When reading about the Nazi occupation of Paris, readers face some unnerving questions: What would I have done? Kept my nose clean, the way most Parisians did, and merely grumbled about the cold and the food shortages? Would I have hissed and snapped at arrogant German officers harassing shopkeepers and pedestrians in show-me-your-papers encounters, or would I have swiftly walked by? If I had been a French mother whose soldier husband died in the 1940 invasion, would I have taken up with German soldiers in order to feed my children? Might I have been so cynical and opportunistic to collaborate and seek out rewards for exposing anti-occupation behavior?
Or might I have instead done none of the above and joined or assisted the Resistance? Alan Furst’s emotionally gripping and hugely satisfying new novel “A Hero of France” is about the beginnings of that secretive effort to turn the tide against Hitler. All of Furst’s 14 novels are set during or just before World War II, but this is the first one to deal directly with the occupation. And it is the first to feature the deeply appealing protagonist known throughout most of the novel by his nom de guerre, Mathieu.
A French Army captain who survived the World War I invasion by “the boches” and went back to a business he owned, this athletic but starting-to-age 39-year-old was never much interested in marriage, family or other close attachments. But when the Germans take over, he soon finds himself intimately engaged with a cause: helping British bomber and fighter crews forced to bail out over France make their way to Spain and back to England to rejoin the desperately short-handed Royal Air Force.
Mathieu tells a fellow conspirator, a nightclub owner named Max de Lyon, “When we lost, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died.” Bereft over the loss, Mathieu rebels first with small gestures such as defacing propaganda posters. Within a few months, though, he has become the head of a Resistance cell that includes a broad cross-section of French society. Lisette is a 17-year-old high school student who is a bicycle courier for the network every day after school. Ghislane is a professor of ethnology at the Sorbonne who is Mathieu’s second in command. Chantal is a chic socialite who dons improbable disguises to shepherd airmen into unoccupied Vichy France and out of the country. Daniel is a young Jew whose parents’ shoe factory was confiscated by the Nazis. He just wants to find ways to subvert the occupation and as soon as possible start killing Germans.
These and other cell members spend much of their time on overcrowded trains accompanying downed Allied fliers; a lot of the terrific suspense that Furst generates involves close calls with officials at checkpoints and encounters with busybody collaborators who find sadistic glee in trying to expose saboteurs. It’s a society tailor-made for the empowerment of sociopaths.
Furst is a relentless and exacting researcher, and other memorable scenes are of hair-raising air battles over France; attempts to land small British rescue aircraft in farmers’ fields; sneaking demolition artists ashore near a casino in Deauville to begin the work of disrupting the machinery of the occupation. It is dangerous work every minute of every day, and not all cell members survive.
Although Mathieu and his gang are operatives for a cause, they remain achingly human throughout the novel — except that their emotional needs are constantly being heightened or thwarted or both by the relationships they must maintain to make the Resistance succeed. There’s a good bit of sex in the novel — some of it deliciously tender between Mathieu and Joelle, a young woman with whom he sometimes lies in bed listening to the bombers roaring overhead — and some is comic, as at an orgy Mathieu attends to obtain passage on a freighter for a wounded airman.
Furst rolls all of this out with his usual steady-as-she-goes pacing and a prose style that nicely mixes the elegant and the matter-of-fact. And it’s not giving anything away to say that in the end, many readers will want to stand up and sing “La Marseillaise” through their tears.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. Alan Furst will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 1 p.m. on June 4.
By Alan Furst
Random House. 234 pp. $27