a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
Adolph Hitler left behind an unintended legacy: A gift to storytellers to retell forever the dark drama of the Third Reich. Consider for a moment the countless movies and books there have been about Nazi Germany. Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, Casablanca, Sophie’s Choice, The Young Lions, The Train, The Great Escape . . . even the tasteless TV sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes, whose star is the subject of the recent film, Auto Focus.
These are simply the first few titles that popped into my mind. We could, of course, stretch the list of Nazi inspired tales on and on for hundreds of pages. History has given us other monsters – Attila the Hun was probably not such a nice guy, a real barbarian, if you happened to be in the path of his rampaging hordes. But Hitler provided literary possibilities, a modern mythology of good and evil that has never been matched. Perhaps it’s because the Nazis in their twisted way were not barbarians; they were horribly, coldly, efficiently “civilized,” which somehow makes their horror more disturbing. I don’t mean to make light of this: a few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which today stands as a reminder of the uttermost darkness of human possibilities. But it is because of this darkness, and our fascination with it, that I suspect writers will still be writing Holocaust tales hundreds of years from now.
Alan Furst, one of our best writers today, has taken the Nazi onslaught as the backdrop for a series of well-researched World War Two spy stories that bring this period alive once again to the modern reader. I just finished his 1995 novel, The Polish Officer, a stunningly atmospheric book that is like emersing yourself in a very good old black and white movie. Alan Furst gets all the details right: the period cars, the weapons, the sense of coal dust in the air, the bleak Eastern European winter of 1940. You read a chapter of this book and you just about feel the mud and smell the horse dung as the partisan fighters hide in the trees ready to attack, smoking a final cigarette.
The Polish Officer is Captain Alexander de Milja, who we first meet in September 1939 as Warsaw is about to fall to the Nazis. With the Germans on the outskirts of the city and defeat certain, de Milja is given the job of getting Poland’s national treasury of gold bullion on a train safely to Romania. Once this is done, he returns to Poland and works with the resistance, the ZWZ. Then he is sent to France where he is destined to watch defeat happen all over again, this time the fall of Paris. The Germans appear unstoppable, but the good soldier fights on, against all odds, remaining in Paris to work with the underground and send vital information by wireless to London.
The stories continue, one after another, small moments from de Milja’s ongoing war, life and death and a few romantic interludes. The novel is not so much a single story as a collection of vignettes, separate incidents – and this is my only criticism of the book. Yet the writing is so good, and each incident of such compelling interest, that I was carried along, rushing my way through the pages.
Furst has been compared to Graham
Green, but his style is really much closer to the spy stories
Polish Officer is a superb book, doing what fiction does best:
an almost magical ride to another time, another place, allowing us
to travel into worlds that are not our own.
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