Imagine your worst nightmare . . . A monster is chasing you and no matter where you run it is right behind. You try to escape but random bystanders send the monster your way. Just when you think all is lost, a kindly man helps you hide. Panic stricken by the nearness of the monster who is destroying the world around, so close you can hear it breathe, you remain safe in your hiding spot until it finally gives up and slinks away.
This is the scenario the French faced during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. While the Jews were the focal point, nobody was safe from the atrocities. Charles Belfoure is able to capture the terror of the times in his novel The Paris Architect. Taking place in 1942, the altruistic man who is willing to hide the escaping Jews until he can get them to safety is wealthy patron, entrepreneur Auguste Manet. The hero who designs the ingenious hiding spots literally blended into the woodwork is the architect Lucien Bernard.
Unfortunately, our hero is a real bastard – bad tempered and egocentric, whose deeds are primarily motivated by his own interests. Even considerate acts are self serving, not for the benefit of the receiver, but for the fulfillment of the giver. Thus Lucien Bernard, a self proclaimed architectural prodigy, agrees to help design munitions buildings for the enemy, so as to have the satisfaction of seeing his work completed. He admires how quickly the Germans bring his blueprints to life with shifts covering 24 hours and threats of bodily harm pushing the workers to extremes.
While the Boche regime gave little renumeration to French workers, the ingenious redesigns creating hidey holes as temporary havens for fleeing Jews paid quite well at a time when money was scarce and the items to meet daily needs were even scarcer. Lucien, brought up by an antisemitic father, doesn’t exactly despise the Jews, he just doesn’t think they are worth the sacrifice. Too many French were gunned down for aiding the runaways, even if their only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet Lucien gets a thrill out of deceiving the Nazis who he does hate. In the end, it isn’t hard for Manet to convince Lucien to use his talents for the greater good, in return for the appropriate compensation for this potentially lethal deed as well as a promise of the chance to see his designs, albeit for the German cause, come to fruition.
Some readers object to the gruesomeness of the detailed torture techniques used by Schlegel, the sadistic leader of the Paris Gestapo, in his desperate efforts to please his superiors by pinpointing the location of Janusky, an overly rich man who flaunts his wealth by assisting fellow Jews escape, but I feel these horrific acts help the reader experience the atmosphere of terror which was a part of the Parisian’s daily lives during this time period.
However, I did not appreciate how the general population of France was represented, especially those in the French Resistance. I feel the author was mislead by paying too much credence to the writings of John-Paul Sartre as his reference source. Ultimately, It became difficult to root for those who didn’t appear to have any redeeming characteristics and while we are supposed to boo the Nazis, we should also want the French to be successful in defeating their enemy. Of course, we are mostly seeing the story through Lucien’s eyes so that could explain the dismal point of view.
This attitude also lead to stereotypical characters such as vain women, cheating husbands, and the assumption that all members of the French Resistance were Communists. There were only a few sympathetic characters, such as Hertzog, the supportive German boss who admired Lucien’s work, the brave Jesuit Priest who laughed in the face of torture, and the Jewish escapees who captured our sympathy through their bravery and kindness in the face of almost certain death.
Despite these flaws, the story itself, while not great literature, was still compelling. The frenzied trepidation of hiding while the enemy is at hand invades the reader’s mind. Every time the Nazis approach, the reader is sure someone will be hauled away. It does make one grip their seat. Despite the recent glut of novels centering around the French Occupation, Belfoure provides a different approach which is hard to resist. Four stars.
The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein is a new genre for me, that of historical fantasy. Although you could label this as a novel dealing with the holocaust, it really is the story of a young girl named Kisci who lives in a small Jewish community bordering Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. At the age of twelve, her life is simple. Her biggest complaint is that she must wear her older sister, Istvan’s, hand-me-downs. Imre, her father, runs the local printing press, publishing whatever news he can glean from the radio. The powerful Rabbi puts a curse on their home when Imre refuses to keep his children away from the local school.
And thus the magic begins.
Enter Voros, a stranger in town. Kind Imre invites him to stay and enjoy some home cooked meals and hospitality. Kisci is drawn to Voros, who tells fascinating stories of travels throughout the world. She begs Voros to take her away with him when he leaves, but Voros has a mission. He has come to the village to warn them all of impending doom. Voros trained under a great magician and can do a little magic. Kisci feels a connection. They both have the same nightmare of a toothless man.
During the marriage ceremony for the Rabbi’s daughter, the event is disturbed by a woman who wants to know what has happened to son who was visiting family in Germany. Voros calls out that he is dead, and the Rabbi accuses him of cursing his daughter.
Thus begins the battle of magic – Rabbi vs Voros – an underlying theme which helps drive the story. Ironically, in the end, both leave the village vulnerable for attack.
Since life in the village is simple, the story itself is simple. The calm and soothing everyday life has been jarred by the effects of magic. We are not surprised when the toothless one comes and takes the villagers away. The horrors of death and the concentration camp are unfolded calmly. This is the way life is now. Kisci barely knows what is happening, she sleep walks through the trauma. There is a song about a stranger bearing magic who is known to rescue the prisoners. Kisci feels some hope, but by the time Voros finds her, she has given up and is barely alive.
And here the true magic is revealed through their love for one another, revealed in a most unusual way. Together they must defeat the Rabbi and the evil he has hidden in the temple.
Since the holocaust is such an unbelievable event, the magic within the story does not seem out of place. We want Voros to succeed in his quest, even though we know the Holocaust is coming and there is nothing he can do to stop it. We understand that the villagers do not believe that other human beings could harm them this way. Even as they march to their deaths, they can’t comprehend the evil being perpetrated. And we understand why Kisci’s mind goes blank at times. It is all too horrible. So, compared to this unreality, the magic makes sense.
Although I enjoyed the book, there were times when it was confusing, especially when the magic became intense. Mainly, I grew to love Kisci and root for Voros to help her survive the ordeal. The entire novel had a bitter sweet feel, both at the beginning and at the end. It was inbetween that we held our breath and waited for the “hard part” to be over.
I give this book three and a half stars.
Thank you to Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me to download this book in exchange for an honest review.