Mathew's Reviews > The Polish Officer

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
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's review
Jan 19, 2009

it was amazing

For the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in WW2. I’ve read some non-fiction books on the OSS. I drive my wife crazy with World War II magazine purchases at the grocery story. Naturally, I sought out the best I could find in WW2 fiction.

I found it in Alan Furst. About a year ago, I discovered his work and bought several novels. He has several mysterious and appealing novels. I even recently picked up on in audio CD.

For my first foray, I read The Polish Correspondent. The titular character is Alexander de Milja, an aristocrat who becomes an excellent spy as he traverses Europe in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. First, he oversees the smuggling of Polish gold reserves aboard a nondescript passenger train, which de Milja himself selected. The journey culminates in a shoot out with bandits and a mad dash to Romania. But, tellingly, the heroes are as much the Polish commoners aboard the train as they are de Milja. This appears to be a Furst theme.

De Milja later settles in Paris — often the centerpiece of Furst’s tales, I gather — to conduct espionage for the Poles and the English. The likable officer quickly becomes exceptional as a spy and handler. So good, in fact, he out survives his own operatives, like the memorable teenage radio operator whose demise from chomping down on a cyanide capsule matches the bomb with which she kills her SS nemesis. The scene is a wonderful, understated bit of black humor that Furst excels at.

De Milja also has love affairs — alluring, middle-aged European women who keep Alexander at a distance emotionally so that the inevitable partings ache, but only a little.

Finally, the Polish officer is assigned to the Eastern front, a veritable hell on earth. It’s a mission he enters knowing he won’t survive. But, then, de Milja learns to master life as a partisan, too. He completes his futile mission in rescuing a Pole, who later dies. Finally, it’s time for a desperate and cold escape with a Jewish woman whom he saves. Here, de Milja shows again his likable qualities as he sacrifices much to save her (and himself).

De Milja’s a wonderful protagonist — likable, smart, properly cynical when he must be. He’s a very Euro-styled James Bond in a much harsher milieu. But the minor characters surrounding him are just as likable and richly written.

If the novel suffers at all, it’s from its episodic structure. It works nearly as a collection of novellas rather than a novel structure. The train escape, taken alone, is a fine short work. The drama of the final book builds to a climactic prison escape, but then flattens out as de Milja and the Jewish woman flee. As such, the novel survives as a reflection on the troubling nature of war and espionage. While there are exciting scenes, the book is not a thriller. Furst takes his time in parts. In others, he’s wry and sometimes implies the dirty work of war and spying, making the reader understand the remains of violence in a confectioners shop, for one example.

Furst’s writing is rich and detailed, but not overwrought. He captures rich, European details — early war Paris comes alive in his prose. He has a legion of delightful and tragic minor characters, themselves also rich and quintessentially European. All is contained within a novel with a subtler structure than the usual spy thriller. The end result is superb, but will not deliver a quick fix or adrenaline rush.

The Polish Officer: A

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