Writer: Dejan Tiago Stanković
Publishing House: Head of Zeus
Date of Publication: March 2018 (first published November 2nd 2015)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’All this information was to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, because in the world of espionage nothing was as it seemed and nobody could swear to knowing the whole truth.’’
This was quite an unusual and extremely entertaining reading choice. Part spy-novel, part Historical Fiction, it proved to be an excellent novel built in layers that may have looked simple and light-hearted but, in my opinion, were anything but. The tragedy of war, the loss of human lives, the annihilation of everything one may consider as granted provide a bleak background with a colourful cast of characters and an atmosphere lascivious, decadent, almost surreal.
We are in Estoril, a town on the Portuguese Riviera, during the culmination of the Second World War. Estoril was a centre of diplomacy and espionage battle. Its beaches, hotels and the Grande Casino Internacional created a destination of luxury, adventure and ‘’elegant’’ political games. It is here that we find an eclectic group of exiles during the darkest period in History. They come from everywhere, armed with their own motives and expectations, their distinctive personalities and the strong influence and beliefs of their homelands. How can one handle these ‘’customers’’ who resemble a living, breathing nuclear bomb? This was my initial thought. And yet, they coexist and cooperate, bound together by a common desire. A desire for the war to end, for the madness to seize, for a life that will not be ruled by fear and loss.
‘’The fellow is English. His name is Fleming. Ian Fleming.’’
The cast is composed by historical figures and complex fictional characters. Mr Black is the one who runs the Palacio and has been appointed the Herculean task to keep all these people who have found refuge there satisfied and safe. In the midst of the almost surreal madness, where everyone spies on everyone, we meet Gaby. A clever, Jewish 10-year-old boy whose parents are away and who seems to hold as many secrets as the adult members of our company. His questions and the way he thinks and acts are absolutely fascinating.
And now, if you’re not prepared for major fangirling of epic proportions, fasten your seatbelts. Duško was my absolute favourite character. Call me over-enthusiastic but he is so interesting, so masterfully written. And what’s more important? He is a historical figure. Duško Popv was a Serbian double agent, recruited by the British, who fed the Nazis with false information. He is said to be a major inspiration for the character of James Bond and his risky bet in a baccarat table provided Ian Fleming (who appears in the novel) with the basis for ‘’Casino Royale’’. I fell in love with him instantly. Underneath his suave, dashing demeanor lies the familiar, tragic story of a person who knows exactly where his allegiance is placed. A person whose homeland has been cut into pieces. Beyond the facade, he is far more loyal to his nation than everyone believes him to be. His family happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were turned into refugees, exiled from their own hometown because of Hitler’s lunacy. The writer describes a situation faced by a terrifying number of people during the Balkan conflicts and an ordeal that Stanković himself had to face.
‘’You’ll see one day. Other words are bad. Poverty, war, death, these are bad words.’’
Underneath the cosmopolitan, seductive atmosphere, the brilliant interactions and the beguiling prose, lies the horror of war, the mind games of victory and defeat. There is a marvelous section that echoes Exupery’s (another famous cameo in the novel) masterpiece ‘’The Little Prince’’, there are the first hints concerning the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor, and the most powerful passage describing the Operation Retribution bombing of Belgrade by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and, particularly, the collapse of the Church of the Ascension during a liturgy. And then, the breaking of civil war between residents of different religions. And History continues on and on and on…
I cannot recommend this book enough. The writing style, the characters, the lively atmosphere. A novel that brings forth crucial issues of the past and the present in a calm, balanced, artistic manner. A unique read for one of the darkest and most fascinating eras.
‘’Volcanic islands in the polar north visit me in my dreams, my beloved homeland, Paris, my dead friends, cherries in China. Night after night I dream about Belgrade, more beautiful and splendid than it is. In my dreams, I see images of my youth, of the village, the occasional butterfly, field poppies, wheat. Sometimes, I hear footsteps; I look only to discover that it is not her, because her voice is full of laughter, it’s not like this. What I hear is some kind of inarticulate screeching. Instead of her, I see a bird with wild, black wings.’’
Many thanks to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange of an honest review.
For more information on Duško Popov visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Du%C5%A1ko_Popov