Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)

I recently changed jobs.  My former boss's wife worked in the office with us and served as our personnel manager (on top of another franchise store she managed).  Near the end of my two-week notice period, she came to speak to me on random matters, likely in an attempt to ascertain why I felt leaving their firm for this new one was a good idea.  Of course, everything was extremely polite and friendly, and near the end, she mentioned that she was reading this book.  She made a number of comments on it, and expressed that it was based on a true story.  I felt that, given her enthusiasm, I should check it out and review it as an homage to them.  So first, let me say, my time spent at my previous firm was quite painful and uncomfortable, but in retrospect was not all that terrible.  I had to sink or swim on my own with little oversight.  Sometimes, oversight opens up criticisms.  I didn't need to contend with criticisms from my boss.  Criticisms were primarily made by opposing counsel, judges and clients, and few were leveled at my own performance.  Given the dozens of cases I handled in a little over 18 months, I only had regrets about the way I handled one or two.  This is not the place to write about my legal career, but as I consider this an homage, I felt a word was in order.

The Paris Architect is a work of historical fiction.  It is about an architect, Lucien Bernard, who is commissioned by a rich businessman, Auguste Manet, to design hidden rooms in which to hide Jewish people in the Vichy-era of 1940's Paris.  It is not based on a true story, but Belfoure admits that its basis in fact is transposed from an earlier historical era, when architects designed hidden rooms for priests that refused to join the Church of England [note I am completely wrong about this and it was in fact the reign of Elizabeth I and not Henry VIII and I am confusing Thomas More with more contemporary counterparts].  Overall, my feeling on the novel is that it tells a pretty good story, but is so far from a perfect novel that I can only half-heartedly recommend it.  There are a few scenes in it that are excellent, but a few great scenes do not make a perfect novel.

For example, Belfoure is at his best when he is describing the "dark embrace before death":

"Geiber slid under the stairway, letting it fall back into place with a heavy thud.  Sliding next to Miriam, he fastened two bolts that locked the stairs in place.  He was breathing so heavily he thought he would pass out.  His back was against Miriam's chest, and he could feel her heart pounding.  He moved the bag up by his chest, laid it on its side, and unlatched it.  Miriam placed her arm over her husband's body and tightly grasped his hand.  She hid her face against the back of his head.  For just a fraction of a second, it made him forget about the approaching danger.
Such a warm, comforting feeling, thought Geiber, like they were back in their big bed at home snuggling under the goose down duvet.  It was mostly airless and pitch black in the cramped space under the stairs, but the mattress they were lying on was quite comfortable, and because the stairs were almost two meters wide, the Geibers could fully stretch out their legs.  The underside of the steps was just centimeters from Geiber's face, so he could smell the wood.  They could do nothing now but wait, seconds passing like hours." (108)

He is at his worst with some of the dialogue and character development.  While I think Lucien's "arc" is one of the best things about the novel, almost every single other character is somewhat one-dimensional (however,  I did believe Herzog was interesting, as I was kept guessing whether or not he was really a "stereotypical good Nazi" character).  Lucien's wife, Celeste, shows signs of being one of the more interesting characters.  However, (I am not giving anything away by spoiling this) Lucien cheats on her, shamelessly, and then the reader discovers that she is also having an affair, and then she leaves him, and that's pretty much that.  Lucien does meet someone new, and the story has one of the happiest endings I have ever read.  It's a nice ending and perhaps my suspicious attitude towards that says something about the books I read.

Recently I heard my youngest sister mention that she had been reading The Zookeeper's Wife and then I randomly saw a preview on TV for the movie, and it appeared to have very similar subject matter to this book.  Seizing on this coincidence, I have asked my sister to review that book, and have given her about a month for a deadline, and we will see if it comes off or not.  But then there is even a zookeeper subplot in this book, briefly:

"He was a zookeeper and told his cousin that Professor Trenet could hide for a while in one of the unused cages in the section of animal houses that were completely shut up.  Despite the food shortages, the zoo was kept up during the Occupation, mainly for the benefit of the German soldiers.  The animals ate better than most Parisians.  Now Juliette was living in a concrete den behind the empty lions' cage at the zoo.  It was the enclosed space where the lions slept and ate when they weren't walking around in the cage in front of the public.  Even lions wants their privacy occasionally, thought Juliette.  Out of her savings, Juliette gave Dauphin five thousand francs, even though the man hadn't asked for payment.  If Juliette was found, the zookeeper would be arrested too, so she had insisted." (183)

Now at a brief glance that book does appear to be more based on a true story than this one, and that one came out in 2008.  Perhaps Belfoure merely intended the scene as a brief, knowing reference, or perhaps it is entirely coincidental, but I had to note it.

In any case, I do not know what else to say about this book.  One of the excellent scenes to which I referred earlier involves a hiding place behind a fireplace.  Anybody who has read this novel will immediately know what I am talking about and remember it as quite horrifying.  This sequence is expertly crafted, and to speak more generally about this story (and this has been a very general review and certainly not one of my finest, but the book is due back in about an hour and these past few weeks have been strange, and difficult to find time to write), it's not a bad story.  There are just a lot of cliches within it.  The pacing is pretty fast, and sometimes certain characters or situations get short shrift, but generally, it's a story about getting into bed with the enemy, while outsmarting them and trying to achieve a greater good.  I can't remember all of the books I have read about the Holocaust (obviously Night comes to mind, and a book called Briar Rose that I had to read in high school) but they are always difficult reads.  Night is obviously a classic, and I seem to remember finding more to appreciate about Briar Rose.  Nevertheless, Belfoure creates a few moments of real menace, and the reader should ultimately be satisfied after being first turned off by Lucien, then rooting for him later.  Even though I am glad there is a happy ending, I do not think it is very realistic.  This also reminded me of Inglorious Basterds--in particular, the opening scene. and some of the scenes in Paris.  I would recommend this book to architects that design secret rooms, and people that sometimes feel guilty about their benefactors.  I did not feel it was a complete waste of my time, but it begs the question whether writers should attempt to write about the Holocaust from a speculative position.  There are few survivors left, and those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and all that with the President we have elected and the alt-right (thankfully the sieg-heiling seems to have died down), but this is not the book to cite as a document relevant to our current socio-political atmosphere.  It's a good old fashioned suspense story, and if you don't expect too much out of it, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.


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