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World War II novels are a tour guide of the imagination

HER WORLD

November 03, 2002|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

I was sick with the flu recently, so I spent four days on the couch, sleeping and reading through a stack of Alan Furst spy novels: "Night Soldiers," "The Polish Officer," "Red Gold" and others, all set in Europe from 1933 to 1945.

Reading fiction is right up there with travel for me. The novels I admire most have a strong sense of place, brought to life by writers who research by traveling.

Furst, who writes about men caught in deadly games of espionage as Hitler rolls across Europe, was inspired to try fiction after writing several travel articles on the Danube River and Spain. His interest even then was "political travel," he told me in a recent phone interview.

"The places I write about may not have the finest hotels and cuisine, but the events that go on there are interesting," he said.

Time has changed many of these places, like Paris under German occupation and Bucharest, Romania, during the 1941 uprising of the fascist Iron Guard. Bucharest was heavily bombed during World War II, then rebuilt along stark Stalinist lines. Paris survived the war mostly unscathed, with little left to recall dark days in the City of Light. To recapture the Paris of the early 1940s, Furst wandered the city widely, he told me.

While I languished on my sickbed, I devised a tour -- which could be done but is probably best taken in the imagination -- of places described in Furst's most recent novel, "Blood of Victory" (Random House, 2002). It begins in November 1940, just after France's surrender to Germany. Its hero, I.A. Serebin, a Russian emigre writer who lives in Paris, is crossing the Black Sea from Odessa to Istanbul on a freighter. He smokes a cigarette, then goes back to bed, where the beautiful Marie-Galante, who lures him into spying for the British, awaits him.

When he reaches Istanbul, Serebin goes to a summer house on the Bosporus, where an old lover is dying of tuberculosis. The house is in the Besiktas district, which was then a fishing village but has since been subsumed by the city. I remember the area vaguely because I once passed it on a sightseeing cruise on the Bosporus. If I returned, I'd stay at the nearby Ciragan Palace Hotel, a lavish, Rococo marble affair occupied by sultans from 1874 to 1910.

After meeting the Hungarian spymaster who lives in Istanbul and directs his clandestine operations, Serebin returns to Paris on the Orient Express. During its heyday in the 1930s, the fabled luxury train, featured in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," carried movie stars, kings and secret agents between Paris and Istanbul. The trip can still be made on the refurbished Venice Simplon Orient-Express in five nights, with sightseeing stops in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Serebin arrives in Paris and catches a taxi to the shabby hotel where he lives, passing places well known to lovers of the Left Bank. "Rue de Bucie -- a shopping street, Rue de l'Echaude. Then the Place St-Germain-des-Pres, with a Metro station and the smart cafes -- the Flore and the Deux Magots. Then, his very own Rue du Dragon."

Furst told me he made up Serebin's hotel on narrow, winding Rue du Dragon. But the Hotel du Dragon is a perfect double for the one in the book. In 1994, when I stayed there, it had dark, narrow corridors and threadbare carpets, rooms with sagging beds, old armoires and toilets down the hall.

The Pont-Royal, where Serebin often stops to smoke and think, still crosses the Seine from the Tuileries to Rue du Bac, and you can still dine at the Brasserie Bofinger in the Marais. This venerable Parisian eatery, founded in 1864, is the model for the Brasserie Heininger, which appears in all of Furst's novels, a place where Germans wine and dine French collaborators.

From Paris, "Blood of Victory" moves to Bucharest, where Serebin and Marie-Galante stay in the grand early 20th century Plaza Athenee Hotel, now a Hilton. There they plot to sink several barges at a narrow point in the Danube River, thereby cutting off the flow of Romanian oil to Nazi Germany.

The operation gets underway in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, as Serebin acquires barges and a tugboat. You can see the Belgrade waterfront on a sightseeing cruise, offered by the city's tourism bureau from April to November, or better still, take a long trip down the Danube. The European river cruise company Uniworld and the German company Peter Deilmann Cruises sail from Vienna or Budapest, Hungary, to the Black Sea, passing through the Iron Gate, a series of rapids between Romania and Yugoslavia.

The Iron Gate is the scene of the book's climax, but I won't reveal what happens. A good book, like a good trip, ought to have a surprise ending.

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Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel, 32 Ciragan Caddesi, Istanbul; 011-90-212-258-3377, fax 011-90-212-259-6687, www.ciragan-palace.com.

Venice Simplon Orient-Express, c/o Abercrombie & Kent, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, IL 60523; (800) 524-2420, www.orient-expresstrains.com.

Hotel du Dragon, 36 Rue du Dragon, Paris; 011-33-1-4548- 5105, fax 011-33-1-4222-5162, www.hoteldudragon.com.

Plaza Athenee Hilton, 1-3 Episcopiei, Bucharest, Romania; 011-40-21-303-3777, fax 011-40-21-315-2121, www.hilton.com.

Uniworld Europe River Cruises, Uniworld Plaza, 17323 Ventura Blvd., Encino, CA 91316; (800) 868-7893, fax (818) 461-1777, www.uniworld.com.

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Peter Deilmann Cruises, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 170, Alexandria, VA 22314; (800) 348-8287, fax (703) 549-7924, www.deilmann-cruises.com.

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