As trailed in the earlier post, Malcolm emerged from David Downing’s Zoo Station around midnight. And a very competent, even understated thriller it is, too. High on atmospherics and internal dialogue. No heavy gun-play. Little of that excruciating Scandinavian angst with S&M stuff (and what there is, off-stage), lately all the mode.
A bit taxing on the geography of Berlin, perhaps. Especially, Malcolm suspects, because the Allied bombing, then the division into Zones, must have been responsible for major town-planning.
And John Russell puts himself around quite lot.
Has this book really been around these six or seven years without previous chez Malcolm? So, apologies all round.
In his earlier thoughts, Malcolm (influenced too much by the every-cover-tells-a story) was looking for similarities with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes: some are to be found. Any book that stands comparison with those two authors deserves respect.
The end-play of Zoo Station is as tense and individualised as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Which, surely must be the high bar for this genre. [And which leaves Malcolm the niggling problem: does he need a third version on his about-to-be-installed book-shelves, now that there’s the fiftieth anniversary edition in the wild?]
Yet, Downing’s “John Russell” has dimensions not explicit in le Carré. This time round the protagonist is not an espionage professional, as is “Alec Leamas”. He is personally, rather than corporately motivated. Hence there is little of the cynicism with which le Carré invests his characters. Russell is acutely aware of the ever-present sheer nastiness and malevolence — not just of the Nazis, but of the Stalinists — and has to reconcile his own survival with pragmatics and his sympathetic conscience:
Waiting behind another customer for his Friday morning paper, Russell caught sight of the headline: BARCELONA FALLS. On impulse, he turned away. That was one story he didn’t want to read. The Spanish Civil War was over. The good guys had lost. What else was there to say?
He arrived at the Schlesinger Bahnhof with twenty minutes to spare. The train was already sheltering under the wrought-iron canopy, and he walked down the platform in search of his carriage and seat. As he leaned out the window to watch a train steam in from the east a paper boy thrust an afternoon edition under his nose. The word Barcelona was again prominent, but this time he handed over the pfennigs. As his train gathered speed through Berlin’s industrial suburbs he read the article from start to finish, in all its sad and predictable detail.
Three years of sacrifice, all for nothing. Three years of towns won, towns lost. Russell had registered the names, but resisted further knowledge. It was too painful. Thousands of young men and women had gone to fight fascism in Spain, just as thousands had gone, like him, to fight for communism twenty years earlier. According to Marx, history repeated itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But no one was laughing. Except perhaps Stalin.
Russell supposed he should be glad that Spain would soon be at peace, but even that was beyond him.
By any considerations and comparisons, a good read.
Now, two years later, on to the Stettin Station.