Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst: A review

Alan Furst is an excellent writer of historical fiction whose chosen period and place for the settings of his novels is Europe from 1933 to 1945. The Polish Officer is the third of his novels that I have read, after The Foreign Correspondent and Dark Star. The first two were full of suspense and kept me on the edge of my seat so I knew what to expect from this one. It did not disappoint.

Captain Alexander de Milja defends his city of Warsaw as the Germans advance in 1939, but the Germans have too much firepower. The war in Poland is over almost before it is begun. Except it really isn't.

The Poles fight on by other means, implacably opposing their invaders in ways both great and small, but stealthily, indirectly, underground. Before the last shot of the direct war is fired, Captain de Milja is recruited to help carry on the indirect war. His first task is to transport the gold that constitutes much of Poland's national treasury out of the country and take it safely beyond German reach.

He accomplishes his task successfully and then heads on to Paris.

Soon Paris, too, has fallen to the Germans, without a fight. The French government capitulates. The French people, however, do not. The Underground thrives in France as in Poland and many other countries that, one by one, fall to the German advance. Those who oppose Germany are all loosely connected and the Polish officer moves among them, working with them and disrupting German plans wherever he can.

Soon, Britain stands alone among the governments of Europe in refusing to surrender to the inevitability of German rule. Many of those directing the Underground efforts make their way to London and liaise with the British in their common cause. The Polish officer remains on the continent and carries on the struggle. After being relieved of his post in France because he has lost so many operatives, he is called to London and briefly works behind a desk. But it is not his fate to sit safely behind a desk. Soon he is in the field again, in Russia in coldest winter.

In reviewing Furst's novels of this dark, dark period of Western history, it is often remarked that he is a master at evoking the atmosphere of that time. I was born after the period that he writes about so what do I know about whether the "atmosphere" is right? But it certainly feels right. It is fraught with danger and suspense. Every day, every moment might well be your last. How does one react and behave with such knowledge constantly at the forefront of the mind? Some - many - acted with courage and the indomitable will to oppose evil. We are in their debt.

Furst has said that although his novels are fiction, people like his characters actually existed and that he tries to give them life through his writing. I hope that the Polish officer existed and that he outlived the terrible war and found happiness and peace in later years.

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