An epic story of romantic love, love of country, and love of freedom--the story of a secret war fought in elegant hotel bars and first-class railway cars, in the mountains of Spain and the backstreets of Berlin. It is an inspiring, thrilling saga of everyday people forced by their hearts' passion to fight in the war against tyranny. By 1938, hundreds of Italian intellectuals, lawyers and journalists, university professors and scientists had escaped Mussolini's fascist government and taken refuge in Paris. There, amid the struggles of émigré life, they founded an Italian resistance, with an underground press that smuggled news and encouragement back to Italy. Fighting fascism with typewriters, they produced 512 clandestine newspapers. The Foreign Correspondent is their story. Paris, a winter night in 1938: a murder/suicide at a discreet lovers' hotel. But this is no romantic tragedy--it is the work of the OVRA, Mussolini's fascist secret police, and is meant to eliminate the editor of Liberazione, a clandestine émigré newspaper. Carlo Weisz, who has fled from Trieste and secured a job as a foreign correspondent with the Reuters bureau, becomes the new editor. Weisz is, at that moment, in Spain, reporting on the last campaign of the Spanish civil war. But as soon as he returns to Paris, he is pursued by the French Sûreté, by agents of the OVRA, and by officers of the British Secret Intelligence Service. In the desperate politics of Europe on the edge of war, a foreign correspondent is a pawn, worth surveillance, or blackmail, or murder. The Foreign Correspondent is the story of Carlo Weisz and a handful of antifascists: the army officer known as "Colonel Ferrara", who fights for a lost cause in Spain; Arturo Salamone, the shrewd leader of a resistance group in Paris; and Christa von Schirren, the woman who becomes the love of Weisz's life, herself involved in a doomed resistance underground in Berlin.
There is at least one amusing scene in The Foreign Correspondent where the protagonist meets some characters from other novels, playing out a scene from that other novel from a different viewpoint. Given that the world of spies and spying immediately before and during WWII in France is necessarily small, I supposed the surprise should be that this hasn't happened earlier.
While Furst normally deals with characters who are actively involved in espionage, willingly or unwillingly, Carlo Weisz only takes on that role at the very end, and only to a small degree. Somehow I didn't find the workings of an Italian ex-patriot opposition newspaper group as compelling and interesting as a reporter trying to figure out who he is actually spying for, or recruited soldier and killer trying to hold on to himself and find a way through and out. Weisz is an interesting man, and the story certainly kept me reading, but I still felt like something was missing.
But I wasn’t.
Oh, there was espionage, intrigue, and danger—just not enough of it to make the tale riveting. Actually, it was kind of boring. The historical aspect was well done and quite interesting, but the plot moved sluggishly, and I kept waiting for a rise in action that never came. Guess it was a good thing I wasn’t holding my breath. Let me tell you a little bit about the plot so you can see what I mean.
The protagonist is one Carlo Weisz, a foreign correspondent for the Reuters news agency during the Spring of 1939. He’s also an Italian émigré living in Paris, one of the many artists, professors, and intellectuals that were forced to flee Italy when Mussolini and his blackshirts took power. He and his émigré friends operate one of the many émigré newspapers in Paris, writing propaganda against the Fascisti regime and covertly distributing it back within Italy. When the editor of the magazine is killed by the Italian secret police, Carlo agrees to take on the editorial duties. In the meantime, he makes several trips to reporting assignments around the region for Reuters—hot button locales like Spain, Prague, and even Germany itself. War is looming, the Germans and the Italians have allied themselves in war, and the only question is which spark is going to set off the European powder keg—stuff that makes for entertaining newsprint if nothing else.
Carlo’s travels have two primary outcomes. They put him in contact with an old lover, a German countess who is involved in resistance activities against the Nazis. They also get him noticed by the British Secret Service. Carlo helps both parties (the former willingly, the latter only with heavy-handed coercion). He helps his lady by smuggling secret documents out of Germany. He helps the British by writing the biography of an Italian colonel that fought in Spain against Franco and his fascists. Somewhere along the line he tries to convince the lady to leave Germany, but no dice. By the time she’s willing to go, it’s too late for her to leave legally and Carlo can’t get her out himself. Therefore he appeals to the Brits for help. They strike a deal—Carlo will make an appearance in Italy to rally the home team and increase production on their magazine. The Brits will exfiltrate the girl. They huddle, break, and go off to take care of business.
