Synopses & Reviews
As Warsaw falls to Hitlers Wehrmacht, Captain Alexander de Milja is recruited by the intelligence service of the Polish underground. His mission: to transport the national gold reserve to safety, hidden on a refugee train to Bucharest. Then, in the back alleys and black-market bistros of Paris, in the tenements of Warsaw, with partizan guerrillas in the frozen forests of the Ukraine, and at Calais Harbor during an attack by British bombers, de Milja fights in the war of the shadows in a world without rules, a world of danger, treachery, and betrayal.
Alan Furst, an acknowledged master of the European espionage thriller, has produced a stunning achievement in The Polish Officer: dark, evocative, authentic, and taut with suspense.
"Brilliantly imagined, vividly drawn, rich with incident and detail....The Polish Officer portrays ordinary men and women caught out on the sharp edge of military intelligence operations in wartime: the partisans, saboteurs, resistance fighters and idealistic volunteers risking their lives in causes that seem lost." Robert Chatain, Chicago Tribune
"A great entertainer, Furst would probably be considered our finest practicing historical novelist if he weren't writing espionage novels. He's as good a historian as a novelist can afford to be....Driven by the missions and schemes of one central character more than by the events and institutions that dominate most espionage novels, Furst's books are full of shards of information, anecdotes, heartbreaking stories." Salon.com
"Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story....The book is a triumph." Charles McCarry, author of The Tears of Autumn
"Furst has shown that he can produce an espionage tale that sloughs off the coil of genre. But [The Polish Officer] hugely ambitious and masterfully written ups the ante....The author understands, with astounding breadth of vision...what WWII was all about....A truly splendid novel of the wartime experience." Kirkus Reviews
"Fursts writing has the seductive shimmer of an urbane black-and-white Hollywood classic." The New York Times
"With clear, reticent prose and his trademark mastery of historical detail, Furst brings vividly to life this WWII-era tale of espionage and bravery, chronicling the work of the Polish underground in Poland, France and the Ukraine....Furst's understated narrative is insightful and convincing. The unassuming de Milja who considers himself merely 'unafraid to die, and lucky so far' proves an engaging protagonist. His exploits and the courageous sacrifices of the ordinary patriots who help him are both thrilling and at times inspiring." Publishers Weekly
"One of the best novels of the year....Brilliant." Robert Harris, author of Fatherland
"[A] riveting pure story...wonderfully exact...transcends the spy novel while delivering everything any fan of le Carré could ask for." Robin Winks, The Boston Globe
September 1939. As Warsaw falls to Hitlers Wehrmacht, Captain Alexander de Milja is recruited by the intelligence service of the Polish underground. His mission: to transport the national gold reserve to safety, hidden on a refugee train to Bucharest. Then, in the back alleys and black-market bistros of Paris, in the tenements of Warsaw, with partizan guerrillas in the frozen forests of the Ukraine, and at Calais Harbor during an attack by British bombers, de Milja fights in the war of the shadows in a world without rules, a world of danger, treachery, and betrayal.
About the Author
Often compared to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Alan Furst is a master of the spy thriller and one of the great war novelists of our time. He is the author of Night Soldiers, Dark Star, Kingdom of Shadows, and The World at Night. He lives on Long Island, New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. 1. It has been said that many of the heroes of World War II were ordinary men and women who responded to extraordinary times. Is this true of Captain de Milja? Do you think he would still be a remarkable person in peacetime? What about the young boy on the train to Pilava?
2. 2. At the beginning of The Polish Officer, Captain de Milja is described as “a soldier” who “knew he didnt have long to live.” At the very end of the book, he says he “might live through [the war], you never know.” Discuss this change in his outlook. Does his opinion of his chances of survival affect his actions?
3. 3. From the outbreak of fighting until Germanys surrender, Poland fought an all-out war against the German invasion. Warsaw and many other Polish cities were destroyed, and Poland lost eighteen percent of its population between 1939 and 1945-more than any other country in World War II. By contrast, France lost a much smaller percentage of its population and Paris was left nearly intact after the German occupation. What does this say about collaboration and sacrifice?
4. 4. Critics praise Fursts ability to re-create the atmosphere of World War II-era Europe with great accuracy. What elements of description make the setting come alive? How can you account for the fact that the settings seem authentic even though you probably have no firsthand knowledge of the times and places he writes about?
5. 5. Fursts novels have been described as “historical novels,” and as “spy novels.” He calls them “historical spy novels.” Some critics have insisted that they are, simply, novels. How does his work compare with other spy novels youve read? What does he do that is the same? Different? If you owned a bookstore, in what section would you display his books?
6. 6. Furst is often praised for his minor characters, which have been described as “sketched out in a few strokes.” Do you have a favorite in this book? Characters in Fursts books often take part in the action for a few pages and then disappear. What do you think becomes of them? And, if you know, how do you know? What in the book is guiding you toward that opinion?
7. 7. At the end of an Alan Furst novel, the hero is always still alive. What becomes of Fursts heroes? Will they survive the war? Does Furst know what becomes of them? Would it be better if they were somewhere safe and sound, to live out the end of the war in comfort? If not, why not?
8. 8. Love affairs are always prominent in Fursts novels, and “love in a time of war” is a recurring theme. Do you think these affairs might last, and lead to marriage and domesticity?
9. 9. How do the notions of good and evil work in The Polish Officer? Would you prefer a confrontation between villain and hero at the end of the book? Do you like Fursts use of realism in the novel?
The Research of Alan Fursts Novels
Alan Furst describes the area of his interest as “near history.” His novels are set between 1933-the date of Adolf Hitlers ascent, with the first Stalinist purges in Moscow coming a year later-to 1945, which saw the end of the war in Europe. The history of this period is well documented. Furst uses books by journalists of the time, personal memoirs-some privately published-autobiographies (many of the prominent individuals of the period wrote them), war and political histories, and characteristic novels written during those years.
“But,” he says, “there is a lot more”-for example, period newsreels, magazines, and newspapers, as well as films and music, especially swing and jazz. “I buy old books,” Furst says, “and old maps, and I once bought, while living in Paris, the photo archive of a French stock house that served the newspapers of Paris during the Occupation, all the prints marked as cleared by the German censorship.” In addition, Furst uses intelligence histories of the time, many of them by British writers.
Alan Furst has lived for long periods in Paris and in the south of France. “In Europe,” he says, “the past is still available. I remember a blue neon sign, in the eleventh arrondissement in Paris, that had possibly been there since the 1930s.” He recalls that on the French holiday le jour des morts (All Saints Day, November 1) it is customary for Parisians to go to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. “Before the collapse of Polish communism, the Polish émigrés used to gather at the tomb of Maria Walewska. They would burn rows of votive candles and play Chopin on a portable stereo. It was always raining on that day, and a dozen or so Poles would stand there, under black umbrellas, with the music playing, as a kind of silent protest against the communist regime. The spirit of this action was history alive-as though the entire past of that country, conquered again and again, was being brought back to life.”
The heroes of Alan Fursts novels include a Bulgarian defector from the Soviet intelligence service, a foreign correspondent for Pravda, a Polish cartographer who works for the army general staff, a French producer of gangster films, and a Hungarian émigré who works with a diplomat at the Hungarian legation in Paris. “These are characters in novels,” Furst says, “but people like them existed; people like them were courageous people with ordinary lives and, when the moment came, they acted with bravery and determination. I simply make it possible for them to tell their stories.”