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Spies of the Balkans – Review

by: Furst, Alan

Publisher: Random House,

Location: New York

Copyright: 2010

Cover: Robin Schiff, Robert Doisneau

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 9/15/2010

Summary: The eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Balkans and the life of senior police office Constantine “Costa” Zannis.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of reading a novel placed in an historical context is anticipating what the story and the characters do at some portentous historical moment. In Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS, we have the added enjoyment of experiencing ordinary people doing ordinary things even at extraordinary moments.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS plops us down into the life of Costatine “Costa” Zannis, “a senior police official” in the city of Solonika. There is nothing extraordinary about Zannis. But at the time we enter his life, the Greco-Italian War has just started. On the horizon is the Balkans Campaign of World War II, which starts in April 1941 and the eventual occupation of Salonika by Nazi Germany.

Before the fall, before the plaid, not uncommon police official Zannis is pushed by the events of history to abandon his niche in Solonika, he is buffeted by, at the time, some not so uncommon events to perform acts of human decency. This is the extraordinary and thoroughly enticing element of SPIES OF THE BALKANS. That the mundane currents of life propel people into exceptional acts is the real story of this novel. Costa Zannis is ordinary in practically every sense of the word. True, his “police official” designation is a bit outside the norm. But the totality is ordinariness. This in spite of the web of British and German spies transiting the little sphere of his influence. Then again, even the spies are not extraordinary in the sense of James Bonds or Mata Hari. British spies collecting information, German spies taking photographs-it all seems so pedestrian.

There is plenty of high octane adventure in this novel. Zannis meets a German woman, Emilia Krebs, who has taken it upon herself to help Jews and others prosecuted by the Nazis. Krebs is one of the traffic managers on the routes out of Germany allowing the prosecuted to escape. The “police official” in Zannis compels him to help. Or does it? Is there something more? The author has drawn Costa Zannis so well that the character’s decision to hope on a train, travel to Paris and help a German couple escape to Budapest and then Belgrade seems merely like the folding of a piece of paper in upon itself. And all the attendant steps he takes to shield others from the consequences of his action in the event he is caught or the German come-as they eventually do-are a signature of what we as readers expect.

The reader comes to feel that everything about the lives of the characters in SPIES OF THE BALKANS is understated. And why shouldn’t it be. With millions dying on battlefields and in concentration camps, how extraordinary can one man’s life be except its simplicity. Furst melds history and the commonplace with an incredible insight into what is really important in life. Read SPIES OF THE BALKANS. You will enjoy both the history and the life lesson.




Matterhorn – Review

by: Marlantes, Karl

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Location: New York

Copyright: 2010

Cover: mjcdesign, Stu Smucker/Lonely Planet Images

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 9/1/2010


Summary: Marine Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas leads the First Platoon, Bravo Company in taking, abandoning and retaking a hill called Matterhorn between Laos and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Vietnam in 1969.

MATTERHORN is to the Vietnam war what MASH the movie was to the Korean war with one major exception: MATTERHORN lacks the dark, unremitting satire.

This reviewer has avoided most fictional books related to the Vietnam conflict (it was a conflict and not a war-but let us not swoon over semantics). Having served in South Vietnam between December 1968 and February 1970, it was my belief that any fictionalized rendering of the time, place and emotion could not possibly capture the reality. That’s the perspective. No trauma. Just life-defining moments as it probably was for two-thirds of those serving in the war. The major movies made about the war (THE DEAR HUNTER in 1978, PLATOON in 1986, and FULL METAL JACKET in 1987), are at best entertainment, at worst, 20-20 hindsight. MATTERHORN on the other hand is a slice of dark realism.

MATTERHORN achieves its distinction by an immersion into detail. Not only do you get the acronyms, the military speak, and the slang (the book has a glossary which explains them all), you also get the transition from “the real world” to the sub-reality of American kids tossed into the “jungle” of Vietnam-the “meat grinder”. This latter detail, the transition between worlds, is subtle and easily missed. The temptation is to lump the actions and reactions of the men and women plopped down into the Vietnam “theater” under a label called “survival in war” and let it go as that. Marlantes digs far deeper than a label.

The near orchestral wave of fear undulating throughout the storyline of MATTERHORN as we adopt Mellas as our “hero” reaches a climax when Bravo company is ordered to retake Matterhorn from an entrenched element of the North Vietnam Army. Many pages before that event, it becomes very evident that the characters of Bravo company have been sucked into a surreal world where fear is only a background melody streaming behind the discordant thumps of duty, obligation and idealized aspirations. It is this that sets MATTERHORN apart from all the other Vietnam war stories. At one point, Lt. Mellas, at an ambush site with his platoon, catches himself wondering whether a lone NVA soldier trudging though the bush approaching his position could hear his wristwatch ticking. He concludes that if the NVA solider could hear his watch from yards away, that solider deserved to live. But then, if he could not hear it, did he deserve to die? [page 157]. A fleeting question against the ever present white-noise of training as a Marine officer. He has a job to do.

This “get the job done” undercurrent even bubbles to the surface in the author’s treatment of the “black power” aficionados drafted into the war and their natural antagonists, the “racists”. Even here, perhaps especially here, the author has dug deeper than surface labels and rhetoric. Again, the subtlety is easily missed. When the company Gunnery Sergeant, Staff Sergeant Cassidy, tells a platoon member, Cortell, who is black, that Bravo company adopting two cub tigers should make Cortell happy since Cortell himself and the cubs are of the jungle. Cortell takes it as an ethnic insult and threatens to kill the cubs. Later in a company staff meeting, Lt. Mellas confronts Cassidy over the provocation and Mellas, in all his righteous indignation, must back down. Cassidy refuses to apologize to Cortell, citing the usual: rank and tradition. But, in the heat of the moment, he also reveals his resentment against the institution of the Marine Corps itself for messing up the lives of “us career professionals by sending us out into the bush for the millionth time while the fat-asses and fucking shirkers can refuse to got out in the bush any time they want.” It is resentment. It is fear. It is idealized aspirations held captive to time, place and emotions. By the time some of Cortell’s fellow black marines decide to kill Cassidy, we already know that what we have here are a sub-set of symbols fighting another sub-set of symbols, beneath which are some frightened, frustrated and essentially likable people.

If MATTERHORN was the typical, preachy fictionalized sermon of the Monday morning quarterback, it would be a disaster. The slow, mercurial movement of the story is its own sermon.

MATTERHORN is highly recommended. For this author, the nearly 600 page work approaches the level of a parable. Of course, your assessment may differ.


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