Sunday, April 05, 2009

THE POLISH OFFICER: HISTORY AND EXCITEMENT


I noticed on a quiet day that I had two visitors to Crime Scraps this morning from Poland. Obviously they were brilliant mind readers, who knew that I finished reading The Polish Officer by Alan Furst the other day. I had bought the book on our short break holiday to Somerset in Wells having finished The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes and having left the bulky Jo Nesbo back at Crime Scraps HQ. It was a good decision.

The Polish Officer was written back in 1995 but has been reissued  along with other Alan Furst books last year. Furst who has lived in France for long periods and travelled widely in Eastern Europe writes books [if this novel is an example] that are exciting spy thrillers, history lessons and a lot more.
In The Polish Officer he manages to create interesting characters, give us an account of the first months of the Second World War, and still keep the action going at breakneck speed. He writes well in an episodic style and tells the story of Captain Alexander de Milja, a cartographer in the Polish Intelligence service. The reader follows de Milja as he escapes Warsaw in 1939 transporting Poland's gold reserves to safety, and then on to  Paris and the forests of the Polish -Ukrainian border where he fights with a partisan group. In France he assumes the identities of a Russian emigre, and then a Slovak of German ethnicity as he runs a resistance organization in France keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo. 
It is a story of tragedy, and the temporary triumph of barbarity but also of loyalty and friendship in a time of incredible stress. 

'That winter in Warsaw, an English grammar couldn't be had for love or money. Even so, the joke everybody was telling around town went like this: the pessimists are learning German, the optimists are learning English, while the realists, in January of 1940, were said to be learning Russian.'

de Milja leaves a defeated Poland to go to a France about to be defeated, and the reader learns a lot about the battle of wits between the spy and counter-intelligence police. The Gestapo have captured a radio operator 'Marie Ladoux' who manages to take her cyanide capsule. They now examine the real prize-the clandestine radio.

Grahnweis took a soft leather pouch from the pocket of his uniform jacket and selected a screwdriver for the task of getting behind the control panel. To the senior officer looking over his shoulder he said. "Maybe something new inside."
There was.

Amidst all the historical knowledge that Furst imparts in this wide ranging story we learn: 

The Swedes are neutral. And it's no technicality -they're making money hand over fist selling iron ore to the Germans........
Meanwhile they were righteous as parsons; issued ringing indictments at every opportunity and sat in judgement on the world.

And:

De Milja was incredulous. France remained powerful, had a formidable navy, had army unts in Morocco, Syria, Algeria, and 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 [the French Prime Minister] mistress's bed."

The Polish Officer is an intelligent book that tells an exciting story taking the reader back into a terrible time in history. It is well worth reading for an accurate picture of the past and of how brave people tried to survive. 

4 Comments:

OpenID krimileser said...

Norman,

I agree, it is a wonderful book, intelligent and well written.

Furst's books communicate with each other (I don't know any other writer where they do that so much). For example „The World at Night“ describes similar historical events as in the Polish officer i.e. the defeat of the French army and it is quite interesting to compare Furst's description of the reaction of French and Polish.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Semi Dweller said...

Congratulations and commiserations on discovering Furst. He's all too akin to a drug, and while there are some flaws to his writing, there are times when he cuts utterly to the heart of the human tragedy of the mid 20th century, and makes your heart soar and weep at the same time.

My personal favourite is Dark Star, a legit candidate for Desert Island book, but really don't think you can go wrong with him

1:32 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

I do like the way Furst's books interact without being a series per se. Although there are a couple written to be read together.

I read The Polish Officer years ago (before I'd been there) and enjoyed it immensely. It manages to take an almost hackneyed setting and scenario (World War Two spies) and turn it into something competely new. And that's saying something considering how fussy I am about literature with this sort of historical setting!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Bernd and Semi Dweller for your comments and recommendations. I am swamped with books I want to read, but Furst has grabbed my attention and I will definitely read more of his books.
There are few authors who can make you cry and laugh on the same page.

3:32 PM  

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