Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Polish Officer / Lumen

Two Novels set in Poland in World War II

In February of this year I read two novels set in Poland: The Polish Officer by Alan Furst, published in 1995, and Lumen by Ben Pastor, published in 1999. Both covered roughly the same time period, 1939 - 1941.

The Polish Officer

The Polish officer of the title is recruited into the Polish underground after Poland is invaded by
Germany in 1939.

This is the summary at Alan Furst's website:
September 1939. As Warsaw falls to Hitler’s 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.
As you can see from that description, a lot of the book takes place in other countries, and especially in France.

I was surprised by this book. It was drier than the first two books in the Night Soldiers series, and it felt more like a history than fiction. I liked the story but the characters did not grab me, not even the main character. Furst is very strong on research and the story feels very authentic.

Many fans of Alan Furst's books consider this their favorite, so I think I am in a minority in my opinion. It doesn't deter me from moving on to the next one in the series, though. I plan to read the whole series of historical espionage novels that he has written. (They are only loosely a series. There are some recurring characters and some books are connected, but most of them are stand alone stories.)


Immediately after reading The Polish Officer, I started reading Lumen. The books were a perfect pair. I learned a lot about Poland during the time period from Alan Furst's book, and that knowledge made this an easier and more interesting read.

The protagonist of Ben Pastor's novel is a Wehrmacht captain in Intelligence, Martin Bora, stationed in Cracow during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He is tasked with investigating the death of a nun. Father Malecki is in Cracow to investigate Mother Kazimierza's prophetic powers. He is ordered to stay and assist in the inquiry into her killing. Thus the two men must work together. The story is about solving the mystery of her death, but also is about much more, including the treatment of the citizens of Poland during the occupation. 

Reading a book set during World War II with a German officer as the protagonist is challenging. Bora has doubts about some of the atrocities carried out by other groups of soldiers, but he is committed to the Nazi cause. At times the story seems fragmented because of the focus moving from murder investigation to war time activities, but that is realistic. I was more interested in the picture of the times, seeing the activities from a different point of view, than I was in the mystery plot.

I will definitely take the opportunity to read the second book in this series, should I find a copy. I found it very good reading and I always like to read about the events of World War II. But this book stands alone pretty well.

Further reading on these books:


Anonymous said...

I always like to learn about different countries and time periods as I read, Tracy, so I can see how that would appeal to you in these books. And you've reminded me of Furst's work, for which thanks. I need to put one of those in the spotlight at some point.

TracyK said...

I have enjoyed reading more books from or about other countries this year, Margot.

Clothes In Books said...

I think I read the Polish Officer a good few years ago - though not Alan Furst's biggest fan. The other book sounds really interestsing - as you say, setup and setting both unusual, and would be good to read a book with those details.

TracyK said...

Of the three books by Furst that I have read, this was the least appealing, Moira. But I knew little about Poland during the war so that was in its favor. The story in Ben Pastor's book was much better. I will continue that series if I run into the books, but not seeking them out for now.

Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: I read The Polish Officer back when I was doing short personal reviews. I have not published that one long paragraph. I did connect with the Captain and enjoyed the book. For me he exemplified a strain of Polish reckless heroism which courts death in defiance of the enemy.

TracyK said...

I did remember that you had said you liked The Polish Officer, Bill. He was a hero and completely selfless.

col2910 said...

I do need to read some more from Furst, but I won't be tempted by Lumen thanks!

TracyK said...

It had been a long time since I had read anything by Furst, Col. I need to read his books more often.