Blood of Victory

Blood of Victory

3.6 10
by Alan Furst

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"November 1940. The Russian writer I. A. Serebin arrives in Istanbul by Black Sea freighter. Although he travels on behalf of an emigre organization based in Paris, he is in flight from a dying and corrupt Europe - specifically, from Nazi-occupied France. Serebin finds himself facing his fifth war, but this time he is an exile, a man without a country, and there is no…  See more details below


"November 1940. The Russian writer I. A. Serebin arrives in Istanbul by Black Sea freighter. Although he travels on behalf of an emigre organization based in Paris, he is in flight from a dying and corrupt Europe - specifically, from Nazi-occupied France. Serebin finds himself facing his fifth war, but this time he is an exile, a man without a country, and there is no army to join. Still, in the words of Leon Trotsky, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Serebin is recruited for an operation run by Count Janos Polanyi, a Hungarian master spy now working for the British secret services." The battle to cut Germany's oil supply rages through the spy haunts of the Balkans; from the Athenee Palace in Bucharest to a whorehouse in Izmir; from an elegant yacht club in Istanbul to the river docks of Belgrade; from a skating pond in St. Moritz to the fogbound banks of the Danube; in sleazy nightclubs and safe houses and nameless hotels; amid the street fighting of a fascist civil war.

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Editorial Reviews

Today, not one in ten Americans knows that Romania exports oil, but in the dark days of World War II, the loss of that resource could have brought Nazi Germany to its knees. Alan Furst's novel of historical intrigue focuses on Baltic oil and Allied attempts to keep it out of German hands. After war-weary Russian writer I. A. Serebin agrees to help close the spigot, he discovers that becoming a covert agent is even more dangerous than he imagined it was. As we follow this reluctant recruit, we emphathize with his improvised plans and his nervous watchfulness. Cinema on the page.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.56(h) x 0.94(d)

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On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized--red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.

As he pulled the door shut, a soft shape stirred beneath the blanket. "Ah, mon ours," she said. My bear. A muffled voice, tender, half asleep. "Are we there?"

"No, not for a long time."

"Well then..." One side of the blanket rose in the air.

Serebin took off his shirt and trousers, then his glasses, slid in beside her and ran an idle finger down the length of her back, over the curve, and beyond. Smooth as silk, he thought, sleek as a seal. Bad poetry in bed, maybe, but she was, she was.

Marie-Galante. A fancy name. Nobility? It wouldn't shock him if she were. Or not. A slumflower, perhaps. No matter, she was stunning, glamorous. Exceptionally plucked, buffed and smoothed. She had come to his cabin, sable coat and bare feet, as she'd promised at dinner. A glance, a low purr of a voice in lovely French, just enough, as her husband, a Vichy diplomat, worked atconversation with the Bulgarian captain and his first officer. So, no surprise, a few minutes after midnight: three taps, pearlescent fingernail on iron door and, when it opened, an eloquent Bonsoir.

Serebin stared when the coat came off. The cabin had only a kerosene lantern, hung on a hook in one corner, but the tiny flame was enough. Hair the color of almonds, skin a tone lighter, eyes a shade darker--caramel. She acknowledged the stare with a smile--yes, I am--turned slowly once around for him, then, for a moment, posed. Serebin was a man who had love affairs, one followed another. It was his fate, he believed, that life smacked him in the head every chance it got, then paid him back in women. Even so, he couldn't stop looking at her. "It is," she'd said gently, "a little cold for this."

The engines hammered and strained, the overloaded steamship--Ukrainian manganese for Turkish mills--was slow as a snail. A good idea, they thought, lying on their sides, front to back, his hand on her breast, the sea rising and falling beneath them.

Serebin had boarded the Svistov at the Roumanian port of Constanta, where it called briefly to take on freight--a few crates of agricultural machinery cranked slowly up the rusty side of the ship--and a single passenger. The docks were almost deserted, Serebin stood alone, a small valise at his side, waiting patiently in the soft, southern dusk as the gangway was lowered.

Earlier that day there'd been fighting on the waterfront, a band of fascist Iron Guards pursued by an army unit loyal to Antonescu. So said the barman at the dockside tavern. Intense volleys of small arms fire, a few hand grenades, machine guns, then silence. Serebin listened carefully, calculated the distance, ordered a glass of beer, stayed where he was. Safe enough. Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring.

