J.'s Reviews > The Underground City: A Novel

The Underground City by H.L. Humes
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's review
Jul 05, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: suspense-espionage, europe, france, second-world-war, résistance
Recommended for: .. coldwar completists, proto-le-carre fanciers ..
Read in July, 2008

There is something about a big, weighty book of fiction. If it's not a predetermined classic, you go thru agonies in the first few hundred pages deciding whether to dedicate numerous reading-weeks, maybe a month of your life, to getting thru it. In the case of Underground City, there were red flags galore in the first couple of hundred pages.

Try this :
"Sit down, Lieutenant, while I look at this."
"Sugar, sir ?"
"No, thank you. I like it black as sin and strong as the Lord's right arm.".

Honest. Not even in jest. Eek. But what kept me at it was the slightly weird and hazy biography of Mr. Humes, which you'll have to find in cyberspace if you're intrigued. Seems he had been involved in the underground that the book portrays... so there was always that to allay the doubts about the finesse of the storytelling.

Let me say, though, that the narrative goes from EXTENDED STANDSTILL for two hundred pages to something more lively, and that only by page #203. It's not a pointless wait, though.

The hype on this book is that it's something that encompasses, maybe even epitomizes, the shift from the 'Big Worldwar Two Novel' that every soldier wanted to write, to the uncertain and more complex world of the coldwar geopolitical novel. And it does, sort of.

It's about the Resistance in France (and collaborationists), and the Aftermath of the largest conflict in which the world had jointly participated by '58, when this book was published. There's a lot of room to be elaborate in the 755 pages that Humes dedicates to this book, so a lot of this complex history is parsed & re-parsed, lots of characters are brought to the page, and lots of time is spent in leisurely contemplation of the moment.

Good or bad ? Well, both, really. We do get intimations of the present (future for them) in this kind of passage :

"We marvel at the folly of the Romans, the Calvinists, the Inquisition-- they all burned human beings alive for the greater glory of God, some for the love of gentle Christ. We wonder how men could become so sick in their souls as to commit murder in the name of God, and yet will it be much different looking back a millenium from now ?"
"Georges, why are you lecturing me like a schoolboy ?"
"One half of the world is ready to fight for freedom, privacy, and justice for all mankind; the other half is ready to fight for an end to econonomic enslavement of all mankind. The first half finds it increasingly necessary to repress freedom, privacy and justice-- in the name of freedom, privacy, and justice. The other half finds it necessary to employ slave labor to put an end to economic enslavement. And if nothing else will do, there is still one issue that the whole world is ready to fight for --peace. Ha !...."

Fairly prescient in what is overall, well, still and only a big wwII novel. Yes, it's got it's suspense and covert espionage aspects, but it's still somebody's big war book. And the truth of it is that by 1958, Messrs Ambler, Greene and Fleming had already been at the task, even though it was not till '61 that Le Carre entered.

Without going too far into any specifics, this is intermittently very rewarding and then here & there a bit tedious. But it's got the scale of the 'big book' at least. And Humes' evocations of postwar Paris are really pretty exquisite, by any measure. The twilight tour of the sewers is good, and the boozy Bloom In Night Town sequence at the end of the book very much worth it. In the city that fostered Surrealism, it's good to know our author isn't immune to it's charms.... Let's have an examp.

As the start to the night-town narrative, our protagonist has met the denizens of an odd bar called Cafe Monumentale, so called because it is sited next to the many large graves at the Montparnasse cemetery. Here's our hostess :

"Do you know what I'd do if I had his money ? I'd start a funeral parlor. Always a steady business, a changing clientele. You don't even have to smile at them once they're in the box, and they never come back to plague you with their troubles. I tell you it's not easy being a woman in this business." She knocked her knuckles on the counter top to show what business she meant.
"Does your son help you with it ?" Stone asked innocently.
"Him ? Ha! He's got too much of his father in him. He can't even help himself yet." Then she softened. "But he's a good boy. He writes poetry but he's honest, always keeps track of his debts." She shook her head ruefully. "If he didn't look so much like his father, I'd have thrown him out long ago."
"I imagine it's hard to make a living writing poetry," Stone offered.
She smiled a wry smile. "That's why I'm trying to teach him to play billiards." Then she shrugged resignedly. "At least he likes girls. Thank God for that."
Stone laughed politely.
"Only you should see the girls. They all look like orphans. Thin like sticks. Straight black hair. Turtle-neck sweaters. Existentialists. I don't know where he finds them, but each one's like all the rest...."

Don't skip the Dickens or Dostoyevsky to go on this trip, but if you've got the time, an interesting & under-the-radar ride.
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message 1: by Daisy (new)

Daisy Thanks for the detailed and fair review. You put a lot into that. I guess having spent so much time with a book, it's only right. You make me want to maybe tackle it...
Do you know Writer's Almanac? I guess it's on the radio but you can subscribe to it too: a poem every day and some usually literary biographies too (birthdays etc.), all in a neat page daily. I mention this because I think recently they wrote something about Ian Fleming. Must've been his birthday or something. Anyway I recommend it.

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