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  • Written by Alan Furst
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  • Written by Alan Furst
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A Novel

Written by Alan FurstAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alan Furst

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On Sale: November 19, 2008
Pages: 480 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48881-7
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates
the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

Excerpt

In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.

His brother was fifteen, no more than a blameless fool with a big mouth, and in calmer days his foolishness would have been accommodated in the usual ways—a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send him on his way. That much was tradition. But these were political times, and it was very important to think before you spoke. Nikko Stoianev spoke without thinking, and so he died.

On both sides of the river—Romania to the north and Bulgaria to the south—the political passion ran white hot. People talked of little else: in the marketplace, in the church, even—a mark of just how far matters had progressed—in the kitchen. Something has happened in Bucharest. Something has happened in Sofia.

Soon, something will happen here.

And, lately, they marched.

Torchlight parades with singing and stiff-armed salutes. And the most splendid uniforms. The Romanians, who considered themselves much the more stylish and urbane, wore green shirts and red armbands with blue swastikas on a yellow field. They thrust their banners into the air in time with the drum: we are the Guard of Archangel Michael. See our insignia—the blazing crucifix and pistol.

They were pious on behalf of both symbols. In 1933, one of their number had murdered Ion Duca, the prime minister, as he waited for a train at Sinaia railway station. A splinter group, led by a Romanian of Polish descent named Cornelius Codreanu, called itself the Iron Guard. Not to be outdone by his rivals, Codreanu had recently assassinated the prefect of Jassy “because he favored the Jews.” Political times, it seemed, brought the keenest sort of competitive instincts into play and the passionate reached deep within themselves for acts of great magnitude.

The men of Vidin were not quite so fashionable, but that was to be expected. They were, after all, Slavs, who prided themselves on simplicity and honesty, while their brethren across the river were of Latin descent, the inheritors of a corner of the Roman Empire, fancified, indolent fellows who worshiped everything French and indulged themselves in a passion for the barber, the tailor, and the gossip of the cafés. Thus the Bulgarian marchers had selected for themselves a black and olive green uniform which was, compared with Romanian finery, simple and severe.

Still, though simple and severe, they were uniforms, and the men of Vidin were yet at some pains, in 1934, to explain to the local population how greatly that altered matters.

It was a soft autumn evening, just after dusk, when Nikko Stoianev called Omar Veiko a dog prick. A white mist hung in the tops of the willows and poplars that lined the bank of the river, clouds of swallows veered back and forth above the town square, the beating of their wings audible to those below. The Stoianev brothers were on their way home from the baker’s house. Nikko, being the younger, had to carry the bread.

They were lucky to have it. The European continent lay in the ashes of economic ruin. The printing presses of the state treasuries cranked out reams of paper currency—showing wise kings and blissful martyrs—while bankers wept and peasants starved. It was, certainly, never quite so bad as the great famines of Asia. No dead lay bloated in the streets. European starvation was rather more cunning and wore a series of clever masks: death came by drink, by tuberculosis, by the knife, by despair in all its manifestations. In Hamburg, an unemployed railway brakeman took off his clothes, climbed into a barrel of tar, and burned himself to death.

The Stoianevs had the river. They had fished, for carp and pike, sturgeon and Black Sea herring, for generations. They were not wealthy, but they did earn a few leva. That meant the Stoianev women could spend their days mending lines and nets and the family could pay the Braunshteins, in their flour-dusted yarmulkes, to do the baking. They had, frankly, a weakness for the Braunshtein bread, which was achieved in the Austrian manner, with a hard, brown crust. Most of their neighbors preferred the old-fashioned Turkish loaf, flat and round in the Eastern tradition, but the Stoianev clan looked west for their bread, and their civilization. They were a proud, feisty bunch—some said much too proud—with quick tempers. And they were ambitious; they meant to rise in the world.

Much too ambitious, some thought.

