The Polish Officer

( 24 )

Overview

September, 1939. The opening days of World War II. The invading German Wehrmacht blazes a trail of destruction across Poland. Warsaw is surrounded. France and Britain declare war, but do nothing to help. And a Polish resistance movement takes shape under the shadow of occupation, enlisting those willing to risk death in a David-and-Goliath struggle for a nation's survival. Among them is Captain Alexander de Milja, an officer in the Polish military intelligence service, a cartographer who now must learn a ...
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Overview

September, 1939. The opening days of World War II. The invading German Wehrmacht blazes a trail of destruction across Poland. Warsaw is surrounded. France and Britain declare war, but do nothing to help. And a Polish resistance movement takes shape under the shadow of occupation, enlisting those willing to risk death in a David-and-Goliath struggle for a nation's survival. Among them is Captain Alexander de Milja, an officer in the Polish military intelligence service, a cartographer who now must learn a dangerous new role: spymaster in the anti-Nazi underground. Beginning with a daring operation to smuggle the Polish National Gold Reserve to the government in exile, he slips into the shadowy and treacherous front lines of espionage that span occupied Europe; he moves through Poland, France, and the Ukraine, changing identities and staying one step ahead of capture. In Warsaw, he engineers a subversive campaign to strengthen the people's will to resist. In Paris, he poses as a Russian poet, then as a Slovakian coal merchant, drinking champagne in black-market bistros with Nazis while uncovering information about German battle plans. And a love affair with a woman of the French Resistance leads him to make the greatest decision of his life. In The Polish Officer, Alan Furst returns to the shadowy, clandestine arena of World War II spycraft, and the result is a gripping, panoramic espionage novel in the tradition of Graham Greene and John le Carre. The Polish Officer, like Furst's acclaimed Night Soldiers and Dark Star, has a haunting authenticity that brings the era to vital life. His story, brilliantly and colorfully cast, is written with a keen awareness of the nuances of national character, individual psychology, and the weight of history.
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Editorial Reviews

Forbes
Three sentences into Kingdom of Shadows, you are already traveling deep in Alan Furst's world--a dark, sharply etched, pre-war Europe, electric with menace: "On March 10, 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord... There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagons-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of the first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass." In six novels, beginning with the revelatory, intricate Night Soldiers--one of the richest spy books ever written--Furst has packed his brooding geography of the '30s and '40s with Nazi spymasters, Soviet assassins, Balkan bandits, rioting Fascists and ordinary neighbors turned slippery and vicious by fear. The Furstian hero, as with Kingdom of Shadows's Hungarian aristocrat Nicolas Morath, operates under the grinding pressure of imminent violence with too little information and too few decent choices. Though he's American, Furst has so far created a far bigger splash in England than back home, perhaps because he has removed America almost entirely from the stage, favoring instead the exiled and occupied of France and Central Europe, characters he seems to know from some intimate bone-knowledge. Think Le Carre without the binary certainties of the Cold War. With his two most recent books, Kingdom of Shadows and The Polish Officer, finally available here in paperback this fall, Alan Furst should begin getting his due as the most literate and inspired American writing espionage novels today.
—Thomas Jackson
Charles McCarry
Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story..The book is a triumph.
Robert Chatain
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.
Robin Winks
[A] riveting ‘pure’ story..wonderfully exact..transcends the spy novel while delivering everything any fan of le Carré could ask for.
Observer
Brilliant...you can almost hear the chained wheels of the Gestapo car on the snow, the whack of bullets in the moonlit Polish forests, the quietness of occupied Paris by night.
Robert Harris
One of the best novels of the year....Brilliant.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With clear, reticent prose and his trademark mastery of historical detail, Furst (Shadow Trade; Night Soldiers) 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. As Warsaw is falling in 1939, Polish Captain Alexander de Milja embarks on a harrowing journey to smuggle the national gold reserves out of the country by rail-the first of many death-defying missions he will undertake for the nascent ZWZ, the Union for Armed Struggle. Under a series of false identities, mingling with the bon vivants of occupied Paris, he later becomes a prized intelligence resource in France, surviving by cunning and passing valuable strategic information to the British. In the novel's final section, de Milja is in even more danger, working as a saboteur based in a Ukrainian forest as the Germans march east. Throughout these dramatic events, 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. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Capt. Alexander de Milja is a chameleon. A cartographer by profession, de Milja works as an intelligence officer in the Polish underground at the outset of World War II. When the Germans discover de Milja's identity in Poland, he goes to France and later Russia to continue his work. De Milja's disguises are many-he passes as a Russian writer, a Czech coal merchant, and a Polish horse breeder-and he embraces each persona completely as he goes about the business of espionage and sabotage. De Milja comes across as a genuine individual who, in his weaker moments, grapples with his desire to give up the fight. This well-written, realistic novel by the author of A Distant War (LJ 10/1/94) paints a vivid picture of the grayness and despair of the German occupation. Recommended for larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/94.]-Maria A. Perez-Stable, Western Michigan Univ. Libs., Kalamazoo
From the Publisher
"Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story....The book is a triumph."
--Charles McCarry

"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] 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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780006511298
  • Publisher: HarperCollins UK
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Pages: 337
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Furst
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.

