Lately I’ve been a bit underslept because I just can’t put down this riveting spy novel about a young Bulgarian man caught up in the momentum of 20th century history. A very red pilled and well researched work of fiction that captures the dark and light sides of human nature…
The story begins in Bulgaria where I live, in 1934 in a fishing village on the banks of the Danube river where the protagonist’s brother is randomly murdered by Bulgarian fascists.
Khristo, the protagonist, angry and confused is convinced by a foreigner to join the international communist revolution. He travels to frigid Moscow and is trained to be an NKVD (Soviet security agency before the KGB) agent provocateur.
Some of the philosophical musings echo the sentiments of a non-fiction memoir of an east german KGB spy that I also enjoyed, Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America. In the soviet world…
this egalitarian society some were decidedly more equal than others.
The book gets very close to some very red pilled topics; the protagonist encounters “the Jewish hitler” Genrikh Yagoda who has visceral hate for orthodox christian culture…
Yagoda proposed a blasphemous toast. Raised his glass and called the saints faggots and whores, proposed a list of sexual indecencies and drank to each. Then, inspired, he ran to the wall where his clothing hung and returned with a pair of revolvers. The group shouted and clapped, howled with laughter and urged him on. Yagoda the Chemist, his glasses fogged, thick gray hair curling along the tops of his shoulders, began firing into the icons. The shots were painfully loud in the small room and it was all Khristo could do to keep his hands from covering his ears. Other revolvers were produced. Khristo was offered one and blew a hole in a triptych of the martyrdom of Saint Ephraem. His marksmanship produced a roar of approval. (p. 100)
The book then moves on to the Spanish civil war where the fascist and communist powers are wrecking Spain in a proxy war.
Describing a sexy Spanish girl, that a german pilot is sleeping with…
Evangelina. Evangelina. To Luders, even her name reeked of Spain, of Catholicism, of darkness, ignorance, superstition as black and wild as the unruly bush between her marble legs. (p. 134).
The book in beautiful prose captures the phenomena of the remembering self that derives pleasure from the anticipation of your future self remembering a fond memory of the present. That’s right, time traveling happiness. Speaking of a young revolutionary listening to a heartwarming song…
It made her — a bizarre trick — long for a past that was still in the future. (p. 181)
In the next chapter of the book, the protagonist is a waiter at a swanky French restaurant, which is a real place, now it’s called the Bofinger.
The protagonist joins the Maquis, the french resistance against the Germans.
…these Gestapo people were better left alone. They had made that evident early on. Had then taken to strutting about in leather coats and tearing around the roads in Grosser Mercedes sedans. (p. 334)
I’d never heard of Bessarabia before reading this book which is funny because I’ve been there, twice.
Officially it was Romanian territory, called Moldavian Romania, lying south of the Ukrainian SSR, which was part of Russia. But the name Bessarabia was older than the official borders, and it had always been a lost place, home to ancient Russian religious sects expelled from the interior, home to Jews and Turks and Gypsies and Tatars and tribes so lost they no longer had any name at all. It was a place for people that nobody else wanted. (p. 494)
One of the final, climatic scenes in the book occurs at the Romanian village Sfântu Gheorghe, on the edge of the European world.
Much of the story follows the winding Danube river, a source of both life and death to many slavic peoples.
It rose in Germany, its legendary source a stone basin in the courtyard of a castle of the Fürstenberg princes in the Black Forest. Called the Donau by all German-speaking peoples, it moved through the Bohemian forests to Vienna, crossed into Czechoslovakia at Bratislava, where they named it the Dunaj, turned south through the Carpathians into northern Hungary, divided the twin cities of Buda and Pesth, flowed south into Yugoslavian Serbia, passed Belgrade at the confluence of the river Sava, known now as the Duna, roared through the Iron Gate — a narrow gorge in the Transylvanian Alps — and headed east, serving as a border between Romania and Bulgaria, where it was called Dunărea to the north and Dunav to the south. Then, at last, it turned north for a time and split into three streams entering the Romanian delta, snaking through the marshes to Izmail, Sulina, and Sfintu Gheorghe, where it emptied into the Black Sea, bordered by the Russian Crimea and Turkey, where the Caucasus mountains ran down to the sea, where Europe ended and Asia began. (pp. 40–41)
Vac Prison, Hungary — At one point a fearsome battle rages on the banks of the Danube near this prison.
Towards the end of the book we are transported to one of the most awful times and places in the whole of human history.
IN DECEMBER OF 1944, AT THE UTINY GOLD FIELDS ON THE Kolyma River, in a far southeastern corner of the Siberian USSR, Captain Ilya Goldman sat before a table of unpeeled birch logs in one of the interrogation rooms of Camp 782. (p. 407)
It’s explained why it’s called the black sea, every time I’ve vacationed at the black sea I wondered about this…
The sea was black, a curiosity of nature, teeming with life just below the surface, then, fifty fathoms down, a dead place with a bizarre chemistry of water. The normal oxygen had, in some ancient time, been replaced by poisonous hydrogen sulfide and nothing could live in it. So whatever died in the surface waters drifted down to the lower depths where, because there was no oxygen, it did not decompose. Think of it, they would tell the rare visitor. Sailors, great fishes, boats, sea monsters — it was all still down there. (p. 498)
On Human Nature
Ethnic identity matters more than ideology when there is a common enemy…
…in France there are several résistance movements, Catholic, communist, Gaullist, even those who would restore the Bourbon monarchy. We make common cause against the Germans, but the day is coming when the future of this country will be decided — and it will be decided by those who come out of the conflict with the greatest strength. (p. 373)
When France was occupied by the Germans those of widely different ideologies where willing to collaborate and focus on defeating a common enemy.
On the need for novelty…
Without the daily texture of existence to occupy it, he learned, the human soul wavers, wanders, begins to feed upon itself, and, in time, disintegrates (p. 325)
I rate this 5 stars for beautiful, powerful storytelling that captures the misery and romance of Europe at war. If you’re fascinated by World War 2 history read Night Soldiers, I doubt Hollywood will ever make a movie out of this novel because it just gets too close to some red pill truths about history that they don’t want you to know about. I’ll look forward to enjoying some of the other books in the series!