The Foreign Correspondent
By Alan Furst
(Random House, 288 pages, $24.95)
The modern era is a blessed one for reporters. Able to reach a vast international audience and aided by stunning technology, reporters can quickly find themselves celebrities, deadlines and facts giving way to sensation and Vanity Fair spreads. Those lucky enough to live and work in Western democracies — protected by a whole host of forces that they regularly criticize — are free to thrash away at any institution at will. The whiff of a scoop is sufficient grounds for appearances on all sorts of hyperventilating TV shows, hosted by understanding and ever-nodding colleagues. Even better, if your fearless reporting happens to target those institutions detested by the media elite, well, they just might hand you a Pulitzer. When faced with a backlash, the reporter can quickly deem himself a martyr and glibly accept the wine toasts and book deals that follow.
Of course, life wasn’t always so easy. In the first half of the 20th century, meeting your deadline wasn’t always a metaphorical proposition. Unprotected by celebrity or governments, journalists often found themselves on the front lines in the ideological struggle between struggling democracy and rising totalitarianism that was tearing the European continent apart.
Offering some inducement, however, was the fact that the beating/imprisonment/murder scenario could be preceded by plenty of cigarettes, heiresses, and international intrigues. This sort of trifecta remains the literary specialty of Alan Furst, whose latest, The Foreign Correspondent, lends the trade some respectability and even hints at something once quaintly referred to as journalistic integrity. The novel, set in Furst’s nicotine-laced playground of 1938 Europe, is hardly a departure from his previous works; indeed, Furst seems unwilling to write about anything or anytime else. It is a most welcome holding pattern, as The Foreign Correspondent lives up to Furst’s self-imposed high standards while making the reader long for an a time when even jaded reporters could recognize that evil was very real and very much on the march.
Furst’s protagonist, Reuters’ Paris correspondent and Italian expatriate Carlo Weisz, is hardly a man of action — he recalls fleeing his homeland after seeing coworkers bloodied by fascist thugs. Preferring the more gentile forms of resistance, Weisz duels with Mussolini in print as moonlighting editor of a Paris-based broadsheet called Liberazione. It was a position he assumed reluctantly, due to his predecessors unfortunate run-in with a silenced revolver. Unlike those inclined to resistance by strict ideology, Weisz’s motivations remain somewhat amorphous throughout, best defined with some dour ribaldry:
“It’s easy for the Bolsheviks, they have their formulas — Marx says this, Lenin says that. But, for the rest of us, it’s not so cut-and-dried. We are fighting for the freedom of Europe, certainly, for liberty, if you like, for justice, perhaps, and surely against all the cazzi fasulli who want to run the world their way. Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, take you pick, and all the sly little men who do their work.”
Needless to say, cazzi fasulli is not a term of endearment. They seem to abound, however, in war-torn Spain where the reporting corps runs 410-8 for the crimson shaded fellows. Such revolutionary bias led the reporters of the day to ignore such atrocities as the slaughter of hundreds of priests and fellow revolutionaries by the Spanish “republicans” and their KGB minders, but did result in reams of scintillating propaganda.
Spain follows Weisz home, in the form of a cavalcade of intelligence agencies: the French Surete, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Il Duce‘s odious OVRA men. Furst writes of such spooks in the way we habitually imagine them: lithe partygoers who manipulate by day and drink port by night. Cliche perhaps, but few write them as well as Furst, who creates a shadowy world not populated by George Smileys but of tired and sometimes desperate men who have faith only in their own duplicitous natures. Those longing for the “civilized” spy game, wrenched away from us by the base savagery of our current opponents, will welcome the fictional representations, One doubts the social atmosphere of Baghdad or Khandahar is comparable to Weisz’s haunts in gay Paree.
These agents ask many things of Weisz: give us information, stop publishing, write a book. Juggling their requests, Weisz does what most would do: he stays alive, a challenging proposition in a Europe already shattered by one world war and hurdling towards another. Such advancing dread is a hallmark device of Furst, who depresses the reader by pointing out that the assassinations and assaults that befall his characters are only the polite sideshow to the macro-horror.
And Weisz, a man secure in nothing but pessimism, is well aware of that. He is graphically reminded of such approaching horror in Berlin, where he reunites with a former lover who holds a nation-shaking secret. They lodge in a house left by rich “ghosts,” i.e. Jews, and walk past parades of fresh-faced Jugend screaming for war and conquest. “These children would not surrender,” he remarks, presciently.
A less elegantly drawn figure might scream himself hoarse at the inanity of it all. Indeed, that would seem to be the expected modern-day response. But Furst is fond of denying such avenues of relief to his characters; they must beat on as best they can, picking away at the marching injustices but powerless to stop their momentum. Perhaps a frustrating read, but the powerless are often faced with highly readable problems that heroes can predictably fight through. Weisz’s dilemma is not a simple one; the choice between ending his fight or selling his integrity poses issues fraught with life-ending pitfalls. His choice, less political and more emotional, is a surprising one coming from our otherwise restrained character. Still, it provides the book with its solitary fixture of hope.
Furst’s novels are wonderful — and The Foreign Correspondent is no different — precisely because his characters are so conflicted, so imperfect. Yet, these sometimes immoral men and women are faced with a titanic evil that compels them to act in ways atypically principled. One recalls H.L Mencken’s lament, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels.” Watching the resultant spectacle stands as the crux of the reader’s enjoyment, observing the twisting and turning as cynical characters decide whether to stand up or slink further back. We may wish for the great hero but, as denizens of a familiar epoch in which society slouches into relativism and excused evil, we will take what we can get.