Patrick Worrall on The Partisan

Patrick Worrall

The author of an intricately plotted novel chats history and eastern Europe.
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Patrick Worrall, many congratulations on The Partisan, your first novel. Its genesis is interesting in itself. You’ve described seeing a photograph in Lithuanian museum of three girls holding German guns. How did you come up with the story?

There were three elements that I had been playing with for a while. I always thought it would be interesting to write an homage to Romeo and Juliet, set against the background of the Cold War, so that it was not just two rival families that were standing in the way of the lovers but nuclear-armed superpowers, with their vast armies of spies and an enormous ideological gulf between them.

Lithuanian partisans during the war.

My second idea was to do a spy tale set in the early ‘60s and written somewhat in the style of my favourite thriller writers from that era – Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and Peter O’Donnell. The twist would be that the hero was a Soviet agent. It occurred to me that the Russian version of Bond would have to be infinitely more clever, cynical and complex than the real thing, because he would have to worry about his own side as much as the enemy.

The third strand was a revenge story based on a Lithuanian partisan who had fought against both Hitler and Stalin. That photograph of the girls was firmly lodged in my head, so the main character had to be female. The more I played around with plot points, the more I realised that there was a way all these elements could be combined in one complicated but (hopefully) absorbing story. The common theme is the courage and resilience of ordinary people who find themselves under extreme duress, thanks to the vagaries of twentieth-century history.

Occupation by the Nazis was terrible for much of Eastern Europe, and Lithuania was no different, but were the Germans initially welcomed as liberators from Soviet Russia which had invaded the Baltic states in 1940?

I think the short answer is that it depended on who you were. For Lithuanian Jews, the German invasion was obviously terrifying. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that there were Nazi sympathisers and antisemites in the Baltic States who were emboldened by the arrival of the Germans. It gave them licence to indulge their violent hatred of Jews.

There were also anti-Soviet nationalists who, though unenthusiastic about Hitler’s ideology, thought the Germans were the lesser of two evils – “my enemy’s enemy.” This is easier to understand if you appreciate the scale of the deportations that Stalin organised across Soviet-occupied territory before the Germans came, and the terror this inspired among local people.

Ultimately there was a broad spectrum of behaviour ranging from armed resistance to the German occupiers to enthusiastic collaboration. That is a pattern we see across Europe, from west to east. It was substantially the same story in France, and it would be foolish to think that it would have been different in the United Kingdom if Hitler’s invasion had succeeded.

With recent events in Ukraine, and Lithuania and the Baltic States’ membership of NATO more important than ever, are we in a new Cold War?

I think you can make the case that a new Cold War between the Russian Federation and the US and its allies began in 2013, when Ukrainians rose up and overthrew the Russian-facing regime. I think this shook Vladimir Putin to the core and he has been biting back ever since.

The online disinformation war has been relentless since the Maidan uprising, and the Kremlin’s adventures overseas have grown steadily bolder. This is a regime that has ordered assassinations in Salisbury and many other places, stood behind the shooting down of a passenger plane, tried to mount a coup in Montenegro and thrown itself into a proxy war in Syria. An ally of Vladimir Putin would no doubt recite a similar list of western provocations over the last decade, whether real or imagined.

Then there is domestic repression in Russia – the curbing of basic freedoms and the detentions and killings of internal dissidents and critics. When we lay it all out in a list, we can see that the tension or rivalry was already pretty hot and had led to thousands of deaths before the full-scale assault on Ukraine this year.

Having worked in Eastern Europe, it’s an area you’re obviously familiar with, but do you think we in Britain should learn more about this part of the continent, and are there any historians you recommend?

Events in Ukraine have shown that there is an affinity between people in this country and in the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact world. British people instinctively dislike Putin and his crew and sympathise with those countries that are being menaced by a revanchist Russia.

Our shared history of standing up to tyranny is perhaps not as frequently discussed here as it might be. Some British people are aware of the scale of the contribution that Polish and Czech pilots made in the Battle of Britain. The story of General Anders’ army of Polish exiles, which placed itself under British command and fought its way across Italy, is less well-known.

In terms of reading recommendations, I can’t think of a British historian with a deeper knowledge of eastern Europe than the great Norman Davies.

The summer of 1961, when the novel starts, is one of the most crucial of the Cold War and tensions running high with the construction of the Berlin Wall. Tensions today are also running high – do you see parallels?

One of my concerns when I started writing this novel was that modern readers would not be able to understand the characters’ fears about atomic warfare. I had no idea that nuclear anxiety was poised to make a comeback.

And there is fear of invasion and occupation again, in countries close to Russia. Lithuanians are stocking up on essentials and preparing cellars to shelter in.

The difference is that the Soviet Union of the early ‘60s was a genuinely vast military machine capable of following through on its threats. As I mention in the novel, NATO analysts expected an invading Red Army to sweep across Europe and reach the Rhine within days.

The recent fighting in Ukraine suggests that modern Russia is not really a military superpower. Its weaknesses are being cruelly exposed and I think launching a full-scale war with NATO is an unrealistic aspiration for an army that could not take Kyiv. But we shall see!

The plot for The Partisan has all the hallmarks of classic spy fiction, with a multi-faceted plot. How challenging is it to come up with such a story?

I happen to like complex plots and I spend a lot of time dreaming them up. For me the task of writing begins on a whiteboard with lots of arrows and bullet points. I don’t start writing until I know how the plot plays out right up to the final scene. I don’t see how you can do it any other way if you are trying to construct a story that is reasonably complicated and satisfying.

The challenge for me is knowing what level of complexity to dial in. Left to my own devices, I would probably come up with something so Byzantine that it becomes impossible to read. That’s where feedback from early readers and editors come in. They rein me in.

Two of your protagonists, Yulia and Michael are chess prodigies – chess is a fantastic juxtaposition with East vs West espionage. Are you a chess player yourself?

I’m a very, very poor chess player. I wish I was better. In fact, it’s one of the great regrets of my life. I don’t have the patience or discipline and I don’t have the ability that Yulia’s father tries to instil in her when he is teaching her to play – to think defensively and focus on what the other player wants, not what you want.

Did you find inspiration in other novelists in the genre?

The honest answer is that I don’t read many contemporary thrillers because I’m terrified of accidentally stealing from people. I tend to go back to the same few authors that have sustained me all my life: Kipling, Hemingway, Chandler, Highsmith. Of course I can’t write like them, but it’s good to read people who are better than you, then you never get complacent.

I don’t suppose you can write about spies without wrestling with Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carre. In some ways my whole ambition is to find the sweet spot between From Russia with Love and Smiley’s People – an action-packed thriller that is also intelligent and realistic. That is probably the work of a lifetime.

What’s next?

I’ve written a contemporary thriller with a completely different feel to The Partisan. It’s a “going back to your hometown to confront your demons” story, a bit like Get Carter or The Prone Gunman. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish it.

I’m working on a prequel to The Partisan now, another book starring the Lithuanian assassin, Greta. I think there are a few more books in my Cold War series to be done. I’d like to write things that are outside that genre too, to stretch myself. I feel like I’m just getting started.

Patrick Worrall is the author of The Partisan, published by Bantam Press and out now.