The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure (October 8, Sourcebooks Landmark) is generating a ton of pre-pub buzz. It is an October Indie Next Pick, a Library Journal starred review, and a National Reading Group Month Selection. The book’s description piques interest, undeniably. I have the final installment of a four part pre-publication sneak peek.
Check out the description below, read the previous installments (Beth Fish Reads – Part I , Erika Robuck’s Muse – Part II, and Devourer of Books – Part III), and then move on to read the final excerpt.
Excerpted Publisher’s Description: In 1942 Paris, gifted architect Lucien Bernard accepts a commission that will bring him a great deal of money – and maybe get him killed. But if he’s clever enough, he’ll avoid any trouble. All he has to do is design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man, a space so invisible that even the most determined German officer won’t find it. He sorely needs the money, and outwitting the Nazis who have occupied his beloved city is a challenge he can’t resist.
But when one of his hiding spaces fails horribly, and the problem of where to hide a Jew becomes terribly personal, Lucien can no longer ignore what’s at stake. The Paris Architect asks us to consider what we owe each other, and just how far we’ll go to make things right.
Written by an architect whose knowledge imbues every page, this story becomes more gripping with every soul hidden and every life saved.
THE PARIS ARCHITECT
Lucien thought this was an amusing comment that he was obliged to let out his great belly laugh, the kind that annoyed his wife but always delighted his mistress. But Manet didn’t laugh. His face showed no emotion at all.
“Before I give you a little more information about the project, let me ask you a personal question,” Manet said.
“You have my full attention, Monsieur Manet.”
“How do you feel about Jews?”
Lucien was taken aback. What the hell kind of question was that? But before giving Manet his gut response—that they were money-grubbing thieves—he took a deep breath. He didn’t want to say anything that would offend Manet—and lose the job.
“They’re human beings like anyone else, I suppose,” he replied feebly.
Lucien had grown up in a very anti-Semitic household. The word Jew had always been followed by the word bastard. His grandfather and father had been convinced that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the staff of the French Army headquarters back in the 1890s, was a traitor, despite evidence that a fellow officer named Esterhazy had been the one who’d sold secrets to the Germans. Lucien’s grandfather had also sworn that Jews were responsible for France’s humiliating defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, although he could never provide any real proof to back up this charge. Whether one hated them for betraying the country, for killing Christ, or screwing you over in a business deal, all other Frenchmen were anti-Semites in one way or another, weren’t they? Lucien thought. That’s the way it had always been.
Lucien looked into Manet’s eyes and was glad he’d kept his true feelings to himself.
He saw an earnestness that alarmed him.
“You’ve probably noticed that since May all Jews over the age of six are now required to wear a yellow Star of David,” said Manet.
Lucien was well aware that Jews had to wear a felt star. He didn’t think it was such a big deal, though many Parisians were outraged. Gentiles had begun to wear the yellow stars or yellow flowers or handkerchiefs in protest. He’d even heard of a woman who’d pinned a yellow star on her dog.
“On July 16,” said Manet, “almost thirteen thousand Jews were rounded up in Paris and sent to Drancy, and nine thousand were women and children.”
Lucien knew about Drancy. It was an unfinished block of apartment buildings near Le Bourget Airport that an architect friend, Maurice Pappon, had worked on. A year earlier, it became the main detention camp for the Paris region, though it had no water, electric, or sanitary service. Pappon had told him that Drancy prisoners were forced onto trains to be relocated somewhere in the east.
“One hundred people killed themselves instead of being taken. Mothers with babies in their arms jumped from windows. Did you know that, monsieur?”
Lucien saw Manet’s growing agitation. He needed to redirect the man’s conversation to the project and the twelve thousand francs.
“It is a tragedy, monsieur. Now what kind of changes did you have in mind?”
But Manet continued as though he hadn’t heard a word.
“It was bad enough that Jewish businesses were seized and bank accounts frozen, but now they’re banned from restaurants, cafés, theaters, cinemas, and parks. It’s not just immigrant Jews but Jews of French lineage, whose ancestors fought for France, who are being treated in this way.
“And the worst part,” he continued, “is that Vichy and the French police are making most of the arrests, not the Germans.”