The whole time I kept expecting the slowly mounting tension to explode, to finally get to the high point of the novel where the shit hits the fan, everyone’s running for their lives, and feats of derring-do save the day. Well, maybe not derring-do. This ain’t a James Bond flick. But something, y’know? In the end Carlo goes to Italy for a while, has a few tense moments when he believes he’s being followed by the secret police (but isn’t), and then hitches a ride home with some Swedes. When he gets to Paris his lady love is waiting for him, and it’s happily ever after—except for that whole impending war thing.
That was my problem with the book overall. Nothing really happens. Oh, there’s enough subtle intrigue and foreboding to give an old lady a heart attack, but nothing ever comes of it. It’s just… kind of boring. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Spycraft isn’t all excitement and shootouts and naked chicks. Real spycraft is long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by heart-racing fear. Given his attention to historical detail, I guess it’s not surprising that Furst’s novel was more realistic than most—even if it made for a less entertaining book. And really, how much derring-do can you expect from a journalist whose idea of “fighting back” against fascist oppression is writing some whiny articles?
What The Foreign Correspondent lacks in excitement, though, it makes up for with nearly everything else. The novel is amazingly-well researched. Furst crafts realistic (if somewhat boring) characters and an immersive historical setting using style and language that are measured, understated, and elegant. I could almost imagine I was back in Paris with Carlo and the rest of the gang. It was a lot like being thrown into the DeLorean and burning rubber back in time to punch Mussolini in the face. Or write nasty articles about him. Same thing.
The Foreign Correspondent wasn’t the most exciting book I’ve ever read, but it had enough of a silver lining to make me glad that I read it nonetheless. That’s why I give it three stars.
Carlo Weisz is a journalist with the Associated Press (in a time when the AP was still a very big deal) in Paris where he has landed after fleeing Mussolini's Fascist Italy (absurdly Fascist, as one of Furst's character's suggests?). The book opens with a political assassination in Paris and then we find Weisz in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War and where he makes a connection that serves him well while covering the Republicans.
Weisz is also active in publishing a resistenza newspaper that is smuggled back into Italy. As per usual, Weisz is a rather ordinary, if talented, man with good moral instincts. Slowly he is drawn into ever more daring acts of resistance. Along the way he renews a love interest in Berlin just before things go from ugly to intolerable. Weisz seeks to use his career and his underground work to somehow rescue the fraulein from Herr Himmler's Gestapo.
Furst once again uses the backdrop of Europe edging to the precipice of war - Paris, Nazis, the Spanish Civil War, a love affair - to give us another great historical spy novel. I'v read reviews that complained about plot weakness, but plot has never been a strength of Furst's books.
There's a lot going on in this book, yet Furst takes his usual pace laying out the story, giving readers a feel of life in 1940 Europe, from the civil war in Spain, to fascist Italy, life-as-usual Paris, and tense Berlin. The civilian-enlisted-as-spy, painstakingly researched and recreated settings are Furst's stock-in-trade, yet the stories never feel old or repetitive. Carlo is an engaging protagonist trying to do the right thing for his homeland, and Furst is a skilled storyteller, a perfect combination.
Promised much, delivered little.
It felt a little like he was avoiding telling the story he should have, maybe even really wanted to. A huge missed opportunity, no matter how languid, evocative and well-written it was.
I'll give some of his others a go, but there's gonna have to be a dramatic improvement after this let-down.
The question arises: To what extent is the outcome of the war influenced by these espionage efforts? Similar question raised in military history with respect to individual battles, dilemma besetting individual soldiers when asked to defend a hopeless position or follow dubious orders. Suspect it cannot be answered in the individual case, but trusted that overall it can tip the balance. Added to that: the individual meaning created when following one's ideals, translating principles into action.
Tempting to agree Furst is telling the same archetypal story repeatedly, in different guise and across various milieux. It is comforting, and somehow fittingly realistic in that we know the overarching outcome, what is unknown are the particulars attending this or that person, one or another mission or event.