Alan Furst's Characters Face a Choice: Collaborate or Resist Facism; "A Hero in France" Is Furst's 14th Novel about Spies and World War II Europe

By LeBor, Adam | Newsweek, July 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Alan Furst's Characters Face a Choice: Collaborate or Resist Facism; "A Hero in France" Is Furst's 14th Novel about Spies and World War II Europe


LeBor, Adam, Newsweek


Byline: Adam LeBor

Like a Michelin-starred chef or a composer of classical music, the spy novelist Alan Furst is an expert at developing variations on a theme. In his case, the theme is a morally weighted question: What would you do? Mathieu, the protagonist of Furst's new novel, A Hero in France, fights against the German invaders in 1940 and then decides to join the Resistance rather than live passively under Nazi tyranny, as some French chose to do.

"The book is about these upper-middle-class people who decided to fight back against the Germans," says Furst, speaking from his home in Sag Harbor on the east end of New York's Long Island. "They could ignore it, but they don't. There is moral compulsion--you watch something wrong going on, and one day you feel you have to do something about it. Or you don't."

A Hero in France is Furst's 14th novel about spies and wartime Europe. Some share a cast of minor characters. All of the books return to Furst's core interest. "They are anti-fascist books," he says. "They are about people who don't like authoritarian rule. They don't like living in tyranny, and they try to strike back against it."

Furst was born in 1941--too young to remember World War II. But he grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, an area with a large Jewish population that was shaped in part by the fresh, collective memory of a titanic, life-or-death struggle between good and evil--a struggle that continually demanded the sort of choices that captivate Furst. Resist or collaborate? Take a stand and risk everything or submit?

Furst's books, which have been translated into 18 languages, are set in Europe on the verge of World War II or during the early years of the conflict. For all the tragedy and agonizing moral decisions the war forced on the people of Europe, it also offers a storyteller an almost unparalleled opportunity for finding and telling gripping stories. "People marched, the newspapers were wildly political," says Furst.

"Europe was on fire then, in all kinds of ways. It had a romantic intensity, and a political intensity, which is good for my books, and plenty of plot. I don't write as well as history does. History is the best fiction writer there is."

Furst's protagonists are invariably everymen--rather than professional spies or soldiers--struggling through that history. They are reliably smart, brave and capable, like Mathieu in A Hero in France. (They are also all men; women in Furst's novels tend to play a supporting role.) Furst's accidental heroes have a steep learning curve in spycraft, which helps the reader who does not happen to work in intelligence for a living identify more easily with them than if his protagonists were experienced agents and spy-runners.

Furst, who worked as an advertising copywriter before becoming a novelist, first discovered the world he would later fill with these amateur heroes in 1984, when reporting a travel story for Esquire magazine. He traveled to Eastern Europe, taking a passenger boat from Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union, across the Black Sea to the Danube's delta in Romania. Furst then traveled upriver through the Balkans and central Europe.

That journey gave him the idea and setting for his novel, Night Soldiers. Published in 1988, the book begins: "In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia." In one sentence, we are transported through time, to a specific place, and are immediately rooting for the protagonist. We want revenge for him even before we've made it to the second sentence, even before he's had a chance to express the desire himself. …

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