Lucien was aware of this. The Germans used the French against the French. When a knock came at a Frenchman’s door in the middle of the night, it was usually a gendarme sent by the Gestapo.
“All Parisians have suffered under the Germans, monsieur,” Lucien began. “Even gentiles are arrested every day. Why, on the way here to meet you, a…” He stopped in mid-sentence when he remembered that the dead man was a Jew. Lucien saw that Manet was staring at him, which made him uncomfortable. He looked down at the beautiful parquet floor and his client’s shoes.
“Monsieur Bernard, Gaston has known you a long time. He says you are a man of great integrity and honor. A man who loves his country—and keeps his word,” said Manet.
Lucien was now completely confused. What in the hell was this man talking about? Gaston really didn’t know him at all, only on a professional level. They weren’t friends. Gaston had no idea what kind of man Lucien truly was. He could’ve been a murderer or a male prostitute,and Gaston would never have known.
Manet walked over to one of the huge windows that overlooked the rue Galilée and stared out into the street for a few moments. He finally turned and faced Lucien, who was surprised by the now-grave expression on the old man’s face.
“Monsieur Bernard, this alteration is to create a hiding place for a Jewish man who is being hunted by the Gestapo. If, by chance, they come here looking for him, I’d like him to be able to hide in a space that is undetectable, one that the Gestapo will never find. For your own safety, I won’t tell you his name. But the Reich wants to arrest him to find out the whereabouts of his fortune, which is considerable.”
Lucien was dumbfounded. “Are you insane? You’re hiding a Jew?”
Normally, Lucien would never speak so rudely to a client, especially an enormously rich one, but Manet had crossed into forbidden territory here. Aiding Jews: the Germans called it Judenbegunstigung. No matter how wealthy he was, Manet could be arrested and executed for hiding Jews. It was the one crime a Frenchman couldn’t buy his way out of. Wearing some dumb yellow star out of sympathy was one thing, but actually helping a Jew wanted by the Gestapo was sheer madness. What the hell had Lucien gotten himself into—or rather, what had that bastard Gaston got him into? Manet had some set of balls to ask him to do this for twelve thousand or even twelve million francs.
“You’re asking me to commit suicide; you know that, don’t you?”
“Indeed I do,” said Manet. “And I’m also committing suicide.”
“Then for God’s sake, man, why are you doing this?” exclaimed Lucien.
Manet didn’t seem put off by Lucien’s question at all. He almost seemed eager to answer it. The old man smiled at Lucien.
“Let me explain something to you, Monsieur Bernard. Back in 1940, when this hell began, I realized that my first duty as a Christian was to overcome my self-centeredness, that I had to inconvenience myself when one of my human brethren was in danger—whoever he may be, or whether he was a born Frenchman or not. I’ve simply decided not to turn my back.”
“Inconvenience myself” was a bit of an understatement under these circumstances, Lucien thought. And as for Christianity, he agreed with his father: it was a well-intentioned set of beliefs that never worked in real life.
“So, Monsieur Bernard,” continued Manet, “I will pay you twelve thousand francs to design a hiding place that is invisible to the naked eye. That is your architectural challenge. I have excellent craftsmen to do the work but they’re not architects; they don’t have your eye and couldn’t come up with as clever a solution as you could. That’s why I’m asking you for your—help.”
“Monsieur, I absolutely refuse. This is crazy. I won’t do it.”
“I’m hoping you’ll reconsider my proposition, Monsieur Bernard. I feel it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. And it’s just this one time.”
“Never, Monsieur. I could never agree…”
“I realize that making a decision that could get you killed is not one to be made on the spot. Please, do me the favor of taking some time to think about this. But I’d like to hear from you today by 6 p.m., at the Café du Monde. I know you need to make a closer examination of the apartment for you to decide, so take this key and lock the door when you finish. And now, monsieur, I’ll leave you to it.”
Lucien nodded and tried to speak, but nothing came out.
“By the way, at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, I’m signing a contract to produce engines for the Heinkel Aircraft Works. My current facilities are much too small to handle such a job, so I’m planning an expansion next to my plant at Chaville. I’m looking for an architect,” said Manet as he walked toward the door. “Know of one?”