- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006


By Alan Furst

Random House,

$24.95, 288 pages


When Alan Furst writes about the time frame of World War II, he is resurrecting a nightmare that after more than half a century, retains a grim hold on public memory and imagination. Those who lived through it never forgot it. Those who were born after it ended remain fascinated by the years of violence that have left the swastika still a symbol of evil.

The success of Mr. Furst’s books testifies to the continuing interest in disinterring the corpse of Nazism. He writes with skill and subtlety of a past that still stalks us all, recreating the tension and the terror, describing in dispassionate language how people lived through it.

Like all good spy-fiction authors, Mr. Furst knows how to make his point without hammering it home. This is the ninth novel in which his focus has been the 1930s and ‘40s, years darkened by a tyranny that could be embodied in a pounding on the door in the middle of the night.

He has also chosen to explore the fragile spiderweb of those who lived in the shadowy world of espionage and could expect no quarter from either side. His plot is overwhelmed by its setting, as Mr. Furst’s novels tend to be.

He writes in a clipped, diary style about characters who exist in a state of real and not imagined peril, snatching laughter and even love in the knowledge that they face a future in which nothing is likely to last. It is surely no coincidence that Mr. Furst’s books are usually jacketed in a somber gray.

His portrayal of the oblique nature of espionage differs sharply from that of John LeCarre, to whom Mr. Furst occasionally has been compared. There is never any question that Mr. LeCarre, the master of Cold War convolution, was an insider, whereas most of Mr. Furst’s people are still picking their path through the shadows and the rain.

The book chronicles the 40th year in the life of Carlo Weisz, an Italian journalist who covers the last campaign of the Spanish civil war and goes to Paris as a refugee from the brutality of the Italian dictator, Mussolini.

He becomes a correspondent for Reuters news agency there, but his entanglement with the Italian underground deepens when he agrees to become editor of an underground newspaper after its founder is murdered by the OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police.

As the Nazi juggernaut gains momentum in 1939, his work takes him between Paris, Berlin and Prague, and he is trapped by circumstances that turn him into a spy. He finds himself struggling to run a clandestine newspaper, ghostwriting a book for an Italian civil war hero, resuscitating a lost love in Berlin, and becoming a pawn of the British intelligence service.

He lives in a Paris hotel, dining at “Chez this or Mere that,” engaging in a “pallid love affair” with Veronique while unable to forget Christa whose passion for him had not prevented her from marrying a German for money and apparent stability.

“He’d never imagined it would turn out that way, but the political maelstrom of his twenties and thirties, the world gone wrong, the pulse of evil and the unending flight from it, had turned life on the wrong side. Anyhow, he blamed it for leaving him alone in a hotel room in a foreign city.”

His reluctant resignation to what is happening to him is rooted in his acknowledgment that he cannot escape what is happening around him. Nothing he does can halt the approach of a war in which he is quite likely to die.

His brief reunion with Christa in Berlin is darkened by her refusal to accept the reality of Hitler’s Germany by escaping it. She tells him bleakly how people disappear in Berlin when they oppose the Nazis, describing “Nacht und Nebel, night and fog, Hitler’s own invention — that people should simply vanish from the face of the earth, a practice dear to him for the effect on friends and family.”

Ultimately, Weisz has to appeal to British intelligence for help which, of course, comes at a price.

As an English spymaster candidly explains to him, the rescue of Christa isn’t a matter of “good old Weisz, we’ll hop over to Berlin and snatch his chickadee from the Nazis … If for some absurd reason we choose to even try you’ll be ours. Henceforth.”

Mr. Furst has bestowed what passes for a happy ending on the book which is not only bittersweet but unlikely, since nobody, least of all the reader, believes it’s possible.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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