Later, on his way to the pier, he'd come upon a telegraph office with its windows shattered, a man in uniform flung dead across the threshold of the open door, which bumped against his boot as the evening wind tried to blow it shut. Roumania had just signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, political assassinations were daily events, civil war on the way, one poor soul had simply got an early start.

Dinner, in the freighter's wardroom, had gone on forever. The diplomat, Labonniere, a dry man with a fair mustache, labored away in university Russian--the weather, quite changeable in fall. Or the tasty Black Sea carp, often baked, but sometimes broiled. The Bulgarian captain did not make life easy for him. Yes, very tasty.

It had been left to Serebin to converse with Madame. Was this on purpose? He wondered. The wife was amusing, had that particular ability, found in Parisian women, to make table talk out of thin air. Serebin listened, spoke when he had to, picked at a plate of boiled food. Still, what could any of them say? Half of France was occupied by Germany, Poland enslaved, London in flames. So, all that aside, the carp. Madame Labonniere wore a cameo on a velvet ribbon at her throat, from time to time she touched it with her fingers.

On a shelf in the wardroom was a green steel radio with a wire mesh speaker at the center shaped like a daisy. It produced the transmissions of a dozen stations, which wandered on and off the air like restless cats. Sometimes a few minutes of news on Soviet dairy production, now and then a string quartet, from somewhere on the continent. Once a shouting politician, in Serbo-Croatian, who disappeared into crackling static, then a station in Turkey, whining string instruments and a throbbing drum. To Serebin, a pleasant anarchy. Nobody owned the air above the sea. Suddenly, the Turkish music vanished, replaced by an American swing band with a woman singer. For a long moment, nobody at the dinner table spoke, then, ghostlike, it faded away into the night.

"Now where did that come from?" Marie-Galante said to Serebin.

He had no idea.

"London? Is it possible?"

"A mystery," Serebin said.

"In Odessa, one never hears such things."

"In Odessa, one plays records. Do you live there?"

"For the moment, at the French consulate. And you, monsieur? Where do you live?"

"In Paris, since '38."

"Quelle chance." What luck. For him? Them? "And before that?"

"I am Russian by birth. From Odessa, as it happens."

"Really!" She was delighted. "Then you must know its secrets."

"A few, maybe. Nobody knows them all."

She laughed, in a way that meant she liked him. "Now tell me," she said, leaning forward, confidential. "Do you find your present hosts, congenial?"

What was this? Serebin shrugged. "An occupied city." He left the rest to her.

7:20. Serebin lay on his back, Marie-Galante dozed beside him. The world winked at the cinq-a-sept amour, the twilight love affair, but there was another five-to-seven, the ante meridiem version, which Serebin found equally to his taste. In this life, he thought, there is only one thing worth waking up for in the morning, and it isn't getting out of bed and facing the world.

From Marie-Galante a sigh, then a stretch. Fragrant as melon, warm as toast. She rolled over, slid a leg across his waist, then sat up, shook her hair back, and wriggled to get comfortable. For a time she gazed down at him, put a hand under his chin, tilted his head one way, then the other. "You are quite pretty, you know."

He laughed, made a face.

"No, it's true. What are you?"

"Mixed breed."

"Oh? Spaniel and hound, perhaps. Is that it?"

"Half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik Jew. A dog of our times, apparently. And you?"

"Burgundian, mon ours, dark and passionate. We love money and cook everything in butter." She leaned down and kissed him softly on the forehead, then got out of bed. "And go home in the morning."

She gathered up her coat, put it on, held the front closed. "Are you staying in the city?"

"A week. Maybe ten days. At the Beyoglu, on Istiklal Caddesi."

She rested her hand on the doorknob. "Au revoir, then," she said. Said it beautifully, sweet, and a little melancholy.

Istanbul. Three-thirty in the afternoon, the violet hour. Serebin stared out the window of a taxi as it rattled along the wharves of the Golden Horn. The Castle of Indolence. He'd always thought of it that way--melon rinds with clouds of flies, a thousand cats, rust stains on porphyry columns, strange light, strange shadows in a haze of smoke and dust, a street where blind men sold nightingales.

The Svistov had docked an hour earlier, the three passengers stood at the gate of the customs shed and said good-bye. For Serebin, a firm handshake and warm farewell from Labonniere. Sometime in the night he'd asked Marie-Galante if her husband cared what she did. "An arrangement," she'd told him. "We are seen everywhere together, but our private lives are our own affair." So the world.

