««« back to CC Books

Alan Furst: Mission To Paris
Random House 2012

§ Ah, France... where communists and fascists compete to prove who is the most liberal. But what the heck -- great wine, great women, ridiculous cars... and where every traffic cop looks like Charles de Gaulle. Too bad the Vichy crowd shot some Americans when the Allies landed in Morocco in 1942. A misunderstanding, obviously, just like Vichy. That France was largely Nazified following its occupation by the Germans in June 1940 is well known, but just how did this situation evolve? Was it really the rape and subjugation of one sovereign state by another... or was there a culture of compliance within the French government and public gestated by fear, ennui, and Nazi money? Was this collaborationist desire obvious and manifest in Paris in 1938-39, say? This pre-WW II Euro-schizo landscape is what Alan Furst chooses to explore in his latest spy novel, Mission To Paris.

Furst: Mission to Paris

It's interesting, now and then kicks with a little bit of gun play... but not much. Bit of sex, bit of travel, and money is never really a problem. If you like the old black and white movies of the 1930s and 40s with their èmigrè stars and European settings (like Night Train To Munich), you'll like this novel. Furst has enough of a feminine feel to his writing to capture the escapist romance of such dramas, yet is masculine enough to make the brute action fit the political realities of the time. And what was the time? The old class order in collapse, phony aristocrats and nouveau riche and fantasy artists of all persuasions everywhere filling the sidewalk cafes and salons of the old Parisian art mavens. In 1938 you could be anyone you wanted in Paris, especially as the cultural mood craved fantasy. Movies cut across all classes, all minds. French Foreign Legion films such as Beau Geste, Le Grand Jeu, or La Bandera formed a sub-genre within action-romance drama which exploited the cross-cultural milieu of multiple nationalities and exotic locations.

So there's a lot of old movie noise in Furst's head when writing this novel. It could be an expression or even a symptom of mass hypnosis therapy. Our sense of the past has become pure fiction. Movies today, the Bible yesterday: all is mythology.

parable of the good movie star

To some extent, Mission to Paris is a play-within-a-play in the sense that the protagonist Fredric Stahl has to go into acting mode both on stage and off. He arrives in Le Havre mid-September '38, disembarks the Ile de France, and is promptly chauffeured to the Hotel Claridge in Paris in a new Panhard Dynamic (steering wheel in the middle) laid on by the local Warner Brothers rep. As a Hollywood movie star, he's as politically important as, say, a Cardinal from Rome; as he soon comes to realize, Hollywood is like the Vatican, a state onto itself, quite possibly religious, certainly propaganda. Naively he believes he can avoid the post-Depression politics of the new Europe... but as the groupies start queuing up for a piece of his action -- including the Ribbentropburo, the political propaganda service of the German Foreign Ministry -- he quickly learns that there are many ways to get screwed. The Nazis, for example, have their local advocates and domestic spies everywhere.

Who is Stahl exactly? He's forty, originally from Vienna, has an Oscar nomination or two, yet his career is stagnating. Why else would he have been shipped to Europe to make a movie about the French Foreign Legion? The title is sotto voce ironic: Après La Guerre. Of course there's always a war somewhere -- in this script it's Syria (a French possession), with Stahl's character Colonel Vadic trying to reach Turkey with a fake countess who he just might be in love with. Off stage, Stahl is hustling the costume designer, a sexy German èmigrè called Renate Steiner. In the end, their fate is very similar to that of the lovers in the movie, so it's a case of life imitates art when it's usually the other way around. Yet there's nothing phony about it, although at times the reader might wonder when the cameras are running and when they're not, especially in the Hungarian interlude. Sometimes the fiction overpowers the reality of the situation, the location, the suspension of disbelief. Yet --

There is danger, there is tension, always political, always moral. Stahl can always walk away, abandon the movie, return to the US... which might mean the end of his career, but at least he would be alive. He seeks advice from a consulate officer (Second Secretary) called J.J. Wilkinson and ends up as a spy almost by accident. The Nazis want him to come to Berlin, adjudicate a "mountain film" festival, will fly him in, give him 10,000 dollars and the Bismarck Suite at the famous Hotel Adlon... and a woman, should he need one. She turns out to be Olga Orlova, a Russian actress and established German star, a favorite of Hitler and Goebbels. Deep water film buffs/scholars will immediately recognize the character model: Olga Checkova, known on screen as Olga Tschechowa, who famously played a double-agent in Asew (1935) and, it seems, in real life.

And the protag Stahl? Some males might think he's a bit of a fop, like a guy who carries a tennis racket and no balls. As Cicero said about Caesar: "Methinks he wears his girdle too loose." Yet it would be unfair to dismiss Stahl as an American cultural mercenary invented in Hollywood by old Europe. He's very believable and Furst has certainly done his research on the type. Paul Muni is one Warner Brothers actor who hailed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire; other actors come to mind... Charles Boyer (French), Edward G. Robinson (Romanian)... even the writer-director Billy Wilder. When Wilder fled Nazi Berlin in 1933 he hung out in Paris for a period at the Hotel Ansonia, a haven for other proscribed German film figures such as Peter Lorre and Franz Waxman; in fact he directed his first film in Paris, Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed) before heading for Mexico and crossing into Hollywood.

The action is full of movie types: Moppi, Stahl's old boss from their days in Barcelona, who could easily be Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon or Kiki, the rich ingenue art model and party girl who could be Jean Harlow or Danielle Darrieux in just about anything.

Furst writes with a sense of elegance -- fluid, baroque, yet always within the American tradition of verbal economy. He's good. He isn't one of these writers who goes into "performance voice", who just lets it all hang out like a comedian in full improv mode. He writes tight like a movie, scenes that advance the action without a lot of verbal impressionism (where poetry is substituted for action). Here, his voice tilts towards high culture, with just a hint of Henry James, say, laundered through Graham Greene. The language captures the time when Hollywood English was stage English, hit me daddy five to the bar iambics, where everyone sounds like a butler even if he's a count from Vienna or a bum on Sunset Blvd. The art of declamation is still part of the style, the microphone still in the distance.

Warner Brothers made 51 films in 1938 and Après La Guerre wasn't one of them... but in this fictional world, perhaps you could call it a "lost film".

Mission To Paris: strong, escapist fare, yet authentic within its historical context. The ending is perhaps better managed than Spies of the Balkans, Furst's previous novel, although both share a strong period atmosphere. If you like planes, boats and trains fiction, you might like this --

Mission To Paris at Amazon: USA | Canada | UK | Australia

*Check out LR's novel RADIO BRAZIL »»

««« back to CC Books

CC Books | © 1998-2014 | Lawrence Russell