The Spies of Warsaw
By Alan Furst
Random House, 266 pages, $15
6 p.m. Tue., June 16
Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., 899-7323; www.octaviabooks.com
Escapism can be edifying. While Alan Furst's highly acclaimed historical novels provide a respite from reality and a passageway into the romantic and precarious world of espionage in pre-World War II Europe, that doesn't limit him from providing material that's provocative and reflective as well as engrossingly entertaining. The Spies of Warsaw reveals the interlocking lives of underground agents living in the Polish capital and elsewhere as seen through the eyes of a French spy, who risks his life for country even if it ultimately may be a fruitless endeavor.
Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a middle-aged, decorated war hero from World War I, ostensibly serves as a military attaché in the French embassy, but his real task is to discover the Nazi strategy for the next war. By 1938, it is no secret Germany, with its Aryan-centric culture and massive weapons industry, is gearing up for battle, but Mercier wants to discover the point of attack — how and with what. He has an inside source on Germany's tank technology courtesy of Edvard Uhl, an engineer who shares blueprints and a bed with a faux Polish countess, who reports to Mercier. As for where and how, only a treacherous reconnaissance mission into the Fatherland will suffice.
Mercier runs in Warsaw diplomatic circles, a world of sanctioned dinners and social functions, where nothing is ever plainly spoken or even said when a gesture, or a slipped note will suffice. Mercier knows that this old Europe — full of deceit, but tempered by alliances — is about to change abruptly because of the Nazi threat. When a Polish diplomat's wife says any German invasion into Poland will be met by the French army, Mercier outwardly agrees while thinking, "No, we're not coming, we're going to sit on the Maginot Line." Even though Mercier has informed the French generals about the German's growing tank prowess, the French are preparing for conventional warfare, massing armies on the German border.
It is within one of those opulent dinner settings of damask tablecloths, crystal chandeliers and tangerine flan — Furst adroitly presents the often-overlooked sophistication of Polish culture — Mercier, a widower, is smitten by Anna Szarbek, a striking blonde who is a lawyer for the League of Nations. He now has something more than his country to protect.
Furst doesn't overplay his historical knowledge. There is the shadow of the coming destruction, but it is nothing his characters aren't aware of. The reader also realizes France and Poland are going to fall, but Furst gives an intriguing human side to it, compelling us to keep reading his detailed and fascinating narrative.