THE PARIS ARCHITECT by Charles Belfoure
“Before I give you information about the project, let me ask you a personal question,” Manet said. “How do you feel about Jews?”
Review by Jana L. Perskie Â (DEC 8, 2013)
It is Paris in the spring of 1942. Paris, the glorious “City of Lights” is even more wondrous in the springtime….but not for the French, not in 1942. It is the second year of the victorious Nazi occupation, and the French are struggling to get by. There are economic problems with the payment of the costs of a three-hundred-thousand strong occupying German army, which amounts to twenty million Reichmarks per day; lack of food for French citizens – the Germans seize about 20% of the French food production, which causes severe disruption to the household economy of the French people; the disorganization of transport, except for the railway system which relies on French domestic coal supplies; the Allied blockade, restricting all imports into the country; the extreme shortage of petrol and diesel fuel; (one walks or rides a bike); France has no indigenous oil production and all imports have stopped; labor shortages, particularly in the countryside, due to the large number of French prisoners of war held in Germany. And then there was the Jewish problem.
Approximately 49 concentration camps are in use in France during the occupation, the largest of them at Drancy. In the occupied zone, as of 1942, Jews are required to wear the yellow badge. On the Paris MÃ©tro Jews are only allowed to ride in the last carriage. Thirteen thousand one hundred fifty-two Jews residing in the Paris region are victims of a mass arrest by pro Nazi French authorities on 16 and 17 July 1942, known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, and are transported to Auschwitz where they are killed.
Parisian Lucien Bernard is a struggling architect, trying to make a name for himself. He is just trying to earn a living, gain some respect in his chosen field and stay alive. He hates the Germans but has little feeling for the plight of the Jews. Since the German occupation, all work has dried up unless it is for the Nazis.
As the book opens he is on his way to an appointment when a Jewish man is gunned down by a German soldier right in front of him. His main concern is that he not be splattered with blood because he has an important appointment with Auguste Manet, a potential client and wants to make a good impression. He also wants to arrive on time.
“Lucien had learned early in his career that architecture is a business as well as an art, and one ought not look at a first job from a new client as a one-shot deal but rather as the first in a series of commissions.”
This job has much potential. “Monsieur Manet had money, old money. He was from a distinguished family that went back generations.” And Manet was in an excellent position to obtain German contracts. Manet offers Lucien two commissions. He cannot take one without the other. One is for a large factory – to design a new Heinkel Aircraft Works, the other is to construct a secret room in which to hide someone. A room that will never be discovered no matter how well a house is searched; rather like the “priest holes” of yore. Lucien needs the money and wants the contracts that this relationship might bring. He accepts.
Lucien’s first hiding place is inside a Doric column. The actual work is carried out by a German named Herzog and another man. Both have worked for Manet for years and are entirely dependable. He begins designing more expertly concealed hiding spaces -behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe – detecting possibilities invisible to the average eye. But when one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal, he can no longer deny reality.
Lucien’s Faustian bargain with the Third Reich is central to the plot. His moral dilemma between his art and his humanity leads him to decision making and life threatening choices. The architect is not the hero here. His actions are not heroic. He undertakes each “hidey hole” design project because he also receives generous monetary recompense and is awarded German engineering projects as a part of the bargain. The “heroes” are the individuals – a Catholic priest, a wealthy Jew, a Parisian fashionista and a German soldier, who, despite the risk of certain death, step up and do something/anything to thwart the actions of the Gestapo.
Lucien is a character who changes as the novel moves, but not without struggles and betrayals. What he is doing is very, very dangerous and there is one German who is determined to capture this man who tricks and deceives the Germans. Â Lucien may be somewhat detestable in the beginning with his philandering, his off-handed anti-Semitism, and his greed, but he undertakes a monumental metamorphosis which strips the negative influences from his life and allows his true self to shine through. That may sound corny but it is true. In that aspect, The Paris Architect is a beautiful story of change and growth.
Charles Belfoure is an an author and an architect. Because of his architectural background and insight to the human soul and spirit, he has the ability to shape characters the same way he might craft buildings. The architect’s skill of seeing through to the skeleton of a building must have imbued him with the power to reveal the humanity in each of us.
Just a bit of historical information about the book. Mr. Belfoure has stated that he got his idea about the hidey-holes from Elizabethian England. Priest holes or hidey-holes were secluded or isolated places; hideaways. The term was given to hiding places for priests built into many of the principal Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by law in England, from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. The effectiveness of priest holes was demonstrated by their success in baffling the exhaustive searches of the priest-hunters. Search-parties would bring with them skilled carpenters and masons and try every possible expedient, from systematic measurements and soundings to the physical tearing down of paneling and pulling up of floors. It was common for a rigorous search to last a week, and for the priest-hunters to go away empty handed, while the object of the search was hidden the whole time within a wall’s thickness of his pursuers. He might be half-starved, cramped, sore with prolonged confinement, and almost afraid to breathe lest the least sound should throw suspicion upon the particular spot where he was immured. Sometimes a priest could die from starvation or by lack of oxygen.
I was immediately immersed in this unusual novel and highly recommend it.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 46 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Sourcebooks Landmark (October 8, 2013)|
|REVIEWER:||Jana L. Perskie|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Charles Belfoure|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More on fiction based on historical Paris:|
- The Paris Architect (October 2013)