The Paris Architect

Written by Charles Belfoure

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung


The Paris Architect
Alison and Busby
RRP: £7.99
Released: August 20, 2015
Pbk

Lucien Bernard is the eponymous protagonist of Charles Belfoure's first novel, a fan of the Bauhaus and art deco movements, who is unhappy with his lack of social success but also scared of opportunity in case he fails.

He has not experienced total failure, though, as he has managed to keep his glamorous mistress even after the Nazi forces have conquered the city and encouraged many Parisians to become horizontal collaborationists. We meet him just as he has discovered what the fall of his city has meant – innocent people suffering terrible deaths in the street – even while he is on his way to the meeting that could put business his way to ensure that he can maintain his lifestyle under the occupation.

Lucien has the opportunity to build the big, light, sweeping factories that his architectural hero Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus recommends. Unfortunately, for a patriotic Frenchman, such factories are being built to supply the German war machine with its tools. Not so good, either, for Lucien's blood pressure is that he has gained the contract as the corollary to another piece of work, to construct hiding places for Jewish refugees, in the way that Elizabethan carpenters constructed priest-holes in English homes centuries before.

With so much of French society being viciously anti-Semitic, Lucien must learn to dissemble. He has more to learn, too, as the construction of hiding places is not something taught at college, and while the refugees in hiding face death if discovered, the very nature of their hiding places means they can be death-traps in other ways. It has been said that a surgeon can bury his mistakes while an architect can only advise his client to plant vines, but Lucien, when things go wrong, as once they do, has bodies to dispose of with no legal means. And reparations to make to those still living.

Author Belfoure takes a sweeping point of view, so we see Lucien's life, the point of view sometimes swapping to the home life of those with whom he has made contact, and then, to heighten tension, swapping to the Gestapo, SS and army officers who have taken the hunt to heart. When they realise that there is intelligence in the hiding and the construction of the hiding places, their malevolence shows no mercy. The hunters are held back only by idle inferiors, rivalry between forces, and their personal lusts.

We know that Lucien is a lustful person himself, but Belfoure has let us see that mistress Adele has more lovers among the occupiers, and in turn Adele has introduced Lucien to more women who seem happy to accommodate him. The question then becomes who might those lovers be accommodating in their turn? What will it mean for Lucien? It means more risk, of course, and the need to escape, which is attempted with echoes of the end ofCasablanca, though this time it is partly enabled by a joint interest in architecture rather than friendship.

Rick's friend at the end of Casablanca was, of course, a police officer, which a sentence near the beginning of The Paris Architect might make you think the same was going to be true: 'The Germans used the French against the door', but that is not what happens: it is the Germans who make all the raids that concern Lucien. Germans and French converse with no difficulty and no sign of a language barrier. Lucien continued his architectural studies in Germany but surely not all the other Parisians were so fluent? And there are a lot of asses being covered and kicked. It gives the impression that Charles Belfoure has not completed his work as well as Lucien completed the hidey-holes which allowed his refugees to survive a raid and round-up; that is to say, a weakness in the final edit.

Thrillers set in wartime France seem much less common than those set in Germany. There is J Robert Janes's St-Cyr and Kohler series, which he has resumed recently after a ten year hiatus, and not much else that I can think of. For readers of fact, Max Hastings has just published his latest war-time history, The Secret War: Spies, Codes And Guerrillas 1939-1945, which may have something of interest.

To start off a music riff, though: I doubt that Lucien's taste in building styles has a necessary correlation to his ethical values. Take two real-life French architects and designers, who knew each other before the war, Olier Mordrel and René-Yves Creston: one ended the war convicted of treason, the other praised by General Montgomery. They, too, like Lucien, were modernists. What their biographies show, though, is that despite Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark borrowing the title, there is a wide gulf between Architecture and Morality.

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