, a certain tightness around the eyes, ‘green’ on his passport but very close to black, and all that darkness made him seem pale, a fin-de-siècle decadent.” 

Technically, Morath is not a spy.  “Just someone who doesn’t like Hitler . . . doesn’t like Hitlers.”  However, fearing not only for his family (his mother refuses to leave her home in Budapest, secure in the delusion that the Nazis will be contained), but for his country as well, Nicholas follows the cryptic instructions of his uncle, Count Polanyi, a member of the Hungarian Legation in Paris.  With satchels of cash and pockets full of false identity papers, Morath moves stealthily through Eastern Europe, repaying “favors” his uncle has incurred with pseudonymous Roumanians, Ruthenians, and Hungarians.

The newspapers call his circle of confidants “’the Shadow Front.’  Which is to say, liberals, legitimists, Jews, intellectuals.”  And they all have reason to fear violence in a cultural climate in which an anti-Semite is termed “one who detests the Jews more than necessary.”

While in Paris, Morath carries on a heated affair with the Argentinean beauty Caridad Valentina Maria Westendorf de Parra y Dionello, a.k.a., Cara, “from one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires.”  As “the world on the radio drifted idly toward blood and fire,” their relationship becomes similarly endangered.

In his writing, Furst is more concerned with conveying mood than plot, and Kingdom of Shadows is no exception.  There are instances of passport intrigue, money laundering, rescue of imprisoned friends, and, for Morath, a terrifying stay in prison, but these are served up not as pulpy excuses for melodramatic conflict, but as part of the fabric of Morath’s daily life. 

Furst’s ability to enthrall the reader rests in his mastery of both grand historical themes and daily, pre-War minutiae.  We do not so much watch his characters perform as walk along beside them, sharing their unspoken--and ultimately noble--aspirations, and recoiling from nameless bureaucrats, whose thin-lipped smiles evoke arid promises of prison, torture, and death.  In this, and his other novels, Furst characters are learning to “try and forgive the world for being what it is.” 

The quiet, businesslike pragmatism of Morath’s circle is sure to resonate with readers of Eric Ambler and lovers of [beginital] Casablanca [endital].  However, Furst is coolly establishing his own corpus that will no doubt one day engender comparisons of its own.  While not the best of his novels--that remains The World at Night--Kingdom of Shadows is as good a place as any to start experiencing the enchanting pleasures of Furst’s extraordinary fiction.