[Marxism] Alan Furst’s ‘A Hero of France’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 5 16:46:31 MDT 2016

(My favorite living novelist, our generation's Eric Ambler.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, June 5 2016
Alan Furst’s ‘A Hero of France’

By Alan Furst
234 pp. Random House. $27.

On June 17, 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain issued orders to the French 
Army to cease fighting, signaling the capitulation of his country to the 
forces of the Third Reich. In short order, the German presence ­rapidly 
extended into every aspect of French life. France’s Jews began to be 
­rounded up in the notorious ­rafles, sent first to prison camps within 
France and ultimately to the east. Leftists were also put under 
surveillance, and frequently arrested and deported.

It’s against this backdrop that Alan Furst has placed the 15th of his 
highly acclaimed thrillers set in Europe during the 1930s and ’40s. “A 
Hero of France,” which follows five months in the life of a particular 
Resistance cell, begins in March 1941, nine months into the German 
occupation. The hero of the novel’s title, code-named Mathieu, is 
escorting a downed R.A.F. airman from the countryside to Paris so that 
he can be smuggled back to England.

Furst, who is known for his detailed research into both cat-and-mouse 
sides of occupied Europe, shows not just Mathieu and his comrades but 
also all kinds of Germans, including the police and the Gestapo. And he 
shows us the French punks who are ready recruits for the occupiers, not 
out of any particular ideology but because of the restless savagery 
young men on the margins often exhibit.

Mathieu’s cell includes a teenage girl who acts as a courier on her 
bicycle and two aristocratic women, Chantal and Annemarie. Aiding their 
efforts is Max de Lyon, the owner of a nightclub that caters to German 
officers, a Polish Jew who hides resistants in his club and puts Mathieu 
in touch with merchant marine toughs who spirit people out of the 
country for a fee. De Lyon even blackmails a German officer into aiding 
the escape of an endangered member of the cell.

Mathieu’s great gift is his ability to gauge another person’s character. 
“It’s one of the things I do,” he tells de Lyon, “make decisions about 
people, can they be trusted. I am good at it. And I’d better be, because 
I can be wrong only once.”

As the novel progresses, most of the ordinary people Mathieu and his 
companions encounter are quietly anti-German, eager and willing to lend 
a hand. Early on, gendarmes stop the train on which Mathieu and the 
R.A.F. man are traveling. When they slip away to a nearby locomotive, 
the engineer unquestioningly helps them. Later, a pair of tramps rescue 
one of Mathieu’s couriers after he has been shot, carrying him to a 
convent where the nuns “will help anyone who asks . . . . As for the 
Boche, well . . . don’t worry about the Boche.” A woman who deals in 
religious artifacts readily agrees to serve as a Resistance post office: 
“She smiled and shrugged. What will be will be.”

 From the novel, it seems as if a majority of the French are similarly 
inclined. In reality, although the numbers are hard to come by, very few 
were active resistants. It wasn’t until 1943, when Germany began 
conscripting Frenchmen for military and factory or farm work, that 
larger numbers engaged in active rebellion. Although the Germans 
routinely executed civilians to discourage resistance, we are spared 
such retaliation in “A Hero of France,” even after Mathieu and a 
companion kill two German soldiers.

Life under Nazi rule was severely circumscribed. Curfews in Paris were 
strictly enforced, and special permits were required to cross from 
German-controlled France into Vichy, the nominally free region of the 
country under Pétain’s collaborationist government. In the secret diary 
he kept throughout the occupation, Jean Guéhenno describes the near 
impossibility of getting such a travel permit. And in “Dora Bruder,” 
Patrick Modiano’s book about a Jewish teenager who disappeared during 
the war, the author makes us feel the claustrophobia of a city under 
constant ­surveillance.

Furst’s descriptions of occupied Paris are certainly sinister (“Eyes 
searching the darkness, he had to move slowly, pausing at doorways where 
he could hide if necessary, hurrying to cross a narrow street, and 
listening intently for the telltale sounds of the police patrols”), but 
his is a Paris where the people never seem to give up hope, where their 
love for France and for their beloved city inspires them to take defiant 

Furst’s novels are immensely popular, perhaps because, despite their 
European setting, they can be read in the tradition of the American 
western. Like Shane, Furst’s heroes tend to be loners — Marlboro men, we 
used to call them in the days of cigarette ads. They take on the burden 
of an entire city or country. And while they may work with a group, as 
Mathieu does, they carry the responsibility of that group on their own 

Like other Furst heroes, Math­ieu has a woman in his life, Joëlle. Yet 
he doesn’t tell her about his secret activities. Mathieu, Furst 
explains, “didn’t want her to be in love with him because it was 
possible that some night he wouldn’t come home and she would never see 
him again and he knew what that would do to a woman who loved you.”

We all hope in our secret selves that we would be risk-takers like 
Mathieu, that we would stand with truth and justice in dire times, that 
we wouldn’t keep our heads down, looking the other way when the police 
wagons passed by. And if we might not be Mathieu, then we’d at least 
hope to be like that railway engineer, giving the resistance fighter and 
his airman a ride into Paris, even if we knew we could be shot for it in 
the morning.

Sara Paretsky’s most recent novel is “Brush Back.”

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