A time might just come, and come fairly soon, when the Stoia- nevs would have to bow the head—who were they, one might ask, to have their damned noses stuck so high in the air? After all, had not the eldest son of Landlord Veiko sought the hand of the eldest Stoianev daughter? The one with the ice-blue eyes and thick black hair. And had he not been refused? A shameful slight, in the watchful eyes of Vidin. The Veiko were a family of power and position; property owners, men of substance and high rank. Any fool could see that.

What fools could and could not see became something of a topic in Vidin following Nikko Stoianev’s death. A few leading citizens, self-appointed wise men and local wits, who read newspapers and frequented the coffeehouse, asked each other discreetly if Nikko had not perhaps seen the wrong Veiko. That is, Landlord Veiko. For Landlord Veiko was not in the town square that autumn evening.

Colonel Veiko was.

In his black and olive green uniform, marching at the head of the Bulgarian National Union—all eighteen of them present that night. You see, the wise men told each other, to call a landlord a dog prick was to risk a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send you on your way. That much was tradition. It had happened before. It would happen again. But to say such things to a colonel. Well, that was another matter altogether, was it not.

Omar Veiko, in either manifestation, landlord or colonel, was a man to be reckoned with in Vidin. A man whose studied effeminacy was a covert tribute to his power, for only a very powerful man raised neither voice nor fist. Only a very powerful man could afford to be so soft, so fussy, so plump, so fastidious. It was said that he dined like a cat.

This Veiko had a mustache, a sharp, stiff, well-waxed affair that shone jet black against his cream-colored skin. He was a short man who stood on his toes, a fat man who sucked in his stomach, a curly-haired man who oiled his curls until they brushed flat. A man, obviously, of some considerable vanity and, like most vain men, a close accountant of small insults. A note of sarcasm in the voice, a glance of ill-concealed anger, a rental payment slapped overhard on the wooden desk. All such sins were entered in a ledger, no less permanent for being kept in Veiko’s razor-sharp memory rather than on bookkeeper’s pages. It was, in fine, the Turkish style: an effete, polished surface just barely concealing interior tides of terrible anger. An Eastern tactic, of great antiquity, meant to frighten and intimidate, for Omar Veiko’s most urgent desire on this earth was that people be frightened of him. He lived on fear. It set him above his fellows, content to live out their days animated by less ambitious cravings.

Some weeks later, Antipin, the Russian who pretended to be a Bulgarian, would nod slowly with grave understanding. “Yes, yes,” he would say, pausing to light a cigarette, “the village bully.”

“We know them,” he would add, eyes narrowing, head nodding, in a way that meant and we know what to do with them.

Colonel Veiko marched his troop into the main square from the west. The sky was touched with the last red streaks of the setting sun. The twenty-five minarets, which gave the town its fame along the river, were now no more than dark shapes on the horizon. There was a light evening breeze off the water and, at the center of the town square, the last leaves of the great beech tree rattled in the wind, a harsh, dry sound.

The Bulgarian National Union marched with legs locked stiff, chins tucked in, arms fully extended, fingers pointing at the ground. Legs and arms moved like ratchets, as though operated by machinery. All in time to Khosov the Postman, who kept the beat with a homemade drumstick on a block of wood. They badly wanted a drum, but there was no drum to be had unless one went all the way to Sofia. No matter. The desired effect was achieved. A great modern age was now marching into the ancient river town of Vidin.

Colonel Veiko and his troopers had not themselves conceived this fresh approach to parades. It had come down the river from Germany, twelve hundred miles away, brought by an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat. He arrived by passenger steamer, with tins of German newsreels and a film projector. To the people of Vidin, these were indeed thrilling spectacles. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Such enormous banners! Huge bonfires, ranks of torches, songs lifted high by a thousand voices.

The people of Vidin worked hard, squeezed the soul from every lev, watched helplessly as their infants died of diphtheria. Life was a struggle to breathe. Now came an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat and he offered them pride—a new spirit, a new destiny. Omar Veiko, who could read the wind like a wolf, realized that this time belonged to him, that it was his turn.

