Monday, 24 June 2013

Alan Furst: Mission to Paris

Alan Furst has always written about people who drift into spying, rather than about spies, and Mission to Paris is not really about a top secret mission so much as it's about a whole series of drifts; France drifting into self-destruction and actor Frederic Stahl drifting in and out of romances while he drifts ever deeper into Furst's shadowy world of  deadly lies and compromise. But it's the drifting which defines the book, not the life and death decisions; the two killings we actually see are over in an instant, almost inconsequential, while the book lingers over the way that trivial pressures gradually drive Stahl to push back and risk everything.

Mission to Paris is anchored in the propaganda war which the Germans fought to weaken French resolve during the late thirties, when  war seemed like something terrible, to be put off at all costs. Like a lot of the horrible little things which happened before the war broke out, it hasn't had much attention in the years since then, and Furst's real achievement is get across just how pervasive and repulsive the German war for hearts and minds in Europe was; the slow patient hounding out of dissenting voices within Germany, and then the extension of the same methods into the neighbours, bribing and blackmailing and grinding away. 

Stahl arrives in 1938 Paris, unaware of the slitherings below the surface, and equally unaware of how Germany sees him as another potential pawn in their game; an Austrian émigré Hollywood star who they might persuade to parrot their propaganda lines if they can find the right mix of blandishment and menace. So it starts with charm, but menace is never far away.

What Furst does very well is showing us how very small things chip away at people, undermining their will to resist. Stahl is no hero, just a decent man who gets pushed so hard that he gets angry, and the book is at its best not when it shows him being brave, but when it shows him wavering, wondering what to do next. And of course, since each Furst book stands alone, there's alway the frisson which comes from not being sure when he's finally going to drop a character. Furst has been getting sentimental of late, letting people get away in one piece, but he's good at leaving you wondering if this is going to be the one that goes back to the harsh fundamentals of early books like Dark Star.

One thread running through the whole book which hasn't been as noticeable in other Furst books is the culpability - and power - of big business. On the one hand, French industrialists are among the most important German pawns, bribed directly with money and contracts and more indirectly with the expectation that a nazi-run France will be more accommodating to their business needs; on the other side of the coin, the USA doesn't have a proper espionage service yet, and Roosevelt is bankrolling intelligence work out of the Paris embassy with a slush fund contributed by wealthy businessmen in the US. I found myself wondering if Furst was consciously echoing the power dynamics of this century, where corporations have routinely put their profits ahead of any sense of loyalty to the community they trade among. Or perhaps he's just echoing the truth that resonates throughout history; he who has the gold, makes the rules.

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