"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." So begins Alan Furst's 1988 novel, Night Soldiers. It was the defining moment of Khristo's life and all the events of the next 450+ pages and 11 years proceed from that moment.
The 19-year-old Khristo is recruited by a Russian for the U.S.S.R.'s intelligence service N.K.V.D. He becomes a trained intelligence operative and in the process bonds with a few of his fellow trainees. This bonding will become a very important factor in Khristo's story later on.
He is sent to Spain, where he is ordered to kill his anti-Franco comrades because they are anarchists, not Communists. He runs away from his Soviet handlers, to France, where he is caught up in the German invasion. He experiences a brief interlude of love with a woman named Aleksandra, but then she is made to disappear by the long arm of the N.K.V.D. Khristo moves on again to Eastern Europe where he serves Western spymasters, even as World War II begins to wind down.
This is a complicated story with a plot which twists back upon itself at regular intervals. Characters appear and, before we really get to know them, they disappear. The edginess, the uncertainty of whom to trust, the constant threat of sudden death all seem very authentic to the atmosphere of the times. At least as much as someone almost 80 years removed from those events can judge authenticity.
The story is absorbing and it builds, episode by episode, until it reaches a climax when Khristo makes his way back up the Danube into lands now coming under Soviet control in order to rescue a buddy from his spy training days, one of those he had bonded with ten years before.
Furst's historical novels are always set in the dark World War II period and the time just before that war. It's not really a time that I enjoy reading about, and yet I do enjoy Furst's writing. He brushes the dust off the past and makes it crackle with life once again. He weaves many actual historical events and details into his stories and makes it all appear a seamless fabric. Hard to say where reality ends and fiction begins here. His heroes are always humanistic and represent the civilized viewpoint. Their overwhelming trait is always their simple decency and their opposition to brutes, whether they be Fascist or Communist. That heroic profile fits Khristo Stoianev like a glove.
The reader finds, also, in Furst's novels many parallels between those dark times and the times in which we live, which, frankly, look pretty dark, too. As we read about the actions of the brutal bullies who lived and did their dirty work then, it's easy to look around and see their moral (i.e., immoral) equivalents on the national and world stages today. One hopes there are a few Khristo Stoianevs and friends on those stages, or working behind the scenes, as well.