Biography

Alan Furst may have the narrowest purview in literature. His books – which he calls historical espionage novels -- are all set in Europe between 1933 and 1945, and all are stories of World War II intrigue.

But that brief eight-year period in history has given Furst a rich amount of source material; although he had published a handful of earlier novels (now out of print, some of them fetch hundreds of dollars) Furst hit his stride with 1988’s Night Soldiers , his first book to concentrate on the decade that would forever change the world. Furst had found his niche. As Salon rhapsodized in a 2001 review, "...to talk about one of his books is to talk about them all. He is writing one large book in which each new entry adds a piece to the mosaic of Europe in the years leading up to the war, as created by a partisan of the senses."

Furst's books are grounded in their author’s extensive research of the period, and are written in an almost newsy prose broken occasionally by beautiful, lyrical passages describing, say, a Paris morning in the 1940s, or night at the Czechoslavakian-Hungarian border. History buffs will find much to love here; while the books are fiction, some of the details are factual. In Night Soldiers, for example, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island exchanged their clothing for new outfits; in reality, the American government often bought clothing from immigrants to use as costumes for its spies.

And while Furst’s novels are entertaining and, often, elegant, they are not easy reads: the books traverse through a wide swath of Europe (an important character itself in Furst’s fiction), and characters duck behind corners and sometimes stumble into the continent’s more remote regions (while not partying in Paris, that is). Though his male protagonists manage to find and sometimes lose lovers, Furst’s books are primarily concerned with the moral slipperiness involved in fighting off Hitler's advance, where even the best intentions could produce regrettable results.

Furst's books have grown leaner and tauter over the years, the result of a conscious effort "to say more by saying less." Notwithstanding this paring back, or perhaps because of it, the praise for his books only seems to multiply, and Furst’s writing has lost none of its veracity or suspense. Furst, who many critics consider literature’s best-kept secret, may not be a household name yet, but with such buzz, his low profile won’t last much longer.

Good To Know

Night Soldiers originated from a piece Furst wrote for Esquire in 1983. He was also a reporter for the International Herald Tribune and wrote a biography of cookie entrepeneur Debbie Fields.

Furst wrote in a 2002 essay, "For me, Anthony Powell is a religion. I read A Dance to the Music of Time every few years."

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    1. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Oberlin College

Read an Excerpt

The Pilava Local

In Poland, on the night of 11 September 1939, Wehrmacht scout and commando units–elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps–moved silently around the defenses of Novy Dvor, crossed the Vistula over the partly demolished Jablonka Bridge, and attempted to capture the Warsaw Telephone Exchange at the northern edge of the city. Meeting unexpected, and stubborn, resistance, they retreated along Sowacki Street and established positions on the roof and in the lobby of the Hotel Franconia, called for dive-bomber attacks on the exchange building, and settled in to wait for the light of dawn.

Mr. Felix Malek, proprietor of the Franconia, put on his best blue suit, and, accompanied by a room-service waiter, personally served cognac to the German soldiers at their mortar and machine-gun positions. He then descended to the wine cellar, opened the concealed door to an underground passage originally dug during the Prussian attack of 1795, hurried down Sowacki Street to the telephone exchange, and asked to see “the gentleman in charge.”

He was taken up a marble staircase to the director’s office on the fifth floor and there, beneath a somber portrait of the director–pince-nez and brushed whiskers–presented to the officer in command, a captain. The captain was an excellent listener, and the questions he asked inspired Mr. Malek to talk for a long time. Arms, unit size, insignia, the location of positions–he was surprised at how much he knew.

When he was done, they gave him tea. He asked if he might remain at the exchange, it would be an honor to fight the Germans. No, they said, perhaps another day.So Mr. Malek made his way through the night to his sister’s apartment in the Ochota district. “And what,” she asked, “were they like?”

Mr. Malek thought a moment. “Educated,” he said. “Quite the better class of people.”

Mr. Malek had not been thirty years an innkeeper for nothing: the defenders of the Warsaw Telephone Exchange, hastily recruited amidst the chaos of the German invasion, were officers of Polish Military Intelligence, known, in imitation of the French custom, as the Deuxième Bureau. The Breda machine gun at the casement window was served by a lieutenant from the cryptographic service, a pair of spectacles folded carefully in his breast pocket. The spidery fellow reloading ammunition belts was, in vocational life, a connoisseur of the senior civil service of the U.S.S.R., while the commander of the machine gun, feet propped on the tripod, was Lieutenant Karlinski, heavy and pink, who in normal times concerned himself with the analysis of Baltic shipping.

The officer in charge, Captain Alexander de Milja, was professionally a cartographer; first a mapmaker, later assistant director of the bureau’s Geographical Section. But Poland was at war–no, Poland had lost her war, and it was clear to the captain that nobody was going to be assistant director of anything for a long time to come.