First he made himself a captain. Later, a colonel.

The uniforms were sewn up by a tailor named Levitzky, whose family had for generations outfitted the local military: Turkish policemen stationed in the town, Austro-Hungarian infantry going to war against Napoleon, Bulgarian officers in World War I, when the country had sided with Germany. The fact that money passed into the hands of Levitzky, a Jew, was regrettable, but was viewed as a necessary evil. In time such things would be put right.

The uniforms were soon ready. The heavy cotton blouse was olive green, an Eastern preference. The trousers and tunic, of thickly woven drill, were a deep, ominous black. A black tie set off the shirt. Each tunic had a shoulder patch, a fiery crucifix with crossed arrow. The uniforms were received with delight. The heavy double-breasted cut of the jackets made the National Union members look fit and broad-shouldered.

But the caps. Ahh, now that was a problem. Military caps were not the proper domain of a tailor—that was capmaker’s business, different materials and skills were required. There was, however, no capmaker about, so the job fell on Levitzky.

A progressive. A reader of tracts on Palestinian repatriation, a serious student of the Talmud, a man who wore eyeglasses. Le- vitzky had an old book of illustrations; he thumbed through it by the light of a kerosene lamp. All Europe was represented, there were Swiss Vatican Guards, Hungarian Hussars, French Foreign Legionnaires, Italian Alpine regiments of the Great War. From the last, he selected a cap style, though he hadn’t the proper materials. But Levitzky was resourceful: two layers of black drill were sewn together, then curved into a conical shape. The bill of the cap was fashioned by sewing material on both sides of a cardboard form. All that was lacking, then, was the feather, and this problem was soon solved by a visit to the ritual slaughterer, who sold the tailor an armful of long white goose quills.

Colonel Veiko and his troopers thought the caps were magnificent, a little flamboyant, a daring touch to offset the somber tone of the uniforms, and wore them with pride. The local wise men, however, laughed behind their hands. It was entirely ridiculous, really it was. Vidin’s petite-bourgeoise tricked out in goose feathers, strutting up and down the streets of the town. The grocer preceded by his monstrous belly. The postman beating time on a wooden block. Laughable.

Nikko Stoianev thought so too, standing with his arms full of Braunshtein’s loaves on a soft evening in autumn. The Stoianev brothers had stopped a moment to watch the parade—very nearly anything out of the ordinary that happened in Vidin was worth spending a moment on. Veiko marched in front. Next came the two tallest troopers, each with a pole that stretched a banner: the blazing crucifix with crossed arrow. Three ranks of five followed, the man on the end of each line holding a torch—pitch-soaked rope wound around the end of a length of oak branch. Five of the torches were blazing. The sixth had gone out, sending aloft only a column of oily black smoke.

“Ah, here’s a thing,” Khristo said quietly. “The glory of the nation.”

“Levitzky’s geese,” Nikko answered, a title conferred by the local wise men.

“How they strut,” Khristo said.

They took great strength from each other, the Stoianev brothers. Good, big kids. Nikko was fifteen, had had his first woman, was hard at work on his second. Khristo was nineteen, introspective like his father. He shied away from the local girls, knowing too well the prevailing courtship rituals that prescribed pregnancy followed by marriage followed by another pregnancy to prove you meant it the first time. Khristo held back from that, harboring instead a very private dream—something to do with Vienna or, even, the ways of God were infinite, Paris. But of this he rarely spoke. It was simply not wise to reach too far above what you were.

They stood together on the muddy cobbled street, hard-muscled from the fishing, black-haired, fair-skinned. Good-natured because not much else was tolerated. Nikko had a peculiarly enlarged upper lip that curled away from his teeth a little, giving him a sort of permanent sneer, a wise-guy face. It had got him into trouble often enough.

