“On a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.”
In the brutal opening scene of Alan Furst’s novel of WWII, Night Soldiers, Khristo, a teenager himself, watches helplessly as his brother is savagely murdered.
He will remember this act and seek vengeance, but first his brother’s body must be taken home and properly cared for. Khriso lifts the limp body to his shoulder and begins the long walk home—his mother and father are waiting, expecting nothing, just a quiet dinner as a family.
The novel continues:
His brother was fifteen, no more than a blameless fool with a big mouth … 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—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. [Rumors] “Something has happened in Bucharest. Something has happened in Sofia.”
The Danube river begins in the Black Forest of Germany, crosses Central Europe and flows into the Black Sea. The mighty river links Germany with the ports on the Mediterranean Sea. The Danube was vital for the delivery of the raw materials used by German industry during WWII.
In 1934; a German came down river with a movie projector and propaganda material to organize a fascist militia in the small river town. The German returned up river and from the south came a Russian—no movie projector, no propaganda materials; the Russian was looking for recruits, and he found Khristo. And so, Khristo left home and went down river to join the NKVD, the soon to be feared Soviet espionage machine.
Night Soldiers, published in 1988, introduces the reader to the role this great river plays on the Eastern Europe front of WWII. The novel also gives name to the powerful series of historical espionage novels by Alan Furst, which now has 11 novels (I’ve read the first nine and am a fan).
The novel Night Soldiers is evenly divided into five parts; each part contains about 90 pages and is a stand-alone novella. The five novellas in this epic work offer a panoramic sweep through Europe and western Asia. There are scenes in the soviet Gulags in Siberia, NKVD headquarters in wintry Moscow, villages in northern Spain, the mountains of southern France, and Paris (the geographic center of all Furst’s novels).
Levitzky’s Geese—A communist offers Khristo a way to save himself and his family from the Fascist militia. He and Khristo leave Bulgaria for training in Moscow where Khristo becomes an agent of the NKVD.
Blue Lantern—Khristo is posted to Spain as a Stalinist spy. He meets a brave American volunteer, and when the war goes against the Republicans he flees the country with her. He is a deserter from the NKVD.
Paris, 1937—Khristo works as a waiter in Brasserie Heininger. He meets and loves the beautiful refugee Aleksandra. But his espionage past makes him a target for treacery; the French police bust him.
Plaque Tournant—The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) enters the war. Khristo and an American saboteur work in southern France. These are dangerous times; the German SS is everywhere through Vichy France.
Bessarabia—Khristo flees France and works his way down the Danube to towards the Black Sea. His mission is to rescue a friend that has deserted from the NKVD.
Kristo is the protagonist in each part and there are several characters that appear in more than one part. This is an ideal format for an eBook and Night Soldiers is available in several eBook formats. The eBook search feature is invaluable in refreshing the memory, especially when characters pop-up in unusual situations.
The term night soldiers is evocative when used in the context of resistance movements and espionage. The term first appears in a history of the French Resistance, Soldiers Of The Night: The Story of the French Resistance by American intelligence agent David Schoenbrun. I haven’t read the book, but I came accross an extensive review by Stuart Christie, who writes:
“It was the ordinary men and women from all walks of life and varying political persuasions. They were soldiers without uniforms or proper arms who lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night and who courageously defied the might of the German military machine and their fascist Vichy collaborators.”
Christie perfectly describes the night soldiers who populate Furst’s Night Soldiers and the other novels of the series.
Whether you are already a fan of Alan Furst or are thinking of reading the series, I recommend Night Soldiers because this novel sets the mood for the entire series. The mood is somber and Furst’s characters teeter on the edge of disaster–can any of them survive the war?
Day 67: Night Soldiers, Alan Furst (1988).