Still, you couldn’t just stop fighting. Captain de Milja stood at the open window; the night air, cool and damp, felt especially good on his hands. Idiot! He’d grabbed the overheated barrel of the machine gun to change it during the attack, and now he had red stripes on his palms that hurt like hell.

4:20 a.m. He swept the façade of the hotel with his binoculars, tried–based on the proprietor’s intelligence–counting up floors to focus on certain rooms, but the Germans had the windows shut and all he could see was black glass. In Sowacki Square, a burned-out trolley, and the body of a Wehrmacht trooper, like a bundle of rags accidentally left in a doorway, weapon and ammunition long gone. To somebody’s attic. De Milja let the binoculars hang on their strap and stared out into the city.

A refinery had been set on fire; a tower of heavy smoke rolled majestically into the sky and the clouds glowed a faint orange. A machine gun tapped in the distance, a plane droned overhead, artillery rumbled across the river. War–fire and smoke–had made autumn come early, dead leaves rattled along the cobblestones and caught in the iron drain covers.

Captain de Milja was a soldier, he knew he didn’t have long to live. And, in truth, he didn’t care. He was not in love with life. One or two things had to be taken care of, then matters could run their course.

The director’s telephone was, naturally, of the very latest style; black, shiny, Bakelite plastic. De Milja dialed the military operator he had installed in the basement.

“Sir?”

“Sergeant, have you tried Tarnopol again?”

“Can’t get through, sir. I’ve been up to Wilno, and down to Zakopane, just about every routing there is, but the whole region’s down. We’re pretty sure the lines have been cut, sir.”

“You’ll keep trying.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

He replaced the receiver carefully on its cradle. He had wanted to say good-bye to his wife.

Copyright 2001 by Alan Furst
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Introduction

The Research of Alan Furst’s Novels

Alan Furst describes the area of his interest as “near history.” His novels are set between 1933-the date of Adolf Hitler’s 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 MariaWalewska. 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 Furst’s 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.”

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Foreword

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 didn’t 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 Germany’s 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 Furst’s 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. Furst’s 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 you’ve 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s use of realism in the novel?

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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 didn’t 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 Germany’s 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 Furst’s 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. Furst’s 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 you’ve 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s 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 Furst’s use of realism in the novel?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

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(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    One of Furst's best.

    Absolutely one of his best in my opinion and I've read all but three. Although perhaps not as likeable as Cason in The World at Night and Red Gold, Capt. de Milja, our hero, may be Furst's most noble character from his historical fiction books. de Milja is a map maker in the Polish army; a "regular" guy, who, when war is thrust upon his world, does what he must, which turns out to be more than he could have imagined he was capable of (standard theme here for Furst). He is in love with his wife who is in a Polish mental hosptial, but he knows he can't really save her. Thier last scene together is very touching and heartbreaking. He has nothing left but to fight for Poland, which he does as a spy. At first not a great spy, but he works his way to that status throughout. the book.

    I love the way Furst weaves in a character or two from his other books. He also mentions the shooting at the Brasserie Heiniger from "The Night Soldiers" in all his books from this period, which somehow ties them all together, though you don't need to read them in order except for the two I mentioned with Cason.

    As usual Furst's supporting characters add so much to this book. I always feel like I learn so much from these folks who come and go, live and die and fight the "good" fight.

    These are all such great books, but I would imagine those that aren't familiar with the genre, or are not WW 2 "savy" may find them a bit hard to read. But for those of you who are, you MUST read these books, especially this one.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2004

    World War II from a unique vantage point

    ¿The Polish Officer¿ is a spy novel set in the early years of World War II in an occupied Europe fending for itself without the help of the Americans. The book is peopled by displaced persons, former military officers, and bandits, all drawn into a seemingly hopeless resistance to the occupying Nazi and Soviet forces in Poland, Russia, and France. That Furst is able to create a story from this world that is appealing to American readers speaks to his prowess as a writer. Although a bit weak on plot, this is a beautifully-written book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2003

    Another satisfying novel from Furst

    I particularly enjoyed this Furst novel for the immediate intensity, and urgency that the characters involved display, from the very beginning of the plot to the end. de Milja and others must make quick decisions, forge alliances, and simply discard ideas, and people, just to survive. Furst's research and fully absorbing writing style should be applauded. Readers with allegences to classic writers of this genre should give Furst an unbaised read. He's one of the best of the contemperaries.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2001

    furst is overrated, but still...

    it's better than any airport/wallgreen's 'spy novel'...very close to lecarre...BUT unlike sir john, there is no real character here...in 'the honorable schoolboy', you actually cry for the hero spy who lives undercover...in this book, i had no idea why he put himself at such risk for so many different factions...no depth...but that said, a totally relaitsic (from what i understand) portrait of occupied poland and paris.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2010

    Very engaging novel.

    I love the way Alan Furst can allow you to feel the day to day life of living in occupied Europe during WWII as well as the extraordinary and heroic events. I didn't want this novel to end when it did. I will certainly look for another of his works.

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