In good order, the unit marched past the grand old Turkish post office that anchored the main square, then reached the intersection.

“Halt!”

Colonel Veiko thrust his arm into the air, held tension for a moment, then shouted, “Left . . . turn!”

They marched around the corner of the open square, heading now toward the Stoianevs, white feathers bobbing. Veiko the landlord. The grocer. The postman. Several clerks, a schoolteacher, a farmer, a fisherman, even the local matchmaker.

Nikko’s grin widened. “Hup, hup,” he said.

They watched the parade coming toward them.

“Here’s trouble,” Khristo said.
Alan Furst|Author Q&A

About Alan Furst

Alan Furst - Night Soldiers

Photo © Shonna Valeska

Alan Furst is widely recognized as the master of the historical spy novel. Now translated into eighteen languages, he is the author of Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, The Foreign Correspondent, The Spies of Warsaw, Spies of the Balkans, Mission to Paris, and Midnight in Europe. Born in New York, he lived for many years in Paris, and now lives on Long Island.

Author Q&A

Alan Furst describes the area of his interest as “near history.” His novels are set between 1933–the date of Adolf Hitler’s ascent, with the first Stalinist purges in Moscow coming a year later–and 1945, which saw the end of the war in Europe. The history of this period is well documented. Furst uses books by journalists of the time, personal memoirs–some privately published–autobiographies (many of the prominent individuals of the period wrote them), war and political histories, and characteristic novels written during those years.

“But,” he says, “there is a lot more”–for example, period newsreels, magazines, and newspapers, as well as films and music, especially swing and jazz. “I buy old books,” Furst says, “and old maps, and I once bought, while living in Paris, the photo archive of a French stock house that served newspapers of Paris during the Occupation, all the prints marked as cleared by the German censorship.” In addition, Furst uses intelligence histories of the time, many of them by British writers.

Alan Furst has lived for long periods in Paris and in the south of France. “In Europe,” he says, “the past is still available. I remember a blue neon sign, in the Eleventh Arrondissement in Paris, that had possibly been there since the 1930s.” He recalls that on the French holiday le jour des morts (All Saints’ Day, November 1) it is customary for Parisians to go to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. “Before the collapse of Polish communism, the Polish émigrés used to gather at the tomb of Maria Walewska. They would burn rows of votive candles and play Chopin on a portable stereo. It was always raining on that day, and a dozen or so Poles would stand there, under black umbrellas, with the music playing, as a kind of silent protest against the communist regime. The spirit of this action was history alive–as though the entire past of that country, conquered again and again, was being brought back to life.”

The heroes of Alan Furst’s novels include a Bulgarian defector from the Soviet intelligence service, a foreign correspondent for Pravda, a Polish cartographer who works for the army general staff, a French producer of gangster films, and a Hungarian émigré who works with a diplomat at the Hungarian legation in Paris. “These are characters in novels,” Furst says, “but people like them existed; people like them were courageous people with ordinary lives and, when the moment came, they acted with bravery and determination. I simply make it possible for them to tell their stories.”

Praise

Praise

“A spy novel, a war story, an adventure, a survivor’s tale—Night Soldiers is all this and more.”
The Seattle Times

Night Soldiers has everything the best thrillers offer—excitement, intrigue, romance—plus grown-up writing, characters that matter, and a crisp, carefully researched portrait of the period in which our own postwar world was shaped.”
USA Today

“Intelligent, ambitious, absorbing . . . The history is deftly incorporated; the viewpoint civilized; the characters and the settings picturesque; the adventures exciting; the writing pungent.”
–Walter Goodman, The New York Times

Night Soldiers is an atmospheric journey through turbulent lands at a turbulent time, not so much a thriller as it is a panoramic, historical adventure.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Intelligent and absorbing . . . An unusual viewpoint, solid research and unobtrusively elegant writing make this pure pleasure to read.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Evocative, moving . . . Furst shows a remarkable talent, integrating details about the cultures of Spain, France and Eastern Europe with a fascinating story of the constantly changing, constantly unpredictable events of that world at war.”
Publishers Weekly

