THE ENGINEER by Author Jan Kuśmirek:
The annals of history usually record the victors of the Second World War – the ‘saviours of freedom’, no less – as a triumvirate of nations.
But though the combined forces of the Americans, British and Russians did eventually overwhelm Hitler and the Axis powers in 1945, there was a fourth country that made the ultimate sacrifice to halt the advance of Nazism, fascism and communism.
The Engineer is the story of that country – Poland – as experienced by central character and novice British spy, Teddy Labden.
Teddy Labden is the adopted name of Tadeusz Labycz, or Tadek for short. The novel opens during his childhood in the idyllic but tough countryside of Calgary, Canada. From an early age, he starts to pick up fragments of his family's proud past fighting the Bolshevik invasion and is taught by his parents to be proud of his Polish heritage. With a natural aptitude for engineering, Tadek – or ‘Teddy’ as he becomes known in Britain - is accepted to Cambridge on a scholarship and quickly develops a taste of the 30s good life.
With war looming between Britain and Germany, and having studied aircraft engineering, Teddy joins the Royal Air Force.
He is soon seconded into the Secret Service, discovering to his shock that his father was involved with the British espionage services before him. Being a Polish speaker, he is sent to Warsaw to keep tabs on the Polish Air Force and to obtain plans of their new aircraft.
It is here, while moving in new social circles, that Teddy begins to understand the true nature of alliances and political friendships.
Despite the Poles' hopes, guarantees by the French and British to counter a Nazi and Russian invasion prove empty when the time comes for action. So begins a war marked equally by Polish bravery in the face of the enemy and repeated betrayals by the Allied forces.
Despite subsequent communist-fuelled propoganda that portrayed the Polish forces as cowardly, the Polish 303 Squadron, for example, distinguished itself in the Battle of Britain alongside the RAF, downing more enemy craft than any other squadron. Yet though Polish soldiers laid down their lives for the Allied forces, when their fellow countrymen desperately needed their help in repelling the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, it was due to an Allied order that nothing was done.
The Polish Parachute Brigade, built specifically to drop into occupied Poland, was instead sent to Arnhem, Netherlands, to take part in Operation Market Garden. Even then, the troops were dropped behind enemy lines.
Another shameful episode in history is illuminated when Teddy is ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to infiltrate an occupied Poland to discover the truth of reports of genocide.
A cynical Britain ultimately suppresses the Russian-led extermination of Polish intelligentsia while flagging up the Nazi's Jewish holocaust.
For, as the novel reveals, the loyal Poles - who constantly lived up to their motto “For our freedom and yours" by fighting the red threat - are sold out by the UK (and America) in an attempt to woo the Russians.
The greatest act of treachery is in the suspected assassination of Polish leader General Sikorski as he tries to muster the diaspora of Polish forces together to take back the fatherland, handed on a plate by Churchill and Roosevelt to Soviet dictator Stalin. To both leaders, the stubborn but noble Sikorski is an embarrassment and a risk to the fragile Russian alliance.
In making it his mission to expose the truth behind the suspicious plane crash that killed Sikorski and, in turn, reveal red infiltrators in the highest echelons of the Foreign Office, a thoroughly disillusioned Teddy risks the ire of the British secret service as much as the Russian.
As the book ends, Teddy is forced to flee London after being framed for a honey-trap murder he didn't commit, off on a new quest on behalf of the exiled Polish secret service to investigate claims Sikorski's daughter is not dead as reported, but instead imprisoned in a Gulag.
Like the work of John Le Carre and Alan Furst, The Engineer is both a powerful and compelling thriller – and a thoroughly-researched snapshot of the era, giving the reader a detailed insight into the people and places, political and cultural climates, heroics and atrocities of the Second World War.
And like the best of Le Carre, the novel is morally complex, with 'good' and 'evil' being relative, not absolute terms – reflected in Labden's self-doubt and questioning as he sees the backstabbing going on all around him.
Positioned and repositioned on a deadly political chessboard, Tadek struggles to find his identity, made explicit by the way Teddy/Tadek fluctuates between his Polish and anglicised names.
Only at the end does he accept that he is proud to be Polish and vows now to fight for his country in the coming Cold War.
The book - the first of a proposed trilogy known as Chronicles of Love and Honour - is undoubtedly complex and, in its unflinching condemnation of the British and American forces, highly controversial.
Yet author Jan Kuśmirek expertly crafts the material to deliver an unashamedly intelligent work of historical fiction that serves as much as impassioned re-evaluation of the Polish war contribution as spy novel.
It is heavy reading, not least for the graphic torture scenes and barbarous war crimes committed against Poles, but because of this attention to detail.
No-one will ever forget the extermination of six million Jews in death camps such as Auschwitz and, after coming to the final chapter of The Engineer, readers will have the contemptible treatment of Polish freedom fighters burned into their hearts and minds.
