I really like the phrase “living forward into history,” partially because I coined it (I think), just after September 11. To me, it means that at every great juncture in world events, no one standing at that juncture knows what is going to happen, how the whole thing will turn out, or even that they are at a juncture, yet they keep right on making the large and small choices that will shape the future. It is easy for readers of history to forget that with the hindsight their knowledge gives them. (And it depends on whether George Santayana or Karl Marx’s take on history is right.) It also means that readers of history should have a greater measure of sympathy for people who don’t recognize the extraordinary times in which they live. Anyone who reads Alan Furst is continually reminded of the second.
The Foreign Correspondent is set in Paris in 1939. Italian journalist Carlo Weisz, who left Italy during the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists, is now working for Reuters, covering the Spanish Civil War and regional dog shows, or whatever assignment his relaxed editor sends his way. Weisz is also a contributor to Liberazione, an underground newspaper smuggled into Italy to counter Fascist propaganda. Paris is not a safe place for expatriates, as demonstrated by the murder of Liberazione’s editor, but Carlo agrees to take his place. In this new function he is approached by both the French police and British intelligence, who seduce him into serving their interests. Carlo is not without his own guile, though, and in return for his efforts on their behalf makes his own demands for both personal and patriotic gain. The dramatic tension of the story lies in the way Carlo treads the ethically murky path that he must follow while still maintaining his individuality. For the modern reader, there is also the tension of calendar pages turning over as we move towards September 1, when Hitler’s army crosses into Poland and ignites the war in Europe.
Carlo’s profession allows Furst to move him through pre-war Europe, so the reader gets a glimpse of life in several countries – the disillusionment and weariness of Spain at the end of the Civil War, the mass hysteria and righteous certainty of Nazi Germany, the cheerful anarchy that gave the Fascists fits in Italy. Everywhere he goes, though, there is a sense of clouds gathering, of Hobson’s choices confronting ordinary people, and of the futility of trying to individually oppose an onslaught of state power.
While Furst’s stories don’t have the action of a Robert Ludlum or the claustrophobia of a John le Carré, they occupy an important place that make them stand out from the rest of the espionage fiction crowd. His characters aren’t heroes, but they have the faculty of caring about something beyond themselves and their own safety. They take risks to serve their ideals, with a very real knowledge of the consequences of failure, and they try to search for and preserve the individual relationships that bring them a measure of happiness. At the same time, unlike the reader, they have no knowledge of the cataclysm that is about to engulf their world. Furst makes them live forward into history, and that’s the real power of his writing.
Check the WRL catalog for The Foreign Correspondent