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About the Author
Hometown:Sag Harbor, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Oberlin College
Read an Excerpt
The Pilava Local
In Poland, on the night of 11 September 1939, Wehrmacht scout and commando units–elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps–moved silently around the defenses of Novy Dvor, crossed the Vistula over the partly demolished Jablonka Bridge, and attempted to capture the Warsaw Telephone Exchange at the northern edge of the city. Meeting unexpected, and stubborn, resistance, they retreated along Sowacki Street and established positions on the roof and in the lobby of the Hotel Franconia, called for dive-bomber attacks on the exchange building, and settled in to wait for the light of dawn.
Mr. Felix Malek, proprietor of the Franconia, put on his best blue suit, and, accompanied by a room-service waiter, personally served cognac to the German soldiers at their mortar and machine-gun positions. He then descended to the wine cellar, opened the concealed door to an underground passage originally dug during the Prussian attack of 1795, hurried down Sowacki Street to the telephone exchange, and asked to see “the gentleman in charge.”
He was taken up a marble staircase to the director’s office on the fifth floor and there, beneath a somber portrait of the director–pince-nez and brushed whiskers–presented to the officer in command, a captain. The captain was an excellent listener, and the questions he asked inspired Mr. Malek to talk for a long time. Arms, unit size, insignia, the location of positions–he was surprised at how much he knew.
When he was done, they gave him tea. He asked if he might remain at the exchange, it would be an honor to fight the Germans. No, they said, perhaps another day. So Mr. Malek made his way through the night to his sister’s apartment in the Ochota district. “And what,” she asked, “were they like?”
Mr. Malek thought a moment. “Educated,” he said. “Quite the better class of people.”
Mr. Malek had not been thirty years an innkeeper for nothing: the defenders of the Warsaw Telephone Exchange, hastily recruited amidst the chaos of the German invasion, were officers of Polish Military Intelligence, known, in imitation of the French custom, as the Deuxième Bureau. The Breda machine gun at the casement window was served by a lieutenant from the cryptographic service, a pair of spectacles folded carefully in his breast pocket. The spidery fellow reloading ammunition belts was, in vocational life, a connoisseur of the senior civil service of the U.S.S.R., while the commander of the machine gun, feet propped on the tripod, was Lieutenant Karlinski, heavy and pink, who in normal times concerned himself with the analysis of Baltic shipping.
The officer in charge, Captain Alexander de Milja, was professionally a cartographer; first a mapmaker, later assistant director of the bureau’s Geographical Section. But Poland was at war–no, Poland had lost her war, and it was clear to the captain that nobody was going to be assistant director of anything for a long time to come.
Still, you couldn’t just stop fighting. Captain de Milja stood at the open window; the night air, cool and damp, felt especially good on his hands. Idiot! He’d grabbed the overheated barrel of the machine gun to change it during the attack, and now he had red stripes on his palms that hurt like hell.
4:20 a.m. He swept the façade of the hotel with his binoculars, tried–based on the proprietor’s intelligence–counting up floors to focus on certain rooms, but the Germans had the windows shut and all he could see was black glass. In Sowacki Square, a burned-out trolley, and the body of a Wehrmacht trooper, like a bundle of rags accidentally left in a doorway, weapon and ammunition long gone. To somebody’s attic. De Milja let the binoculars hang on their strap and stared out into the city.
A refinery had been set on fire; a tower of heavy smoke rolled majestically into the sky and the clouds glowed a faint orange. A machine gun tapped in the distance, a plane droned overhead, artillery rumbled across the river. War–fire and smoke–had made autumn come early, dead leaves rattled along the cobblestones and caught in the iron drain covers.
Captain de Milja was a soldier, he knew he didn’t have long to live. And, in truth, he didn’t care. He was not in love with life. One or two things had to be taken care of, then matters could run their course.
The director’s telephone was, naturally, of the very latest style; black, shiny, Bakelite plastic. De Milja dialed the military operator he had installed in the basement.
“Sergeant, have you tried Tarnopol again?”
“Can’t get through, sir. I’ve been up to Wilno, and down to Zakopane, just about every routing there is, but the whole region’s down. We’re pretty sure the lines have been cut, sir.”
“You’ll keep trying.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
He replaced the receiver carefully on its cradle. He had wanted to say good-bye to his wife.
Reading Group Guide
The Research of Alan Furst’s Novels
Alan Furst describes the area of his interest as “near history.” His novels are set between 1933-the date of Adolf Hitler’s ascent, with the first Stalinist purges in Moscow coming a year later-to 1945, which saw the end of the war in Europe. The history of this period is well documented. Furst uses books by journalists of the time, personal memoirs-some privately published-autobiographies (many of the prominent individuals of the period wrote them), war and political histories, and characteristic novels written during those years.
“But,” he says, “there is a lot more”-for example, period newsreels, magazines, and newspapers, as well as films and music, especially swing and jazz. “I buy old books,” Furst says, “and old maps, and I once bought, while living in Paris, the photo archive of a French stock house that served the newspapers of Paris during the Occupation, all the prints marked as cleared by the German censorship.” In addition, Furst uses intelligence histories of the time, many of them by British writers.
Alan Furst has lived for long periods in Paris and in the south of France. “In Europe,” he says, “the past is still available. I remember a blue neon sign, in the eleventh arrondissement in Paris, that had possibly been there since the 1930s.” He recalls that on the French holiday le jour des morts (All Saints’ Day, November 1) it is customary for Parisians to go to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. “Before the collapse of Polish communism, the Polish émigrés used to gather at the tomb of Maria Walewska. They would burn rows of votive candles and play Chopin on a portable stereo. It was always raining on that day, and a dozen or so Poles would stand there, under black umbrellas, with the music playing, as a kind of silent protest against the communist regime. The spirit of this action was history alive-as though the entire past of that country, conquered again and again, was being brought back to life.”
The heroes of Alan Furst’s novels include a Bulgarian defector from the Soviet intelligence service, a foreign correspondent for Pravda, a Polish cartographer who works for the army general staff, a French producer of gangster films, and a Hungarian émigré who works with a diplomat at the Hungarian legation in Paris. “These are characters in novels,” Furst says, “but people like them existed; people like them were courageous people with ordinary lives and, when the moment came, they acted with bravery and determination. I simply make it possible for them to tell their stories.”