“One of the very best novels ever written about the inner world of Soviet intelligence. . . . This fine novel, in effect the memoir so many did not live to write for themselves, is a triumph of historical imagination.”
–Thomas Powers, author of The Man Who Kept the Secrets
Discussion Questions|Suggestions

Discussion Guides

1. How does Alan Furst use the crosscurrents of local jealousies and feuds at the start of Night Soldiers as a means of animating the plot?

2. Discuss Khristo’s experience at the training school in Moscow. How does it prepare him for a later career in the NKVD?

3. A decade after the action of Night Soldiers ends, what would you expect Khristo, Ilya Goldman, and Faye Berns to be doing?

4. Alan Furst has called Night Soldiers a “panoramic spy novel.” What do you think he means by this description?

5. Examine the character of Robert Eidenbaugh. In what ways does he represent the values of America in the 1940s?

6. Critics praise Furst’s ability to re-create the atmosphere of World War II—era Europe. What elements of description make the setting come alive? How can you account for the fact that the settings seem authentic even though you probably have no firsthand knowledge of the times and places he writes about?

7. Furst’s novels have been described as “historical novels,” and as “spy novels.” He calls them “historical spy novels.” Some critics have insisted that they are, simply, novels. How does his work compare with other spy novels you’ve read? What does he do that is the same? Different? If you owned a bookstore, in what section would you display his books?

8. Furst is often praised for his minor characters, which have been described as “sketched out in a few strokes.” Do you have a favorite in this book? Characters in his books often take part in the action for a few pages and then disappear. What do you think becomes of them? How do you know?

9. Consider Furst’s use of suspense in Night Soldiers. How does he build suspense? Discuss different methods he uses in the novel.

10. Love affairs are always prominent in Furst’s novels, and “love in time of war” is a recurring theme. What role does the love affair play in Night Soldiers?

Suggested Readings

There is an enormous body of literature, fiction and nonfiction, written about the period 1933—1945, so Alan Furst’s recommendations for reading in that era are very specific. He often uses characters who are idealistic intellectuals, particularly French and Russian, who become disillusioned with the Soviet Union but still find themselves caught up in the political warfare of the period. “Among the historical figures who wrote about that time,” Furst says, “Arthur Koestler may well be ‘first among equals.’ ” Furst suggests Koestler’s Darkness at Noon as a classic story of the European intellectual at midcentury.

Furst, as a novelist of historical espionage, is most often compared with the British authors Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. Asked about Ambler’s books, Furst replied that “the best one I know is A Coffin for Dimitrios.” Published in 1939, a month before the invasion of Poland, Ambler’s novel concentrates on clandestine operations in the Balkans and includes murder for money, political assassination, espionage, and drug smuggling. The plot, like that of an Alan Furst novel, weaves intrigue and conspiracy into the real politics of 1930s Europe.

For the reality of daily life in eastern Europe, Furst suggests the novelist Gregor von Rezzori, of Italian/Austro-Hungarian background, who grew up in a remote corner of southeastern Europe, between the wars, and writes about it brilliantly in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which takes place in the villages of Romania and the city of Bucharest in the years before the war.
To see life in that period from the German perspective, Furst says that Christopher Isherwood’s novels The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin are among the best possible choices. The sources for the stage plays I Am a Camera and Cabaret, these are novelized autobiographies of Isherwood’s time in Berlin; they are now published as The Berlin Stories. Furst calls them “perceptive and wonderfully written chronicles of bohemian life during the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.”

For a historical overview of the period, Alan Furst recommends Martin Gilbert’s A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Two: 1933—1951. All the major political events that rule the lives of the characters in Alan Furst’s novels are described, in chronological sequence, in this history.

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