Maria, a woman who at one time must have been very beautiful, contacts the Jewish director of an institute for Chinese studies and presents an old shoebox stuffed with papers and notebooks. By the time he has a chance to look at them, the woman is dead. These incredible journals describe the life and times of one Fayvel S, a.k.a. Pavel, a.k.a. Paul, a Jewish ‘businessman’ with connections to the Chinese underworld, Jewish gangland, and various other shady enterprises.
As the Holocaust is sweeping through Europe, Fayvel receives word in China. With Mei Ling, a stunning but dangerous and unstable assassin, and Walter, a gay ex-boxer, as bodyguards, Fayvel travels into the heart of the conflict. He meets Maria, an innocent, sort of a ‘Jewish Viennese Princess.’ There begins a madcap tale of intrigue, betrayal, love, war, death, and mangled history.
Without trivializing the Holocaust, Philippe Smolarski manages to entertain and also enlighten. The writing seems informal and folksy but still conveys the backdrop of grim reality. The Warsaw Ghetto is seen from a different, almost comic, perspective; yet the horror is there.
The frame tale — elderly Maria bringing the tattered journals to the council — works on two levels: the resolution for the protagonists is revealed in advance, and emotional distance is established. The comic and bizarre elements also reinforce that distance, allowing the reader to enjoy the story, and only later think about the setting.
This book should be read for entertainment: the love story of Fayvel and Maria, with tragicomedic undertones; the spy vs. spy romp across Poland, Germany, France, Spain and elsewhere; Fayvel, using his wits, and moreover, chutzpah rather than brains, manages to stay a step ahead of the Nazis most of the time. With fascinating invented characters and historical figures used fictitiously, Philippe Smolarski has created a truly satisfying tale. Appendix.