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Jonathan Yardley on 'The Spies of Warsaw'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 22, 2008

THE SPIES OF WARSAW

By Alan Furst

This Story

Random House. 266 pp. $25

The protagonist of Alan Furst's 10th novel is Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, a 46- year-old French lieutenant colonel who, in the fall of 1937, has just been posted to Warsaw as military attaché in the French embassy there. A widower -- his wife, to whom he was devoted, died three years before -- with two grown daughters, he is a man of deliberate, careful manner. He is also a realist. Over and over again he is seized by "a certain apprehension, a shadow of war," but almost everyone with whom he deals either doesn't see it or denies its existence. A German, Dr. Lapp, who comes to him in hopes of assistance in unseating Hitler, puts it best:

"Do you know the Latin proverb Mundus vult decipi, ergo decepiatur? Herr Hitler's favorite saying: The world wants to be deceived, therefore let it be deceived. And he isn't wrong. Newspapers on the continent explain every day why there won't be war. And I assure you there will be, unless the right people determine to stop it."

Obviously Lapp and his tiny band of allies get nowhere in their plans against Hitler, and Mercier is not able to do a great deal to help them. But that is not Mercier's chief preoccupation; indeed, it is only a subplot in this well-constructed, intelligent novel. Though he is not officially a French spy, he undertakes missions in the Polish countryside aimed at discovering Germany's military plans, in the first of which he and his driver come across what Mercier knows as a "dragon's tooth," or "tank trap." It has been covered up; the driver asks why, and Mercier replies:

" 'Maybe changed their minds. Maybe it wasn't where they wanted it. Maybe there's another one a few hundred yards north, who can say, but that's the likely explanation. Or, if you wanted to think another way, an army that's going to attack, with a tank force, will get rid of the static defenses between them and the enemy border. Because, then, they're in the way.' Mercier's technical description barely suggested what he feared. This was nothing less than preparation for war; a classic, telltale sign of planned aggression. The journalists could wring their hands from morning edition to night -- War is coming! War is coming! -- but what he'd found in the darkness wasn't opinion, it was an abandoned tank trap, defense put aside, and what came next was offense, attack, houses burning in the night."

Other signs abound. A Polish engineer named Edvard Uhl -- "an ordinary-looking man, who led a rather ordinary life, a more-than-decent life, in the small city of Breslau: a wife and three children, a good job -- as a senior engineer at an ironworks and foundry, a subcontractor to the giant Rheinmetall firm in Düsseldorf" -- is recruited by Mercier to spy for the French, smuggling German plans and designs out of the factory. The bait is an ersatz Polish countess -- she actually is Hana Musser, "a half-Czech, half-German woman of uncertain age, who, two years earlier, had fled the fulminous Nazi politics of the Sudetenland and settled in Warsaw"-- who works for Mercier and had lured the panting Uhl into an affair. Uhl needs money to keep things going with her, and Mercier provides it, in exchange for information. But suddenly Uhl disappears, abducted by German agents. All of this, Mercier realizes, "had turned a desk job into something very much like a fight, so to walk away now would be to walk away from a fight. He had never done that, and he never would."

Called back to Paris to meet with superiors, Mercier finds only one sympathetic ear. It belongs to Gen. de Beauvilliers, who "was famously the intellectual of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, the high committee of military strategy, and was said to be one of the most powerful men in France, though precisely what he did, and how he did it, remained almost entirely in shadow." The two have a clandestine luncheon during which Mercier says, "The Germans are building tanks. I was watching them, until I lost an agent. And they're planning maneuvers in Schramberg -- in the Black Forest. They are, I believe, thinking hard about the Ardennes Forest, in Belgium, where the Maginot Line ends." De Beauvilliers is aware of this, but replies: "We are, in France, obsessed by the idea of great men-- nobody else would build the Panthéon. So Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun, much honored, idolized, even, has persuaded himself that he is omniscient. In a recent pamphlet, he wrote, 'The Ardennes forest is impenetrable; and if the Germans were imprudent enough to get entangled in it, we should seize them as they came out!' "

Nobody with even the most cursory knowledge of 20th-century history needs to be told that this is, as Mercier puts it, "nonsense." In June 1940 -- two and a half years after this fictional exchange -- the German army smashed through the Ardennes Forest, and France almost immediately fell; that same month Marshall Philippe Pétain accepted the presidency of the Vichy government, Hitler's French puppet. But in the years leading up to that calamitous month the French military high command was so wedded to the Maginot Line that dissent, no matter how informed and eloquent, was pointless. Mercier's contemporary and acquaintance Charles de Gaulle tried to awaken his fellow officers, but to no avail. As De Beauvilliers tells Mercier: "Too bad about the Poles, but they've got to be made to understand we aren't coming to help them, no matter what the treaties say. We might be able to, if de Gaulle and his allies . . . had their way, but they won't get it. French military doctrine is in the hands of Marshall Pétain, de Gaulle's enemy, and he won't let go."

Obviously Furst holds Pétain in contempt, with ample reason, but thumbing his nose at a dead general isn't the point of The Spies of Warsaw. What Furst wants to show is how great is the human capacity for self-deception and the terrible places into which it can lead us. The reader knows at the outset that Poland and France soon will fall and that millions will die, including many of those whom we meet in these pages, and Furst means us to feel frustration and anger as the prevailing idée fixe opens the way to Hitler's acts of aggression. The months following Mercier's arrival in Warsaw were civilized Europe's last chance to save itself, and it failed the test, in great measure because of Germany's overwhelming military superiority but also because too many leaders of the free nations simply refused to acknowledge reality.

As all of this should make clear, Furst is that rarity, a writer of popular fiction who is also a serious novelist. This is the third of his novels that I've reviewed, and the steady growth of his achievement almost can be measured with calipers. At times his prose can get a little strained, as he reaches a little far for effects, but it's now much more controlled than it was a dozen years ago in The World at Night. Like a handful of other writers who have turned espionage fiction into something approximating art -- John le Carré, of course, and Charles McCarry -- Furst combines the craft of entertainment with the exploration of important themes, and in no way does the entertainment diminish the themes.

The Spies of Warsaw is entertaining from first page to last. It has spies in just about every nook and cranny, many of them motivated not by patriotism or valor or anything like that, but by "the gods of greed." Furst clearly enjoys writing about sexual liaisons and romantic entanglements, and there are plenty of both herein, including a delicious little scene with a delicious little Polish princess, memories of youthful trysts with an adventuresome cousin, and a romance with the "very striking" Anna Szarbek, a lawyer with the League of Nations. Through it all Jean-Francois Mercier moves steadily onward, an honorable man in a treacherous world. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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