Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1461
Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer belongs to the genre of the spy novel, but it is a spy novel with depth. While providing the standard spy-novel action and characters, Furst avoids the James Bond comic-book effect and instead leans in the direction of such masters of the genre as Graham Greene and John le Carré. The depth in his work comes from the aura of a certain time and place that he creates. If the ability to create or evoke a world—say, Victorian or Edwardian England or Sigmund Freud’s Vienna—is the mark of a true novelist, then Alan Furst has it.
The world Furst re-creates, here and in his previous novels of espionage—Night Soldiers (1988) and Dark Star (1991)—is Europe around the onset of World War II. With the lessons of World War I unlearned, Europe remains racked by ethnic stereotypes and old assumptions about cultural expansion by military might and conquest. One alarming development is that some hail Nazi conquest as a good thing, a means of achieving a united “New Europe,” as though they are incapable of distinguishing the cure from the cause. New technology in weapons and communications—airplanes and radio signals that erase national borders—has continued to render the old assumptions obsolete. So Europe around the onset of World War II is a curious mix of the old and the new, of bolt-action rifles and Katyusha rockets, of horses and tanks, of Maginot line and Blitzkrieg, of Wehrwille and the dawn of mutually assured destruction.
Furst displays expertise in almost every aspect of Europe during these years, from military history to geography to culture. He certainly knows about guns and planes and acronyms. He seems to know the name of every town and village in Europe, not to mention railway lines, streams, and marshes. He describes the German technique for tracing and pinpointing radio signals, and he shrewdly identifies the low viscosity of German oil as an important factor on the eastern front. He also notes numerous other tidbits of information, such as a sign in Wilno gracing the Moscow road: One side (going) reads, “On 28 June, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 450,000 men,” while the other side (coming) reads, “On 9 December, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 900 men.” No subject appears to trip up Furst, except possibly agriculture.The Polish Officer ends in numbing winter cold, with the protagonist, Captain Alexander de Milja, and a Jewish woman escaping the Nazis by driving a heavy truck down a frozen river. Eventually they leave the river and reach the outskirts of Biala, where they park to await dawn: “Then,” announces de Milja, “we can go into the open-air market with the produce trucks from the countryside.” This seems like an uncharacteristic lapse, though “produce” here could refer to any kind of food, such as meat or stored-up root crops. Generally speaking, however, reading Furst is a painless way of improving one’s education.
Furst’s semidocumentary style also produces other benefits. In particular, it lends a layer of reality or credibility to the conventional features of a spy novel—plenty of exciting action, disguise, and intrigue, coupled with colorful but thinly drawn characters. Although The Polish Officer lacks a suspenseful plot, it has numerous episodes of gripping action. The novel’s opening section, “The Pilava Local,” contains such an episode: With Warsaw under attack, Captain de Milja is put in charge of a train carrying the national gold reserves to Romania—a harrowing journey beset by fleeing refugees, twisted rails, strafing planes, bandits, and bureaucracy. In later episodes, de Milja steals a German plane to drop leaflets over Warsaw, rides in a ship hold loaded with coal for Sweden, becomes cozy with German officers and their hangers-on in Paris, blows up a ship to light Calais Harbor for British bombers, lights up a field in Brittany for French paratroopers, and, fighting with partisans in the Ukraine, helps blow up a German troop train and raid a German prison. Along the way, de Milja assumes various disguises, most notably as Boris Lezhev, an exiled Russian poet, and as Anton Stein, an ethnic German from Czechoslovakia who deals in coal.
The episodic structure actually contributes to the novel’s semidocumentary effect, without which some of the action might strain belief. Despite his inauspicious beginnings as a cartographer, a man who does not know any better than to grab a machine gun’s hot barrel, Captain de Milja becomes a master of disguises with more lives than a cat. While others are falling all around him and he is repeatedly shot at, de Milja makes one narrow escape after another. The least believable instances occur, again, near the end, as if the author were growing tired. De Milja is with a band of partisans holed up at a farm when they are surrounded, outnumbered, and attacked. Jumped by two of the enemy, de Milja, in the process of falling backward, has the “foresight” to shoot “each one in the abdomen.” Somehow, he and the Jewish woman break through the encircling enemy to a truck that, luckily, “de Milja had driven . . . a little way into the forest the night before.” Then, somehow, they drive on the same tank of gasoline for days to make their escape.
Furst’s semidocumentary style similarly cushions the captain’s romantic involvements. Typical for spy heroes, de Milja has had an unhappy marriage and is separated from his wife, who resides in a “private clinic” withdrawn from the world. Perhaps this is reason enough to take up spying, since de Milja has become a man “not in love with life.” In any event, his unhappy experience leaves the door open for encounters with other women, who seem only too willing to oblige. There are several of these in the novel, including Madame Kuester, who without a word spoken elevates her naked bottom for him; Madame Roubier, who burns a pink light in her boudoir; and even the Jewish partisan Shura, as they are parked together on the frozen river. None of these middle-aged women is exactly beautiful, which is possibly another concession to realism.
Yet the woman with whom de Milja falls in love, Genya Beilis, is beautiful, sexy, and smart and has many other admirable qualities. She even joins him in his spying. Yet he turns down her proposal that they run off together to Switzerland, so eventually she goes by herself and marries another man. There is something quaintly existential about de Milja’s decision, even though he is no great philosopher. As he tells Shura at the end, with a proper shrug: “I have to keep fighting. . . . [In] a world of bad people and good people, a war that never seems to end, you have to take sides.” His embrace of the partisan Shura symbolizes the choice he has made.
De Milja has a point, one that Furst underscores by setting his novel during the early years of World War II. It was a rather bleak time for civilization, with the Nazis triumphing, Great Britain standing alone, and the United States watching. As Winston Churchill was well aware, the outcome was far from certain. If anything, events pointed toward a Nazi victory, toward the “New Europe” hailed by French collaborationists. Furst’s depictions of the Nazis—brutal, banal, but efficient—are a reminder of what that “New Europe” could have been. Furst also has a few words for the collaborationists, summed up by de Milja’s comment that “France spread her legs.”
In short, Furst seems to focus on this brief period because it was a time of crucial decisions for the world. For nations such as Britain and individuals like de Milja, the decision to “keep fighting”—with all the sacrifice it entailed and with the distinct possibility of losing—could not have been easy. In retrospect, one can complacently endorse their decision as right. Yet at the time, and in those circumstances, what would one have done?
The Polish Officer ends on December 1, 1941, with Captain de Milja parked on the hill outside Biala. With four more years of war to go, did he survive? Did he live on to fight the Russians and survive the Communists? Did he ever find happiness? Does he tell his stories today in a Warsaw nursing home? Such questions are more or less irrelevant. What matters most is that at a pivotal point in history, the heroic captain was capable of existential choice.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, December 19, 1994, p. 802.
Chicago Tribune. February 26, 1995, XIV, p. 5.
Houston Chronicle. April 2, 1995, p. Z19.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, December 1, 1994, p. 1560.
Library Journal. CXX, January, 1995, p. 136.
The Observer. March 5, 1995, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 19, 1994, p. 46.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 2, 1995, p. C5.
San Francisco Chronicle. April 23, 1995, p. REV9.
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