Mission to Paris

World War II is brewing in 1933, Hitler is intimidating the Parisians while misleading Chamberlain, and a Hollywood actor born in Vienna is an enticing tool for both sides in Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris.

The plot stumbles along slowly as screen star Fredric Stahl gets comfortable in Paris and begins work on his new war movie.  Stahl naively underestimates the political power of the German forces around him, and prefers to think of the Paris of his youth.  He’s accidentally assaulted in a street protest, and is threatened by a German Nazi officer who breaks into his Paris hotel, but the action is more insidious than outright lethal.

Stahl is easy to like despite his tedious innocent-abroad persona.  He is as comfortable drinking beer in a backdoor saloon as he is sipping champagne at a society soirée.  As he acquires a political conscience, strong women add to the intrigue: svelte Russian actress and superspy Olga Orlova, Nazi sympathizer and society hostess Baroness von Reschke, socialite and lover Kiki, and demure seamstress and Polish political exile Renate Steiner.

After witnessing the infamous Kristallnacht, halfway through the book, Stahl finally becomes the undercover agent you’ve been waiting for, and the action escalates into spy thriller mode.   Stahl successfully passes on war secrets while undercover as the movie star under the direction of a wry American embassy official.  When the cast and crew relocate to Hungary to shoot a scene in a castle, the danger of passing through Germany changes his fate.  A finale includes a romantic getaway with assassins in hot pursuit.

Although this is Furst’s twelfth spy thriller, it is my first encounter with his historical espionage tales, often compared to those of John le Carré – an intelligent blend of history and drama with enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  Through Furst’s characters, the fear of pre-war Paris seemed real; not even a famous Hollywood actor could escape the terrorizing hammer of the Nazis.

The novel ends in 1939, a year before France was attacked by Germany “on 10 May, 1943, and surrendered on 21 June”  – and three years before the July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews used by Tatania de Rosnay in Sarah’s Key (targeted for discussion soon by one of my book groups).  Furst provides the historical foundation for that event in Mission to Paris by clearly addressing the French complicity with the Nazis.

Sarah’s Key

I resisted reading Sarah’s Key, thinking it would be just another war exposé, maybe another Anne Frank.  But Tatiana de Rosnay addresses a war secret glossed over, even hidden, in the history books.  When I was in Germany last year, I took a tour in Munich that walked my group around sites that were no longer there, except for the plaques.  The guide emphasized that the Germans carefully removed buildings that had been used to glorify Nazism.  Of course, the places of horrors are there – especially, the concentration camps – so that no one will ever forget.

In Sarah’s Key, evidence of the French’s complicity in the terrible July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews is erased, but the shame of their participation still stains their history and continues to affect surviving generations.  In an historical and personal approach to an often ignored piece of the Holocaust, de Rosnay centers her story around two characters: Sarah, a young girl taken from her home that day and forced to endure horrors, terrible pain,  loss of dignity and family; and Julia, who years later finds herself in the center of the family shame that profited and then later tried to compensate for Sarah’s loss.

De Rosnay uses the poignancy of a young girl’s experiences, and the courage of a woman who must finally assert her own voice to tell a compelling story and open eyes.

“He knew it had been a Jewish family that had been arrested during that big roundup.  But he had closed his eyes, like so many other Parisians, during that terrible year…No one wants to be reminded…nobody wants to think about that.”

De Rosnay includes descriptions of Paris then and now, and the viewpoint of an American in Paris along with typical family drama, but it is the historical facts that carry the punch.  Whether or not you know about Hitler’s terrible “Operation Spring Breeze,” de Rosnay’s history lesson is worth telling, to not forget.

 

To read a review of another Tatiana de Rosnay book, check out A Secret Kept

The Invisible Bridge

A scholarship to study architecture in Paris – a dream come true for a poor young Hungarian with a talent for drawing and an innovative vision.   As you start reading The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer will lull you with her beautiful descriptions of Parisian streets, gardens, cafes…so that you will feel you are there.

“September was sending its first cool streamers into Paris…the scent of it blew through the channel of the Seine like the perfume of a girl on the threshold of a party…”

But too soon, she reveals that Andras is Jewish and Europe is becoming Hitler’s – changing everything and the real tale begins.

The story moves slowly carrying you through the lives of three young brothers – intelligent men, with strong family ties, who start out in pre-war Hungary with potential.   Andras, the middle brother, is the fulcrum.   He begins his studies in Paris, succeeds in creating designs admired by his professors, helps his older brother, Tibor,  get sponsorship for medical studies in Italy, and mentors his younger brother, Matyas, a talented artist/performer.   He meets his true love, Klara, a ballerina and a fugitive from Hungary, living in Paris.

As Andras’s life intersects with others, Orringer uses her characters to provide a deeper understanding of how relationships changed as the political temperature starts to rise.   People can be cruel anytime, but suddenly Hitler has provided the excuse to concentrate on the baser instincts.  Throughout, Orringer inserts the historical events affecting Jews in Europe; Andras is not oblivious to the escalating drama, but is still surprised when his life as a student is irrevocably affected.

Shifting gears into wartime, Orringer seasons her lengthy descriptions with astute observations – “…it made [Andras] aware of his own smallness in the world, his insignificance in the face of what might come…”    Her detailed understanding of Jewish customs instills credibility, and Orringer uses an effective technique to keep you engaged: she gives you the outcome, then backtracks to how it got there.    As she explains, her lengthy and precise clarifications of architectural and military procedures mirror Melville’s summation of whaling – you want to get on with the action, but are afraid you might miss something if you skip through.    And, besides, the explanations are fascinating.   Be prepared to read slowly.

The terrors of war take over, but art and family help Andras survive. The title is taken from an illustration he draws for a comic-relief newsletter while trying to live through the horror in the camps.   Despite the danger and the consequences, Andras and his friend, Mendel, follow the success of their first publication, Snow Goose, with the Biting Fly, and finally The Crooked Rail – all cleverly disguised irreverent parodies (if you’ve ever read The Onion, these would be mild versions) with Andras’s illustrations on the forced labor camps. Ultimately, the price is too high for their attempt at rallying morale.

The description of the camps is sometimes too much to take, but Orringer softens the abominations with amazing insights –

“Andras thought, that war could lead you involuntarily to forgive a person who didn’t deserve forgiveness, just as it might make you kill a man you didn’t hate.”

More than the filth and humiliation of the conscripted Jewish work-camps, it’s the uncertainty and terror of the unknown that creeps in.   Each short leave at home gives him new worries – Will his wife be safe? Will his brothers survive?   Will anyone survive?  Memories of better times sustain Andras: “He could feel his mother’s power now as if it were all happening again: the red cardboard box of his life was flying through the air, and his mother had stretched out her hands to catch it.”

Just as their lives seem to be given a reprieve, it starts again – “given and taken away” – an unending trial of abused men and destroyed families.  Orringer’s grandfather lived through this time, and she has used him as her initial resource, but her research into Hungarian Jews and Hungary during the war is authentic and commanding.

This is a book you will not be able to bear to read at times, and then you will not want it to end – a haunting revelation of bittersweet anomalies – beautifully written.    Thankfully, Orringer finishes with a better future for Andras – life goes on – but the desolation of the past is unforgettable.