Monday, September 14, 2009

ESPIONAGE on the MENU: Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw


Over the last few years, I have documented a considerable number of compelling food scenes in literary and cinematic art pieces about espionage. American, British, German, Russian and Polish spies all seem to have a way of finding a seat at a well-set table, often with an equally scintillating, and sometimes dangerous companion. And more often than not, the author decorates this scene in a detailed manner that tells us exactly who his characters are by what they order from the menu. Such is the powerful role of food images in the arts.

In cinema, two films combining food, restaurants, pre-war tensions and irony stand out: Gloomy Sunday (in German : Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod, directed by Rolf Schubel ( 1999) and I Served the King of England, directed by Jiri Menzel (in Czech, 2008). It's not exactly espionage but the atmosphere is just as heady.

James Bond always comes to mind (most specifically his taste for bacon and eggs, fresh, strongly brewed coffee, and a martini he called "the Vesper"), but Bond was preceded by earlier defenders of the realm, all male. Herman Cyril "Sapper" McNeile's (1885-1937) British hero, Bulldog Drummond, is remembered by this writer, and John Buchan, First Baron of Tweedsmuir's (1871-1940, who wrote "The Thirty-Nine Steps") created various stalwart champions. Other writers paying attention to cuisine are Martin Amis and, later on, Daniel Silva, Don Simmons, Robert Wilson, and John Lescroart's rich Rasputin's Revenge (1987)

But -
I was thinking the other day (just a week before this posting), what a wonderful gift it would be to have another Alan Furst novel to read.

So this morning's New York Times Travel section was a nice surprise. An adroit writer covering Warsaw's tourism opportunities in 2009 segued neatly into a review of Furst's latest,The Spies of Warsaw (2008) and then threw in some of that city's pre-1939 delights.

There are some personal connections here. As a former student of things Slavic, I had the good fortune to study two semesters with the Nobel prize-winning Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (chez-laf miwosh) in his course, "Polish Romanticism" at UC Berkeley, 1965. I was born on September 1, the date of Hitler's invasion of Poland and, by default, seem to be a devotee of pre-World War II European culture, especially that Old World's cuisine. Consider that on a stop over in Lisbon a few years ago, I could not help lingering a bit too long in the vast dining room of the stately 1892 Avenida Hotel and, later, prowling its commodious hallways, sensing the presence of long-gone British agents and undercover Abwher officers. Of course, the word spy is never uttered.

During the 1930s and well into the 1940s, the Avenida Palace Hotel was favored by officers (and their wives) who were posted to Lisboa, in neutral Portugal and by "security agents" of many countries including Spain, Germany, France and England. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, this luxurious and romantic Belle Epoque architectural gem is modern, polite and serves a scrumptious breakfast!

Here, once again, is a literary espionage/eating adventure. Furst (he was born on Manhattan's Upper West Side and took his BA at Oberlin College) has prepared such adventures before, all with Random House, I remember best his The Polish Officer, 1995, and the next year's book, The World at Night.

The critics call his writing style "atmospheric" and he does paint strong views of Europe and its weather, but the sharpest edge is held by cuisine, often in elegant cafes but sometimes in a rough and simple peasant's hut or in a sloping Carpathian meadow.

His best scenes are often cast in his "signature locale", the Parisian Brasserie Heininger (modeled on the Parsian Brasserie Bofinger), with its marble staircase, red plush banquettes, langoustes and oysters with champagne, and a bullet hole in the mirror above table fourteen. In The Spies of Warsaw, the action occurs in the once-elegant Hotel Europesjki, today a drab victim of harsher times.

Brasserie Bofinger, only one of Paris' many dining places.

Furst does not claim to be a gourmet or a skilled cook, and none of his characters prepare a single dish. They go to cafes for coffee or a pastis. A shabby woman serves the spy a tin of sardines and a half loaf of coarse bread. He orders sausages and a plate of leeks with vinegar in a county auberge or choucroute in town. The Europesjki serves dinners of six courses and sublime wines, finishing with a tangerine flan. A baroness, sitting in a garden and surrounded by her pack of vizla dogs (the oldest Hungarian sporting breed), offers him exquisite pastries filled with walnuts and raisins.

"Like the Cafe Ruszwurem," he murmurs, assessing his sweet and deftly revealing his sophistication by alluding to that famous pastry shop in the castle hill section of Buda, just opposite Pest and the oldest place in a city largely destroyed during the war.
He then adds,"Better!"

The reader is obliged to become acquainted with these tastes and spaces and get to know what they meant to people in those days in order to truly gain access to the tale Furst is telling and to appreciate his entire frame of reference.

It is very much an upper class European life in the 1930s A time when cafes and shops were small, intimate and spread along cobbled streets. A slower time of trolleys and horse-cabs. A time when quality superseded quantity. A man's pants buttoned up, telephones operated with a jeton, fish was wrapped in newspapers, and everyone knew the name, Neville Chamberlain.

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