Tadek will pick up the fight in Stolen Lives (a sequel to The Engineer) and, if Kuśmirek can make it half as insightful and gripping as The Engineer, then I can't wait to read it.
The Engineer (364 pages, Derwen Publishing) is out now.
Visit Goodreads for more reviews.
The axiom “History is written by the victors”, most commonly attributed to iconic British PM Winston Churchill, has never been truer or more clearly applied than in the case of the Second World War.
Though schoolchildren may be taught a fairytale of good Vs evil under the guise of Allied and Axis powers, the 'truth', if there is such a thing, is far from a simple ideological dichotomy.
Like the ever-changing borderlines of European countries at the time, decided far from the front line, the main players in this global conflict – Churchill, US President Roosevelt, Russian leader Stalin - shifted in position as time (and armies) marched on.
It is an irony, though not a pleasant one, that the real guiding principle for these figures both during and beyond the war can be summed up in a term borrowed directly from the German enemy - “Realpolitik”.
In Stolen Lives, by acclaimed author Jan Kuśmirek, these unpalatable machinations are exposed and laid before the reader like the opening of a mass grave of war victims.
Though by profession a noted cosmetician, perfumer and authority on aromatic medicine, Kuśmirek masterfully weaves little-known historical fact and speculative fiction to deliver not only a taut Cold War thriller but also a damning argument that leaves no side smelling of roses.
Being of Polish descent, the writer goes to great lengths to provide a view of the war and its aftermath as viewed through the eyes of a patriotic Pole.
Tadek “Teddy” Labden, a freelance agent working with the British, American and exiled Polish secret services, is on a mission to halt the expansion of the Soviet Union and threat of communism.
For Labden, it's personal – in the post-war reorganisation of Europe, the Russians have occupied his beloved Poland and enslaved its proud people, brutally initiating joint policies of ethnic cleansing and forced resettlement to Siberia.
Any person daring to challenge the legitimacy of the puppet Polish government or express pro-Western sympathies is exterminated.
After an attempted crossing of the Russian border with a ragged band of Polish freedom fighters results in capture, Labden ends up aiding the mysterious Witek with his overarching scheme to assassinate dictator Stalin before the Georgian tyrant starts a third world war.
It's an uneasy alliance and one fraught with danger. Russian agents will attempt to take Labden out before he succeeds in his first goal, of exposing communist moles within the British and American administrations, while achieving the ultimate objective of killing “Uncle Joe” will test his espionage skills to their limits.
Stolen Lives is the second novel to feature the adventures of Teddy Labden (following The Engineer) and the middle part of a planned trilogy, Chronicles of Love and Honour.
Since his first appearance in 2009, Labden has been embraced by the media as the “Polish James Bond” and with the standard motifs of double dealings, graphic torture scenes and numerous sexual encounters it's not hard to see why.
But to compare Kuśmirek's heavily researched and powerful plot strands, high-brow themes and beautifully crafted prose with the work of Bond creator Ian Fleming is to do the former a great disservice.
Though the novel is certainly a superior spy story that will grip the reader to the tension-packed finale, it is so much more.
It is a denouncement of the short-sighted expediency and betrayal on the parts of the British and Americans, who turned their backs on the Polish nation to placate Stalin in the blinkered belief he would bring stability to a war-torn continent.
It is a bloody exposal of a second, oft-buried genocide acted out against the Polish people and repudiation of the agitprop disseminated by communist sympathisers to turn hearts and minds against former allies.
It is a sobering lesson in the gulfs between western and eastern European culture and the use of history as a means of deceit rather than illumination.
Above all, it is a book honouring the many peoples of Poland and Ukraine who fought against the Soviet invasion of Europe and falling of the Iron Curtain. Those who, as the title suggests, had their lives stolen from them through hatred, ignorance and, most shockingly, indifference.
Though undoubtedly controversial in its message, Stolen Lives is an important novel that rises above its genre and deserves to be read by anyone with an enquiring mind.
History may be written by the victors, but as Jan Kuśmirek shows, it's not carved in stone. In these days when weapons of mass deception kill as many as ones of mass destruction, it's a vital point to remember.
Stolen Lives by Jan Kuśmirek is out now.Visit Goodreads for more reviews.
The Engineer features the Diaspora of Polish people which had taken place since the Polish Revolutions of the 1830’s. This Diaspora is called Polonia and a young Canadian represents the experience and feelings of immigrant communities of any nationality.
Stolen Lives is a book honouring the many people of Poland and Ukraine who fought against the Soviet invasion of Europe. From a Polish perspective this was only a continuation of the Bolshevik war of the 1920’s.
White & Red
White & Red outlines the story of the origins of the family of the hero of the first two novels and answers the questions implanted in the minds of readers in the first two novels. Of course as a standalone it raises questions which need the reader to progress to the other two! Read More >