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.