Alan Furst’s MISSION TO PARIS has all the qualities-- but perhaps a little more optimism --that usually mark his novels. The setting primarily is pre-WWII Paris, and the focus is on Germany’s attempt to co-opt Fredric Stahl (a lower-level Hollywood movie star born in Vienna) into supporting the Third Reich’s political warfare against France before the outbreak of fighting. Stahl is in Paris to shoot a movie, and the message is that if he doesn’t help Germany demoralize the French and nudge them toward capitulation, he might get shot himself.
So the novel offers a shadowy, inevitably romantic view of Paris, Germany’s expert intimidation tactics, and the movie business, wherein a star’s participation in symbolic acts and festivities can be used to promote either a film or a newly born thousand year reich.
This well-written novel paces itself in such a way that each element of its appeal--the wretched Nazis, the world of filmmaking, and the eloquence of Paris being Paris pushing lovers together--receives its due.
I don’t think Furst’s depiction of Nazi tactics in France (and elsewhere) is overdrawn, even though it’s brutal and relentless. By contrast, Stahl’s ambivalence in confronting his nemesis is interesting in its understated quality. This is a man who took refuge in the U.S. and really doesn’t want to get drawn into the latest phase of European “politics.” As a result, he lacks the edge one might encounter in a Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene novel on the same, or a similar, theme. Yes, he hates what’s going on, but for the longest time, he simply wants to side-step it. No existential angst here; rather, Stahl is a man of moderate self-opinion and no special gift for anything other than professional acting and relatively sincere seductions.
Paris? What can one say? Bring in the mists, the shadows, the little side streets, the cafés, the tatty hotels and the grand hotels, the Seine, just walking and looking at the opposite sex passing by...It’s a good city, perhaps the best city, for a novel to unfold, and Furst is excellent in summoning its spirit to the fore.
Of course, a Furst novel generally tends to find Hungary and at least the flanks of the Balkans, and that’s in this book, too. Part of the movie has to be shot in an old Hungarian castle; not a good place for Stahl to be since by that point in the plot, he’s become a player in espionage and a marked man.
Thankfully, Furst decides not to depict the American diplomat in Paris who draws Stahl into anti-German activities as the typical back-slapping, no-nothing, insensitive clod who shows up in book after book, movie after movie. This second secretary shows restraint, caution, and good judgment as things get more and more complicated for Stahl.
Many of the novel’s scenes are driven by dialogue that’s just right and little reactions, physical and emotional, that are just right. There’s subtlety here. The good characters, at least, have a sense of both conscience and consequences. They’re careful, knowing that in a very short time, the Germans will abandon political warfare for military warfare.
No doubt certain things worked out well for some people almost trapped in Europe by WWII. Not every novel from this time and place has to end up in personal disaster, even though the continent itself met exactly that fate as a whole. This is my way of fleshing out just a little bit of what I meant earlier when I indicated there is some optimism in this book. For a lucky few, with the right connections and access to sufficient funds, escape was possible. I’m not 100% taken with the good fortune of the lucky few, however, so that diminished the overall impact of MISSION TO PARIS for me.
As compensation, one intriguing, self-possessed double-agent does get pushed out into the cold, and so she, Olga Orlova, is the character I value most. In fact, we never discover what happens to her, and I like that. It seems truer to the masses of dead Germany forced on a frightened and disbelieving world.
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