The Foreign Correspondent
The Foreign Correspondent is the ninth of Alan Furst’s World War II-era spy novels. His books have often been compared to those by such suspense novelists as Eric Ambler, John le Carré, and Alistair MacLean. In the poetic diction of Furst’s prose, the realism of his plots, and his focus on characters rather than missions, however, Furst belongs in the same class as British writer Graham Greene. Each of the nine novels is set between the late 1930’s and the end of World War II, and, with one exception, Furst’s main characters are always Europeans. Rather than populating his stories with British or American “saviors” against the fascists, he instead uses people whose worlds have been destroyed by fascism or communism. The characters are never “superspies” who are fighting against mad scientists bent on world domination (as one sees in the James Bond films) but are regular men and womenjournalists, ship captains, soldiers, film directorscalled upon to perform services that in ordinary times would be mundane but in the context of their war-torn world are extraordinary and dangerous.
Many of Furst’s novels are fascinated with the game of détente played between fascismas instituted by Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Francisco Franco in Spainand communism as practiced by Joseph Stalin. As Furst reveals over the course of his novels, the entire history of wartime Europe hinges upon the eventual falling out between Stalin and Hitler and the hesitation shown by the United Kingdom and the United States in getting involved in the budding world war. The Foreign Correspondent depicts the growing monster of fascism and the slow march to world war, and it also relates the mounting frustration of those isolated, few people committed to combating its advance.
The thorny complexities of the novel are partly spelled out by the curious heritage of the protagonist, Italian émigré Carlo Weisz. He is a native of Trieste, which was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until 1919; like the city, he “was half-Italian, on his mother’s side, and half Slovenianlong ago Austrian, thus the nameon his father’s.” A product of the best university in Italy, Weisz was able to perfect his English during graduate study at Oxford. After suffering as a journalist under Mussolini’s rule until 1935, he finally has made his way to Paris, where he has worked for the past few years as a foreign correspondent for the British news agency, Reuters. In many ways, life is not much simpler for Weisz in France than it was in Italy. In Paris, he is a part of a small underground group working against Mussolini’s fascism by publishing the clandestine propaganda newspaper, Liberazion (or Liberty), one of hundreds of small resistance papers produced by Italian intellectuals who have fled their country. The danger of this enterprise is spelled out from the beginning of the novel, however: The writers and editors of Liberazione have been targeted by Mussolini’s secret police, active even in Paris, and the novel opens with their assassination of the editor Bottini and his lover Madame LaCroix, the wife of an antifascist French politician. With the execution of Bottini, framed to look like a suicide, the fascists manage to kill a dissenter, defame him and his cause, and cast doubts on the veracity of the politician.
Furst is often interested in the kind of people who capitulate when faced with occupation and oppression, and he is even more interested in those characters whoalmost unwillinglyfind that they are unable to surrender. Like most Furst characters, Weisz wants to help the cause and work against the forces of totalitarianism, but also like most Furst characters, he is not a two-dimensional heroic figure of the sort one encounters in espionage films. Like many of his predecessors, he is reluctant to commit too fully to his cause, at first because of a reasonable concern for his own safety. Also reminiscent of earlier protagonists, chance, human connections, and the very makeup of his personality conspire to pull him in further than he would have believed, despite the very real dangers. Finally, like those prior characters, his reason for political commitment is often, at root, a personal one....
(The entire section is 1750 words.)