Monday, September 21, 2009

Review of The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (Phoenix, 2006)

Carlo Weisz is an Italian émigré in Paris, an exile from Mussolini’s fascist regime, who has found work as a foreign correspondent for the Reuters news agency. Whilst working on news assignments, he also finds time to write for Liberazione, a resistance newspaper that is cobbled together by like-minded émigrés, which is smuggled into Italy on a monthly basis. Weisz is in Spain witnessing the final days of civil war, interviewing fellow anti-fascist, Colonel Ferrara, when the Liberazione’s editor and his mistress, a French politician’s wife, are killed by agents of the OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police. On returning to France he agrees to become the new editor and is soon being pursued by British Intelligence, aware that war is coming and keen to expand Liberazione’s operations and to exploit the heroic pursuits of Colonel Ferrara who they’ve managed to smuggle to Paris. He’s also attracted the attentions of the French Surete and OVRA are harassing his close friends. While on assignment in Berlin, Weisz re-kindles his affair with the love of his life, the married aristocrat, Christa Von Schirren. Like Weisz she is engaged in dangerous resistance work and is unwilling to abandon her friends and country for love. Weisz is in over his head, a pawn in a game being played out on a European stage, but he’s determined to find a way to resist and rescue his love.

Alan Furst’s stories are thrillers with a small t. They grab and pull you along, but the storytelling is subtle and deep, avoiding melodrama and high tension plotting that often characterise capital T thrillers. They are sumptuous meals of carefully blended tastes, rather than the zip of junk food. And so it is with The Foreign Correspondent. As with all Furst novels, the prose is excellent, the narrative is well structured and textured, and his characters are complex, living multi-dimensional lives that are filled with difficult choices, conflicting emotions, contradictions, and doubts. In particular, Furst is very good at conveying a scene with few words, conjuring a mood, atmosphere, a sense of place or a character in a few sentences; at historically contextualizing the story, and at effortlessly working across scales – small lives and how they fit into a continental landscape of political turmoil. The result is a well told, multi-layered story that hooks you in early and makes you care about the characters and the politics, and at the end leaves you sated and looking forward to next meal at a Michelin starred restaurant. (I’m aware that one of the criticisms of Furst is that his stories have open or ambiguous endings, but for me that’s a plus – I’m tired of nice, neat endings that rarely happen in real life).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. The book really sounds interesting! I agree with you, too, by the way, that neat endings are not usually authentic. It's intriguing and a nice change when the end of the story is more ambiguous. I have to admit that, as a writer, I like to know what will happen to my characters in the end, because that makes it easier to tell their stories. Still, you've got a well-taken point.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks Margot. I'm actually more comfortable with open ends where I can imagine what happens to the characters, both when I read and write. There has to be some kind of ending though, a natural break in the story. A book that just stops without some kind of resolution to what's preceded it drives me nuts! I remember one 900 page book I waded through which simply ended mid-flow with 'Continued in Volume 2'. That book crashed into the far wall!