My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst is one of those books that is published for no other reason than the author’s name on the cover. For those readers who might like historical fiction or fiction involving espionage, be prepared for a disappointment with The Spies of Warsaw.
The book begins with the point-of-view focus of one Edvard Uhl, who is described as a ”secret agent” and is little more than a businessman selling national secrets to the real spy, named Mercier. Midway through the book, Mercier, working out of the French embassy in Warsaw, becomes the main focus of the story and Edvard is almost killed by Nazis and is eventually dropped all together from the book’s pages. The reader hears no more of this minor character who took up so much time and space in the beginning.
From there, the reader follows Mercier as he sways a German named Halbach to spy against his country. By book’s end, Mercier is able to smuggle top secret documents out of Germany but is promoted as punishment and ordered out of the country.
In all of its slim 266 pages, The Spies of Warsaw begins with a sharp snap, dwindles into monotone drill, and then peaks before ever so slowly spiraling down into unimportant ethos. Sadly, the book ends prematurely, and a short inscription of things to come in the years that follow is a cheap trick on the author’s part to quickly be rid of these uninteresting characters.
What is strange, but not unusual, is that some of the most vivid and most gripping of scenes in The Spies of Warsaw are sex scenes that seem to be included in the story more for mass reader appeal than relevant plot material.
The first of these comes only five pages in with Edvard Uhl gloating in his exaggerated self-image as his wife waits for him in another city while he is away playing at being a spy.
”And was she a countess? A real Polish countess? Probably not, he thought. But so she called herself, and she was, to him, like a countess: imperious, haughty, and demanding. Oh how this provoked him, as the evening lengthened and they drank champagne, as her mood slid, subtly, from courteous disdain to sly submission, then on to breathless urgency. It was the same always, their private melodrama, with an ending that never changed. Uhl–the stallion–despite the image in the mirrored armoire, a middle-aged gentleman with thin legs and potbelly and pale chest home to a few wisps of hair–demonstrably excited as he knelt on the hotel carpet, while the countess, looking down at him over her shoulder, eyebrows raised in mock surprise, deigned to let him roll her silk underpants down her great, saucy, fat bottom. Noblesse oblige…” (p 5-6).
One cannot help admire the ease and fluidity that Furst displays in this scene, transitioning from internal dialogue into external arousal and foreplay in a matter of a few sentences. Truly a masterful stroke of brilliant writing. One wishes to see more of this kind of writing in the book but does not find it among the majority of the pages. Most of the book is filled with dry characterizations or conversations filled with information dumps.
Ten pages later, the main character has been switched and another sex scene, this time in the shower, is a sudden awakening to the downward appeal the book will carry for another 250 pages.
”Standing there, in a cloud of steam, a lavender-colored cake of soap in one hand, was the Princess Antowina Brosowicz. Without clothes, she seemed small but, again like a doll, perfectly proportioned. With an impish smile, she reached a hand toward him and, using her fingernail, drew a line down the wet hair plastered to his chest…She entered the shower, closed the curtain, stepped toward him so that the tips of her breasts just barely touched his chest, stood on her toes, and kissed him lightly on the lips…Only a princess, he thought, would join a man in the shower but disdain the use of the guest soap” (p 16).
Not quite sure of what to make of that last line, but this has to be one of the best years of Mercier’s life.
The biggest shock, and still some of the better writing, comes when Mercier returns to France and has an afternoon with his cousin, Albertine. Why stop at a princess when he can have a cousin?
”In his room, Mercier was dressing for dinner, in underpants and his best shirt, in front of a wall mirror, working at tying his tie… Cousin Albertine appeared…
”For a few seconds, they stood like statues, then she whispered, ‘I want to see it,’ hooked her thumbs in the waistband of his underpants, and pulled them down… She pressed against him, above and below, and he reached back, hands on her bottom, and pulled her closer. She now stroked him with index finger and thumb: where had she learned to do this? He was very excited and, a few seconds later, came the inevitable conclusion, accompanied, from deep within, by a sound somewhere between a sigh and a gasp… He started to move away from her, but she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held him tight. Close to his ear, she whispered, ‘Now it’s my turn”’ (p 98-99).
One cannot fault a writer for having sexually charged erotica in one’s stories, but a reader doesn’t often come across such shady and explicit scenes in historical fiction. Or do they?
But Mercier’s true amour in this tale is not Albertine but a married woman named Anna Szarbek. Why stop at a princess and a cousin when he can have another man’s wife?
By book’s end, Mercier is dejected, knowing he must soon leave Warsaw, and comes home to Anna and Albertine in a strange ménage à trois of some kind, which hints on the creepy side of romance between the three lovers and their intertwined fates.
”Ah, good for you,” Albertine said. Then, to Anna, ”He’s the best cousin, dear, is he not? And he might do for a husband.”
”Albertine,” Mercier said. ”We’ll talk about it in the morning. For now, where’s my gin fizz?”
”Just ready,” Albertine said. She brought Mercier his drink and settled down at the other end of the sofa. Then she raised her glass. ”Anyhow, salut, and vive la France,” she said. ”It’s the good side, and I do mean the three of us, who will win in the end” (p 266).
All in all, Furst is a master at his research and it shows in The Spies of Warsaw. Most of the scenes and characters, however, come off as caricatures and quaint imaginings rather than full fledged living human beings.
Most of the scenes are rather dull, filled with telling and chunks of information which do no more than to inform the reader of key historical facts and plot devices that walk a very thin line. Most of the book, however, leaves one scratching one’s head.
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CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers