Monday, September 18, 2006

Alan Furst – Second to None: Review of “The Polish Officer”

A few months ago, I offered a mini-review of Alan Furst’s novel, “The Foreign Correspondent.”

I knew as soon as I had finished that book that it was only a matter of time before I would begin to work my way through Furst’s other works. I have just finished reading “The Polish Officer,” and am eager to recommend it to you.

One can tell that a restaurant is special when it attracts other chefs as regular diners. Good musicians are drawn to venues where they can hear other talented musicians play. In much the same way, I am impressed when authors whose work I respect indicate that they read another author’s works. So, it caught my attention when Charles McCarry – one of my favorite contemporary authors – had this to say about Alan Furst and “The Polish Officer”:

“Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story. The book is a triumph.”

The setting for this story is the days leading up to WWII. Alexander de Milja is recruited into the Polish underground as Warsaw falls to Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Following a tortuous path, he assumes a series of false identities in order to advance the cause of his occupied homeland. From Poland through Ukraine and on to Romania and Paris, de Milja manages to stay just a half step ahead of death and destruction.

In the course of weaving a spine-tingling tale, Furst writes incisively and with a panache and style I find appealing. He creates evocative self-contained worlds – much like Dickens did at the height of his literary powers – that allow me almost to smell the fresh-baked bread in the boulangeries of Paris.

“’Yes, Paris will be declared an open city today or tomorrow. The Germans will be here in a week or less.’

‘But France will fight on.’

‘No, it won’t. Reynaud cabled Roosevelt and demanded American intervention, Roosevelt’s response was a speech that dithered and said nothing. Petain appeared before the cabinet in Tours and said that an armistice is, in his view, “the necessary condition for the survival of eternal France.” That’s that.’

De Milja was incredulous. France remained powerful, had a formidable navy, had army units in Morocco, Syria, Algeria, could have fought on for years. ‘In Warsaw ---‘

‘This isn’t Warsaw,’ Vyborg said, ‘In Tours, they lost a top-secret cable, turned the whole chateau upside down looking for it. Finally, a maid found it, crumpled up in Reynaud’s mistress’s bed. Now, that’s not the first time in the history of the world that such a thing has happened, but you get the feeling it’s the way things are. It’s as though they’ve woken from a dream, discovered the house on fire, then shrugged and walked away rather than calling the fire department or looking for a bucket. If you read history, you know there are times when nations fail, that’s what happened here.’” (Pages 113-114)

“Freedom Fries” anyone?

Here is one more delicious sampling of Furst’s prose:

“The nights of July were especially soft that Paris summer. All cars, taxis, and buses had been requisitioned by the Germans, and with curfew at 11:00 P.M., windows masked by blackout curtains, and the streetlamps painted over, the city glowed a deep, luminous blue, like Hollywood moonlight, while the steps of a lone policeman echoed for blocks in the empty streets. Nightingales returned and sang in the shrubbery, and the nighttime breeze carried great clouds of scent form the flowers in the parks. Paris, like a princess in a folk tale, found itself ancient, enchanted, and chained.” (Page 127)

I could not help but think as I devoured this book that the weapons and machinery of warfare may have become more sophisticated, but the human dynamics remain the same today as they did in WWII - or in the Pelopennesian Wars, for that matter.

I invite you to taste of Furst’s magic concoction. Enjoy “The Polish Officer.”


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