On Writers

Alan Furst - The Polish Officer

by Alan Furst,
Random House 2001,
ISBN 978-0375758270.

Most writers have a favourite literary activity they will return to most often after brief excursions away; for Nabokov and Borges it is erudite tricks, for the best of British and American writers, Austen, Greene and Cheever it’s the gracefulness in the prose, the South Americans, Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa it is the astonishment of strange happenings, for Alan Furst it is excitement.

The opening sets this path. At the beginning of WW2 the Wehrmacht armies surrounded Warsaw. German officers set themselves up in a hostelry outside the city. Food and vittles are supplied by the hostelier who then excuses himself, takes a secret tunnel into the besieged city and alerts the defending Polish officers to the extent and location of German armaments and soldiery. He leaves the meeting, not to be seen by us again, but the readers remain with the information and its discussion, remain with the Polish officers, this is how we are delivered to these central characters, among them Capt Alexander de Milja who then carries the story through. This neat opening device has worked well.

Descriptions are vivid. We see the buildings, the rivers, the canals. We feel of the cold. First knows the cities he takes us to witness. The novel runs on intrigue, employees, betrayal, as did the Polish resistance.

One of de Milja’s first assignments used to organise a propaganda leaflets drop over Warsaw. They steal a light plane from a flying club, execute the drop, escape, but the leaflets printer is betrayed by one of de Milja’s band, so de Milja’s next assignment is the assassination of a colleague.

I enjoyed the irony in the title The Polish Officer, since at other times de Mija becomes a Russian then a Czech.