A review of Skios, by Michael Frayn
@@@ (3 out of 5)
You may have heard of Michael Frayn without remembering his name. The successful British playwright and novelist is best known for the stage plays Noises Off, a frequently produced farce of mistaken identities, and Copenhagen, which portrays a meeting in 1941 between two of the giants of 20th Century physics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, at a time when Heisenberg was thought to be working on an atomic bomb for the Nazi regime.
In Skios, Frayn develops two intersecting stories based on the premise that one protagonist — a philandering nutcase who lives by impulse alone — inhabits the identity of the other, an internationally renowned author and lecturer on the subject of the scientific management of science. The expert is scheduled to deliver a lecture on a Greek island, Skios, to an exclusive audience assembled by a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the highest aspirations of European culture. Need I say that monumental complications ensue both for the expert and for the imposter, not to mention the foundation, its staff, and its guests? Might I add that, by the end of this little book, the body count numbers more than a dozen — and that no reader is likely to miss any of the deceased?
Skios is much closer in character to Noises Off than to Frayn’s more thoughtful work but is much less successful. Frayn’s humor comes through loud and clear — the story is frequently hilarious — but the utter absurdity of the plot unravels at the end, where Frayn lays out not one but two possible endings for the book. (One of them, perhaps the author’s original conclusion, is presented as conjectural. The other is presented as “real.”)
I loved Noises Off. I laughed until I was hoarse. And as a child I read Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men, and loved that, too. Though I enjoyed Skios enough to finish it, I was disappointed.
A review of Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In the long, tense years of the Cold War, spy stories and films grounded in the rivalry between East and West appeared in such profusion that the genre degenerated into self-parody, eventually giving birth to bawdy satires. The public, it appeared, had long since ceased taking spy novels seriously.
Then, in 1988, came Alan Furst with Night Soldiers, cultivating fresh ground with its wickedly insightful and historically accurate portrait of European espionage in the time between the wars. With each successive novel, Furst broadened his view of the period, setting his tales in such far-flung cities as Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and Salonika, the Greek setting of his latest creation, Spies of the Balkans. In these complex and tightly written stories, Furst came across as not just a talented writer but an able historian as well.
Spies of the Balkans delves into the world of Costa Zannis, a senior police official in Salonika in 1940-41 as Hitler’s war machine lurches south toward Greece. Zannis, heir apparent to the police commissioner, becomes caught up in the characteristically Byzantine political affairs of the Balkans while juggling overlapping love affairs with two extraordinary women. An anti-German military coup in Yugoslavia, an “underground railway” for Jews escaping Nazi Germany, and the British Secret Service all figure prominently in the story. It’s a gripping tale.
Spies of the Balkans is Alan Furst’s 15th novel and the 11th of his superb historical espionage stories set immediately before and during the Second World War in Europe. Each of the spy stories — I’ve read most of them — reflects the author’s seemingly insatiable appetite for in-depth research. The characters in Furst’s novels are so authentically European in attitude and outlook that it’s a surprise to learn that he was born and lives in New York.