Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Foreign Affair

I just finished Alan Furst’s latest, The Foreign Correspondent. Furst is the author of several books dealing with espionage before and during World War II. The novels are generally unrelated, although Furst provides little touches of continuity as characters and locations from previous novels are sometimes mentioned in the current novels. The Brasserie Heininger, scene of an assassination in Furst’s first novel, always shows up with characters sitting under a mirror that still has a bullet hole from that night.

Carlo Weisz is an Italian émigré, a reporter for Reuters working in Paris in 1938 and 39. He also is the editor of an underground anti-fascist newspaper Liberazione, and both of his jobs put him in contact with spies from all sides of the conflicts that exist and the conflicts to come. The New York Times review complained of the lack of moral ambiguity in Weisz and The Foreign Correspondent, comparing it unfavorably in that regard to the novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarre. This is not a completely fair criticism because there are several moments when Weisz is presented with choices for actions which may lead to the people’s deaths. But the reviewer had a point—Weisz is an uncomplicated protagonist who wants Italy to be free from fascism and the woman he loves to be safe.

Carlo and his fellow émigrés produce plates in Paris, which are smuggled into Italy, printed, and the papers left in public places. The distributors are primarily teenage girls—a class least likely to be suspected by ORVA, the Italian secret police. Weisz becomes editor after the previous editor is assassinated by ORVA.

As war with Germany becomes more certain, and especially after Italy and Germany formally ally themselves to one another, the Sûreté and the British secret service become more interested in Liberazione and Weisz, each approaching him in very different ways. Why should they be so interested? Many reasons, not least is that publishing this clandestine resistance newspaper is part of the war to come, and any given copy is as important as a soldier’s bullet.

Furst makes this clear in one segment where he describes the production and distribution of the paper, from the delivery of the plates to its being read by a particular reader. In this case, the reader is a police lieutenant. He knows one of his men has brought it into the station, but doesn’t know which one, and not being a true-believer himself, doesn’t try to find out. Besides, he likes getting news unfiltered by the propaganda writers who write for the official newspapers. He respects Liberazione and the people who produce it—smart, accomplished, important people, who could have stayed in Italy and been important and rich fascists, but chose to resist. They are the kind of people who might be running the show if the fascists are kicked out. Mussolini will falter eventually, after all. Given this, he decides not to arrest a pair of brothers who he knew had illegally purchased a rifle. Because when Mussolini does falter, the brothers might need their gun.

I loved this detail—an underground paper doesn’t inspire revolutionary action, but rather inspires a small act of inaction that might in the future inconvenience the fascists.

This is classic Furst. None of his characters are going to change the course of the war. They are all foot soldiers, whose actions are, at best, tiny tactical victories. And it is nice that in this case, his foot soldier against fascism is a writer and editor.

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