Readers familiar with Alan Furst’s books will be grateful for the opportunity to read Under Occupation. It is his latest work, the 15th in an impressive body of historical spy novels that depict life in Europe in the years just before and during the Second World War.
The title tells us that we are about to enter the taut, disquieted world of life under occupation. The place is France, more specifically, Paris in 1942. The occupiers are the dreaded Nazis.
“In December 1942,” Furst writes, “France was a land of the fugitive. Jews in hiding wanted to get to Spain and, eventually, to New York or Palestine. Agents of three countries, France, Poland, and Britain, were constantly on the move, working across borders in and out of the country. Then there were the people who could no longer bear living under occupation: Had the man at the next café table been a Gestapo agent? Or was he just nosy? He had surely tried to listen to the conversation. Also there were the usual refugees … This was, taken altogether, a considerable number of people who wanted to be somewhere else.”
The movement – often collision – of these fugitives from scene to scene is the dramatic forward motion of the novel, superbly paced and marvelously overlapped like a kaleidoscope of dark moods crashing into the infinite beauteous aspects of the famed City of Light.
Furst’s literary strength is once again fully on display. He is masterful in creating the full texture of a place. He recreates the streets, shops, cafes and living quarters and even the sky and the clouds of Paris. And then populates his artistic tableau with many diverse individuals around whom he weaves his dramatic and suspenseful yarn.
Paul Ricard is the protagonist of the story. In a mirror reflection, one suspects deliberately cast by Furst, Ricard is a writer of detective and spy fiction. Perhaps playfully, Furst describes Ricard as a renowned writer, “a master of the form,” whose novels are “written with a sharp eye and a big heart.” Furst may indeed have had himself in mind in describing Ricard. And why not? The self-regard is well-earned. And the twisting of plot and story lines in Ricard’s books match the many narrative detours and turns awaiting the reader in Furst’s.
The story pulls the reader forward immediately. In the story’s opening pages, while Ricard is leaving a bookstore, he is accidentally knocked down by a man being pursued by the police. The man is ultimately shot by his pursuers but before he dies, he thrusts a piece of paper into Ricard’s shirt pocket. Ricard eludes the investigating police and the Gestapo and then attempts to settle his nerves and calm his racing heart by finding quiet shelter in a coffee house. The paper entrusted to him by the dying man appears to be a blueprint for a new weapon.
This incident effectively becomes the alchemic device by which Ricard changes from a writer simply trying to make a living and survive the war unscathed, into a writer who chooses a side and becomes a member of the resistance. The chance encounter between the fleeing man and Ricard is now the moral fulcrum on which his sense of duty and purpose balance.
“Still it (the occupation) was there: strolling German officers with their French girlfriends, Vichy types with their lapel pins of the Francisque, the double-bladed battle axe. The sight of such lapel pins inflamed his heart. All his life, Ricard had been a peaceable sort, conflict upset him, but now he would have to fight; he’d avoided, like most Frenchmen, the idea of resistance, avoided it for two years, waiting for rescue, waiting for the Americans, as people put it, but he couldn’t wait any longer because it would, in time, damage his soul. No, he told himself, he couldn’t just write something hostile about the Germans, he would need to do something. To act.”
And so the story of Under Occupation truly begins.
Ricard does indeed act. He seeks out individuals who might help him deliver the important blueprint to the appropriate hands in Britain. The search sets him on a path of many intersections and crossroads – literal and moral.
Furst paves that path with historical information about the war, the nations and the peoples who were swept up in the war’s maelstrom. With his trademark descriptive excellence, Furst situates his protagonists – and the readers – in many unsettling predicaments, dangerous stops along that path.
Ricard must travel to Germany. As he arrives, “a light wind toyed with the red-and-black swastika flags, and the passengers, leaving the train for document control, knew they were in Germany now, so they didn’t say much, or spoke in undertones. A kind of hush, on the German side of Emden, where guards in Wehrmacht uniform watched the passengers carefully while their Alsatian shepherds strained at their leads: chains attached to broad leather collars. They had been trained to attack civilians and they wanted to do it.”
Deftly, sparingly, without emotional stretch or embellishment, Furst artfully describes the horrifying potential menace awaiting some of the passengers on the train. Readers are chilled even as the individuals in the story constantly avert their eyes from the occupiers: police, officials, soldiers, Gestapo, SS.
Variations of menace and threat confront Ricard throughout the story. But he and the other men and women who also join these efforts persevere, though daunted. Sometimes they doubt the wisdom of their decisions. “In his heart,” we read of Ricard, “what he really wanted was to run away – he’d been trapped, trapped by what now seemed a foolish desire to help the war effort … Why had he not understood that, in these times, the idealist would pay a stiff price.”
But it is precisely Ricard’s perseverance, despite doubt and self-censure, that creates the portrait Furst wishes us to hold in our minds if not also in our hearts. It is the depiction of true heroism: the defiance of “ordinary” men and women who try to ensure through their acts, that idealism does not die.