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The weather underground

The Foreign Correspondent A Novel Alan Furst Random House: 278 pp., $24.95

June 04, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time magazine and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and the forthcoming "The Essential Chaplin."

GRAY skies, grimly glowering, promising the inevitable rain. Or fog. Or, sometimes, snow. I don't know if the weather in pre-World War II Europe was particularly inclement. Or if that pattern persisted once hostilities began. But it suits Alan Furst; it chimes -- or maybe one should say that it clunks -- with the climate of his characters' inner lives.

They are not what you would call dashing figures. Typically, his protagonist is a man whose profession -- movie producer, journalist -- permits him a certain freedom of movement and access to a range of classes, including those whose means of making a living are rather dubious. This character is a creature of slightly shabby hotels and anonymous cafes, one who can pack a small bag at a moment's notice and vanish without leaving more than a shadowy trace of his passage -- or maybe a cloud of cigarette smoke, backlighted by a street lamp.

Generally speaking, this figure drifts into contact with the resistance more or less accidentally and then spends the rest of Furst's short and shapely novels skulking down alleys on rather modest missions. He is never called upon to steal the blueprints of a secret weapon or to intervene decisively in the meta-politics of the era. He may fear the Gestapo's dungeons, but he never visits them. He is, in short, a fairly ordinary citizen, doing what he can do to aid the right side, which is not very much but is better than nothing.

Take, for instance, Carlo Weisz, the foreign correspondent of Furst's new anti-thriller. By day, he's a correspondent in the Reuters bureau in Paris, though he's often out of the office on assignment (in Spain, in the last days of the Republic; in Berlin, where Christa, the great love of his life, leads an increasingly imperiled existence; in Prague, on the day the Nazis march in). By night, he works for Liberazione, an underground newspaper, and is also recruited by British intelligence to ghost the memoirs of a certain Col. Ferrara, an Italian officer who switched sides in Spain and led his little troop of soldiers against the Falangists.

He's a busy guy, our Carlo -- especially when the OVRA, Mussolini's secret police, target the Liberazione editorial board, knocking off its editor and, incidentally, his socially and politically prominent lover mid-tryst one afternoon in Paris. Before long they are menacing everyone associated with the clandestine newspaper: Day jobs are threatened or lost; they even burn down the restaurant where the board meets. These creeps will stop at nothing!

Filling in as Liberazione's editor, Carlo makes a deal with the Brits: He will expand the scope and press run of the paper if, in turn, they will spirit Christa out of Germany. He slips into Genoa to arrange better printing facilities and distribution. There the police confront him and one starts beating him in an outdoor market, where the common folk, tending their stalls, rescue him by heaving artichokes and other produce at the bullying cop. That's about it for high drama in this book -- rather silly, come to think of it, but also rather inspiring. In Furst's world, little acts of grace, often from surprising sources, abound, and they bespeak a rather old-fashioned class solidarity. The instincts of his proletarians may be untutored, but they are sound and authentically reflect the popular-front spirit of the times. Not for Furst the sophisticated postwar regrets about the naivete of wartime idealism. Indeed, not for him -- in his works, so far -- anything but the most neutral mentions of members of the communist resistance in Europe at this time, though we know that, whatever else they were, they were the most muscular, daring and numerous of the underground fighters.

We do not primarily attend Furst for his politics any more than we do for high adventure. We read him for his atmosphere, which is superbly researched and rendered. Only he, outside of academic circles, would know that the acronym OVRA is a misnomer. The letters should have been OPRA, with the "P" standing for piovra, a mythical octopus whose tentacles reach into every corner of Italian life. But Mussolini thought the first version sounded more menacing and so the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell'Antifascismo was born as the designated purveyor of large-scale doses of castor oil to dissidents. True? Untrue? No matter. It is what people thought, and Furst reports it, along with the information that Il Duce's making the trains run on time derives from his outrage at the delay, by some 40 hours, of a train supposedly carrying his supporters to a rally. Indeed, who knew (I certainly didn't) that Mussolini was the author of a racy novel called "The Cardinal's Mistress"?

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