Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Alan Furst is a critically regarded, but not I think well known, writer of espionage novels set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. His best known point of comparison would be John Le Carre, and for those lacking patience to read further it’s fair to say that if you have a fondness for Le Carre you will likely enjoy Furst, and if not, likely not. Graham Greene is also plainly a strong influence on Furst’s work, as is Joseph Roth and Joseph Conrad (I’m told, I’ve not yet read Conrad).

The Polish Officer then is the third in a loosely linked series of novels set in wartime Europe. The novels are connected in that characters in one work may appear in others and in certain locations appearing in each. They also share a consistent focus on historical accuracy, realism and a certain bleak tone in keeping with this frankly rather bleak period. I have previously read Dark Star, second of the sequence, but not Night Soldiers, the first. As best I can tell, there is no consequence to the order in which the novels are read, though knowing now there is a sequence I shall likely follow it.

The Polish Officer opens with the German invasion of Poland, and with local intelligence officers pressed by necessity into service quite out of line with their training and work to date. One, a cartographer of minor aristocratic descent by the name of de Milja, becomes an active agent responsible for a number of operations which the book details – some successful, some not. A sense of fatalism is pervasive, soldiers and spies both are routinely sent on missions near certain to kill them, but continue from patriotism, from a desire for revenge or simply from a lack of better alternative. As matters open, de Milja must smuggle Poland’s gold reserves out of the country by train so as to ensure the government in exile remains in funds:

There were two people waiting for de Milja under the Dimek Street bridge: his former commander, a white-moustached major of impeccable manners and impeccable stupidity, serving out his time until retirement while his assistant did all the work, and de Milja’s former aide, Sublieutenant Nowak, who would serve as his adjutant on the journey south.
The major shook de Milja’s hand hard, his voice taught with emotion. ‘I know you’ll do well,’ he said. ‘As for me, I am returning to my unit. They are holding a line for me at the Bzura river.’ It was a death sentence and they both knew it. ‘Good luck sir,’ de Milja said, and saluted formally. The major returned the salute and disappeared onto a crowd of people on the train.

The book traces de Miljas career as a spy, in a period covering the first two or three years of the war, in which the German advance seemed unstoppable and country after country fall before their forces. Furst is tremendous at capturing the spirit of the time, most of all the fact now often forgotten that in this period victory for the allies did not look at all certain. With hindsight today, we tend to picture the second world war as a struggle against tyranny and extraordinary human evil. A war hard fought, but in which good finally triumphed. Furst’s novel has none of that sentiment, that moral reassurance, the war here is viciously fought, victory looks extremely doubtful and men and women both die fighting a foe which seems quite overwhelming.

Along with de Milja, we spend time in occupied Warsaw and Paris, we see London briefly and we see the frozen forests of the Ukraine as the Germans finally invade Russia, in the closing section of the novel. After that point of course, German invincibility was exposed as a myth and the tone of the war changed, after that point then is outside the scope of this novel which is about the fight before the anticipation of success.

Furst is excellent on the realities of life under occupation, the knocks on the door, the risk of looking the wrong way at the wrong person, the fear of reprisals for acts against the occupiers. The Germans plan to reduce the Poles to a slave race, intelligence gathered shows that the Poles are seen as undermen, subhumans who in future will have no need of traits such as literacy or speech beyond the grunt. Morale is maintained by missions in which Polish resistance officers fake leaflet drops from British aircraft promising British support coming soon to save Poland, although they know that no such planes or support are underway. Jokes speak of how pessimists learn German, optimists English and realists Russian. Returning from a brief trip to Romania:

On the train back to Warsaw he made a mistake.

A uniformed NKVD guard looked through his documents, reading with a slow index finger on each word, then handed them back silently. He got out of Rovno on a dawn train to Brzesc, near the east bank of the river that formed the dividing line between Russian and German occupation forces. On the train, two men in overcoats; one of them stared at him and, foolishly, he stared back. Then realised what he’d done and looked away. At the very last instant. He could see from the posture of the man – his age, his build – that he was somebody, likely civilian NKVD, and was about to make a point of it.
[The Russian has to leave the train, decides to get back on but is pulled away by his companion who doesn't want to waste time.]
From the corner of his eye, de Milja could see the Russian as he glanced back one last time. He was red in the face. The man, de Milja knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, had intended to kill him.

De Milja’s missions are often remarkably prosaic, much time is spent on painstaking preparation, the leaflet drop mentioned above needing a plane, a pilot, a printer, each of which must be sourced and the obtaining of any of which could lead to betrayal and death for all concerned. Those captured are interrogated, tortured, always eventually tell all they know and always eventually are executed. Those who betray the resistance, or who are suspected of it, face little better fate being executed with bullets to the head under railway bridges, the passing trains masking the noise.