So the world--two bulky men in suits lounging against a wall on the pier. Emniyet, he supposed, Turkish secret police. A welcoming committee, of a sort, for the diplomat and his wife, for the Bulgarian captain, and likely for him as well. The Surete no doubt having bade him good-bye at the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the SD--Sicherheitsdienst--and the NKVD, the Hungarian VK-VI, and the Roumanian Siguranza observing his progress as he worked his way to the Black Sea.

He was, after all, I. A. Serebin, formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class, currently the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based organization for emigres. The IRU offered meetings, and resolutions--mostly to do with its own bylaws--as much charity as it could manage, a club near the Russian cathedral on the rue Daru, with newspapers on wooden dowels, a chess tournament and a Christmas play, and a small literary magazine, The Harvest. In the political spectrum of emigres societies, as mild as anything Russian could ever be. Czarist officers of the White armies had their own organizations, nostalgic Bolsheviks had theirs, the IRU held tight to the mythical center, an ideology of Tolstoy, compassion, and memories of sunsets, and accepted the dues of the inevitable police informers with a sigh and a shrug. Foreigners! God only knew what they might be up to. But it could not, apparently, be only God who knew.

Copyright 2002 by Alan Furst

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Blood of Victory 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
GPaisley More than 1 year ago
Review of "Blood of Victory" by Alan Furst. I had heard that Alan Furst wrote these fantastically-detailed rich narratives about the years leading up to World War 2. Since I find that period in history fascinating, I thought I would try one. I chose "Blood of Victory" primarily of where it was set (Istanbul), rather than any other reason of the several novels he has written. My primary impression after reading it was disappointment. The narrative meandered and had I not known the "goal" of the protagonist from the dust jacket, I would have been completely lost for the first half of the story. In fact, 'story' is a somewhat generous term. The book is divided into five sections, each longer than a traditional chapter and having the quality of almost being distinct from each other. The plot-to the extent there is one-is loosely built through these sections before coming to the conclusion. There is precious little description of settings and people in this book, which was particularly disappointing because it is just this element that I was looking forward to. There is virtually no character development, both in terms of description or change through the course of the book, even for the protagonist, Serebin-we know as little of him at the end as at the beginning, and indeed, we don't really know how the events of the book affect him. Neither Furst nor Serebin provide any insight into his history, his motives, his thoughts or desires. He meanders through life, apparently just skimming along the surface, not getting truly involved in much of anything to any real depth. The cities that Serebin passes through in the course of the story are just as vague-no real description (even clichéd) are presented to the reader. Furst is sometimes compared to Le Carre', although I think this comparison is much more in Furst's favor. Le Carre is absolutely masterful in his descriptions and characterizations. When you finish his books, you know the characters as close as a personal friend, you have seen what they have seen, heard what they heard, and smelled what they smelled. You have walked a few miles in their worn old shoes. They may both write espionage novels, but that is where the real comparison ends. Perhaps this novel is an example of some new technique whereby the author (or at least the self-appointed professional critics) claim brilliance in the writing because of what he doesn't say. One could, I suppose, observe that the lack of description or development of the primary character in the book conveys more effectively than actual description or development ever could. The looseness of the plotline conveys in the brilliance of absence the idea that the plots of our lives are just as vague and meandering. To be descriptive or specific would just be to be dishonest because nothing is descriptive or specific. If this diagnosis was actually legitimate (or, more frighteningly, actually accurate) then we are all doomed to die a horrible death by postmodernism in which everything is defined by what it isn't rather than what it is. It's silly. By this logic, I could have composed the most profound novel in the white space between this paragraph and the previous-if you will simply give me credit for everything I could have said, but didn't.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another dark, dreamy, complicated historical espionage novel from the master of this genre. Nobody does Eastern Europe during WWII better than Alan Furst. Furst is to WWII as Le Carre is to the Cold War. Both write with great style and skill and their anti-heros are portraits of honorable men trying to do the right thing during times of great madness.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this novel immensely. Thoughtful, serious-minded writing that captures the desperate times of that particular period. The action is intense when it occurs, but does not try to carry the story. Anyone interested in gritty, realistic spy novels from WWII-era need look no further.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Absolutely Boring. I have never, in all my years of reading novels, not finish a book. It took me two days to struggle past the first 57 pages--then I gave up. It was just too slow for me. If all of Furst's books are like this, then I know that his writing is not my cup of tea. I hope that other readers enjoy it, but I wish that I could get my $12.95 back. Oh well!