Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst

HarperCollins 2006  273 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


December 1938.  In Spain, the Republican government is in dire trouble from FrancoŐs violent Nationalists.  Mussolini, since founding the Fascist party in 1919, is now on a campaign to harass and kill his enemies--real and perceived--driving Italians who oppose him to seek refuge and jobs in France.  GermanyŐs belligerence seems focused on Czechoslovakia and Poland, and HitlerŐs aggression toward these weaker states seems almost a certainty.  In Paris, the bars are filled with foreign spies plotting against one another, while the French police attempt to sustain peace on the streets.  Unbeknownst to them all, the Pact of Steel between Germany and Italy will be signed in May of the following year.

Such is the background to Alan FurstŐs latest novel, Foreign Correspondent.

After hopscotching around the Continent in his most recent novels, Alan Furst has returned to Paris for his new novel, scene of his best work, 2002Ős The World at Night.  While Foreign Correspondent loses in comparison to the earlier novel, it features the narrative pleasures and, most of all, the romantic mood one has come to know and love in FurstŐs writing.

Carlo Weisz, age forty, Oxford-educated, native of Trieste, left his native Italy in 1935, disgusted with the political scene in his country.  Hired as a correspondent by Reuters, he leads a solitary existence, shuttled around Europe by his editors, from the war-torn Spanish countryside to the luxuries of the Adlon hotel in Berlin. 

In addition to being a reporter, Carlo is secretly a giellisti, a member of the Italian Resistenza in France.  He, along with other educated, displaced Italians, helps edit Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini newspaper composed in France and smuggled into Italy, where it is read and passed along. 

The LiberazioneŐs staff is under constant, surreptitious surveillance by members of OVRA, MussoliniŐs secret police, who skulk about nighttime Paris in fancy cars.  As the book opens, Bottini, one of LiberazioneŐs editors, is killed with his French upper-class lover by the OVRA, frightening the Liberazione staff and, owing to BottiniŐs loverŐs social prominence, drawing the attention of the French SžretŽ.

Alongside the cat-and-mouse between the fascist secret police and their opponents runs two other stories, WeiszŐs job with British intelligence writing a propagandistic biography of Colonel Ferraro, an Italian hero of the Spanish Civil War, and WeiszŐs renewed affair in Berlin with the elegant, gorgeous, rich, and married Christa Von Shirren.  Christa shares WeiszŐs opposition to fascism and tries her own hand at undermining relations between Berlin and Rome by supplying Weisz with information designed to embarrass both governments.

Liberazione comes under increasingly violent harassment; ChristaŐs allies in Berlin disappear suddenly, and Weisz thinks she may be next; the affable British intelligence agents become increasingly suspicious.  Furst deftly moves us from town to town, from bedroom to newspaper office to police station as Weisz tries to save his lover and his newspaper.

Longtime readers of Furst will recognize all the standard elements of his work: a man of middle years forced to choose sides, an exotic wealthy lover whose assignations always occur in elegant, abandoned apartments, and an increasingly disordered political environment that will prove fatal to those who donŐt act.  Like several of FurstŐs recent novels, Foreign Correspondent does not supply closure to all its narrative lines.  Instead, it leaves the reader, like the characters, coolly and sadly attempting to assess the fate of those destined to experience the horrific violence we all know is about to be unleashed on the innocent and guilty alike.