Foreign Correspondent

Title:                      Foreign Correspondent

Author:                Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (2006). The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel. New York: Random House

LCCN:    2006040417

PS3556.U76 F67 2006


Date Posted:      January 8, 2017

Review by Alex Berenson[1]

Like his characters, Alan Furst is a consummate professional, a veteran of the spy-writing business who knows the darkest recesses of Paris and Berlin. He and his creations communicate with glances, leave much unsaid, whisper when they must speak at all.

In Furst’s novel, The Foreign Correspondent, the time is 1939, the place Europe, with conflagration approaching as inevitably as a bomb falling from a Stuka. “There will surely be war,” Carlo Weisz, a Reuters reporter who is the correspondent of the title, thinks after attending the signing of the “pact of steel” between Hitler and Mussolini at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. “The people in the street would demand it, would kill relentlessly and, in time, would have to be killed. These children would not surrender.”

The killing has not yet begun, of course, but Weisz’s concerns about fascism are more than theoretical. An Italian, but no fan of Mussolini, he lives in exile in Paris. There he and other Italian émigrés put together Liberazione, an underground Italian newspaper that has attracted the attention of the OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police.

In the novel’s delicious opening scene, OVRA operatives murder Enrico Bottini, Liberazione’s editor, during his weekly tryst with the wife of a French politician. Liberazione must go on, so Arturo Salamone, a leader of the émigrés, asks Weisz to fill the vacancy. Weisz accepts, unhappily: “Eager barely says it,” he tells Salamone, deflecting his fear with sarcasm.

By rights, Weisz is now in mortal danger, and much of the rest of the novel concerns the cat-and-mouse game played by the émigrés and the secret police. Yet Weisz hardly seems terrified, and why should he be? Furst never bothers to make the OVRA much more than an acronym. Bottini’s murder is overseen by a man named Ettore, an unlovely OVRA commander who during World War I “served with distinction—officially recognized—in the purchasing office of the Ministry of War, in Rome.” A suitable villain. But after the opening Ettore disappears, turning up just once more.

Meanwhile, Weisz scrapes along in Paris, the archetypal foreign correspondent, single, middle-aged and lonely, watching the world through a smoked-glass window. The love of his life, the chestnut-haired Christa Zameny, has married a German aristocrat and lives in Berlin, forever lost. Or maybe not. For when Reuters sends Weisz to Berlin on a two-week assignment, he and Christa fall together so quickly and easily that the reader wonders why they would ever have allowed themselves to be apart.

Christa, whose hatred of fascism is even stronger than Weisz’s (never mind her diamond-studded swastika), has put herself in danger by helping the German resistance. Her peril forces Weisz closer to the British intelligence service, which has its own plans for him and Liberazione. Yes, the British want to increase Liberazione’s 2,000-copy print run to 20,000. Eventually, they ask Weisz for a favor, and he asks one of them in return.

Even by the standards of literary fiction, this is drama with a small “d.” But Furst cannot be blamed for preferring cafes to grenades; that’s his choice, and not every spy story needs to end with the hero scratching his head as he tries to figure out whether to cut the red wire or the green. The genre is infinitely flexible. Spying is the place where the crushing weight of politics and the thin reed of conscience meet, the place where governments, with their necessary amorality, bend and sometimes break the men and women who serve their ends. Graham Greene and John le Carré, the genre’s masters, rendered this complexity in heartbreaking detail.

Furst’s devotees, and he has many, like to compare him to Greene and le Carré. Furst surely knows his territory, and he shows his writing chops from the novel’s first sentence: “In Paris, the last days of autumn; a gray, troubled sky at daybreak, the fall of twilight at noon. . . .”

But beautiful writing alone does not make a novel great. The Foreign Correspondent lacks the moral depth, the anguish, that Greene and le Carré provide. No one in this novel, and especially not Weisz, ever seems close to despair, to falling in love with the wrong woman, to getting drunk and fighting, or even shouting, in the street. Weisz is more than two-dimensional, but he is not quite real either. He seems a wax figure, perfectly constructed, but without the grubby breath of life. He is most certainly not engagé, to use the word that Greene helped make famous in The Quiet American[2] and that Furst lifts here, presumably in homage.

And so this time around Furst has produced a curiously inert book that is missing both the percussive drive of more commercial spy novels and the fully realized characters of le Carré and Greene. It is an honest effort—Furst is too good a writer and too professional to offer anything less—and it has its pleasures, but they are served dutifully and without great vigor. No one will ask for a second helping of Carlo Weisz.

[1] Alex Berenson, Sunday Book Review, “Mussolini’s Enemies,” The New York Times (June 18, 2006) Alex Berenson, a reporter at The Times, is the author of a novel, The Faithful Spy [Berenson, Alex (2006). The Faithful Spy. New York: Random House]

[2] Greene, Graham (1955, 2004). The Quiet American. New York : Penguin Books