De Milja pays for discarded oily rags, to assess the quality of oil being issued to German armoured troops, for information on wool weight, to see if heavier coats are being made, this intelligence together revealing whether an invasion of Russia is planned. Much of de Milja’s work is focused on the seemingly prosaic:

Fedin shrugged. War was logistics. You got your infantry extra socks, they marched another thirty miles.

As the novel continues, de Milja is moved to occupied Paris, where he spies on barge movements to learn about plans to invade Britain, creates a network of radio-telegraph operators who risk capture each time they communicate with London, the Germans having their own technicians who listen for such broadcasts and use their own techniques for locating the broadcast source if it continues too long. De Milja becomes involved in direct operations against the planned invasion, Operation Sealion, he recruits local patriots or the merely disgruntled and most of them do not survive.

Again, Furst’s eye for life in an occupied city is tremendous, absurdities such as the German insistence that Paris be open for business so that it’s troops can be sent there as a reward for active service, restaurants and bars serving the conquerors, affairs between people who are not suited to each other but who are at least alive and available. All this is brought out, people scheme, hide, profit, collude and resist and during it all the German advance continues. Vehicles destroyed quickly repaired, men killed quickly replaced, British resistance looking surely doomed.

The Polish Officer is rich then in its sense of time, of place, of the realities of resistance and the terrible choices forced upon people in times of war. Where it is perhaps less strong is in its characterisation, we see de Milja’s relationship with his mentally ill wife, with his father, with women he becomes involved with and fellow operatives he works alongside, but I at least did not get a deep sense of de Milja himself. He is portrayed as an intelligent man, deeply fatalistic and fully expecting not to survive the war, fighting because that is all that is left to do, and because he is good at what he does and has not died yet. It is a convincing portrait, but it lacks the subtlety of depiction that I found in Dark Star whose protagonist Andre Szara – a Pravda journalist – is a much more interesting and complex individual. De Milja is in a sense a vehicle through which we visit the past, his own personality often intentionally suppressed while he assumes the identities of others, but also I think suppressed so that the reader can better experience directly the world de Milja inhabits.

On the terrace of the Dragomir Niculescu restaurant, a man at leisure -or perhaps he simply has no place to go. A respectable gentleman, one would have to say. The suit not new of course. The shirt a particular colour, like wheat meal, that comes from washing in the sink and drying on a radiator. The posture proud, but maybe, if you looked carefully, just a little lost. Not defeated, nothing that drastic. Haven’t we all had a moment of difficulty, a temporary reversal? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Ultimately, this is an intelligent and rewarding work by an author fully conversant with his material and with a genuine knack for communicating fear, tension and the the small details of the world he has chosen to write about. Warsaw, Paris, London, the Ukraine, all convince, Furst knows his period and knows the war and although I did not enjoy The Polish Officer quite as much as I did Dark Star it was nonetheless definitely a rewarding read and I fully intend to read others by him.

The Polish Officer. Unfortunately, the current covers are rather bland, following a recent publishing trend to show shadowy figures in fog bound Central European landscapes, making a vast array of diverse books all look like they are much of a muchness. A shame, but if the cover fails to persuade, at least the contents do.

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2 Comments

Filed under Furst, Alan, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction, Spy Fiction

2 responses to “Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

  1. Rob

    Thanks for this. I started Night Soldiers a couple of years ago, but only got about 50-100 pages in before the relentless bleakness ejected me. I thought he was a good writer, but that he was determined to make everything as bleak as possible in a way that felt a little manipulative. Only a quick judgement though, and one that’s a couple of years old at that.

  2. I don’t think you’d like this one any more then Rob, the novel explores the war during the period prior to Russian and American intervention – in other words the period when the Germans were winning.

    So, the protagonist wins battles, but it’s clear his side are losing the war. That makes for a pretty bleak tone. Dark Star, featuring as it does internal politics of Soviet Russia, lives up to the first half of its name.

    I don’t mind that myself, although of course it’s not the whole story (we did win in the end after all), but then I found Le Carre pretty bleak too and for that matter much of Greene, and I think it’s that he’s aiming for (though I consider Greene the better writer, not sure about Le Carre).

    Certainly, you don’t find the humour of the Hrabal, which although ultimately full of death and horror, is also full of life and affection in the midst of it. But then, their goals as novelists have very little in common, they’re just writing about the same period here.

    Furst is a novelist of petty betrayals, small victories, fear of the knock on the door at three in the morning. He’s not a writer of broad scope, he has a particular subject he explores and arguably he seems to me to be writing not so much a novel as a body of work fictionalising a particular experience – as Patrick O’Brien (a wonderful writer actually) arguably didn’t write novels so much as a body of work fictionalising the life and times of Cochrane.

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