It was hard to find a WWII historical fiction centered around Greece. But not impossible. Because World War II is like an ugly knife wound across the history of every country in the world. No one came away free and clear; no one was unscathed. Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans shows that even a relatively insignificant country in the scheme of the war can play a major role. At least in the lives of her citizens. And because war is so personal, it’s these small lives that make such a big difference. I once heard a quote that basically said that every person is indispensable. If you think about how you intentionally, and unintentionally, touch the lives of others, this makes sense: we are entwined.
A Note on Geography:
Before I begin, a quick lesson in geography: The Balkans is a peninsula just east of Italy that’s bordered by the Adriatic, Ionian, Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black seas from the west to the east. The Balkan Mountains make up the northern border. The countries considered part of the Balkans are Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Bosnia (and sometimes Croatia).
A Note on History:
By October 1940, Germany had already unleashed its blitzkrieg on Europe, pulling France and all the major European threats (minus the United Kingdom) into its power. Italy, German’s ally, was not nearly as effective militarily. In fact, its armed forces were something of a joke, so Mussolini concocted the idea of invading Greece as a kind of smirk to Hitler and a giant finger to the rest of the world. Plus, Italy has had its eyes on Greece for a while. After all, the conflict between the two countries have gone back centuries to two of the most important civilizations: Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece.
What Mussolini didn’t take into account was the fierce pride and love for freedom that lived in the hearts of the Greeks. The Greek Army pushed back the attacking Italian forces, forcing Germany—in April of 1941 (six months after Italy’s initial attack)—to get involved to salvage the pride of its ally as well as its own. After a month, Greece was occupied…
And the resistance was born (though to be fair, it was already in the works having seen the writing on the wall).
Costa Zannis is a police officer in Salonika, Greece (aka Thessaloniki, northern Greece) who is in charge of “special” cases (read: he’s called in when a delicate, political touch is needed). In 1939 and 1940, he sees an influx of refugees, many of who are Jews. Those running the Jewish underground peg him as a sympathizer, and soon he finds himself neck-deep in the resistance to help Jews escape to Turkey or Egypt. He risks himself time and again to help one more person, going as far to travel to France to help an important downed Allied pilot who has too much knowledge on Allied communications to be caught by the Germans. His adventures are helped, and hindered, by a cast of characters who show that heroism is something that regular people can do on a regular basis during extraordinary circumstances.
I loved it. It was a little hard to get into, but I never judge a book by how quickly it draws me in; sometimes the deepest, most thought-provoking books I’ve come across have had slow beginnings. What struck me, though, was the sense of morality these people had. They made sacrifices because it was right. They lived in a twilight world of death and danger, knowing that the slightest misstep meant not just death but torture and true suffering. But they did it anyway. It was a generation of people who found their best selves during one of the worst travesties in human history.
The first on the list is Costa Zannis, a middle-aged, decent-looking chap. The story revolves around him. Not only does he let his natural empathy overwhelm his human instinct for survival, but he’s smart and gutsy enough to accomplish amazing things. Yet he’s just a regular guy.
Then there’s Vangelis, the power behind Zannis. Despite his plush lifestyle and easy living, he allows and even helps Zannis’ underground activities, although it could mean his downfall. Saltiel is Zannis’ loyal employee and police partner who (along with Gabi, Zannis’ assistant) does everything he can to help despite Zannis’ effort to keep them uninvolved and safe. Even the “ballet teacher” (Roxanne) and “travel writer” (Escovil)—both British spies—help out. In fact, Escovil quite literally saves Zannis’ bacon toward the end.
And you can’t forget Demetria Vasilou. She might not have showed up until about halfway through the book, but she steals Zannis’ heart. I can’t say I liked or disliked her. She was three-dimensional like the other characters.
This story takes place the year before Germany invades Greece, so it gives you not so much a look at the resistance under German occupation, but the stirrings of resistance as the people begin to understand and organize. I thought it was a clever way to write the story because there are hundreds of books about people living in a German-occupied country, but there aren’t nearly as many about those people before the occupation begins.
The writing’s compelling, but not because it’s lyrical or beautiful. It’s compelling because it’s real. Plus, this quote says it all:
“And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn’t sure what came next. So, don’t trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.”
This book was fantastic because it felt real. The storyline was not just believable, but real because it was the actual reality of many during World War II. The writing was gritty and wry; it felt almost like I was walking through the old cobbled streets of northern Greece, winding and proud. Above all, the characters in the book were regular people. They didn’t have bushels of money or movie-star good looks or bulging muscles. They had determination and compassion. They could have been you. Or me. They might have to be someday; or rather, we might have to be.
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