1938. Spain at war, Europe on the brink of war. This is the first World War Two novel I have read about the overlap of the two wars, the impact of one on the other, and the approaching shadow of fascism. Nothing happens in isolation. The Spanish Civil War is notoriously difficult to understand: so many factions, changing names etc. Sensibly, Alan Furst concentrates on one aspect: the supply of weapons to the Republicans fighting the fascist army of Franco.
A secret Spanish agency in Paris sources arms and ammunition for the Republicans. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris and working for a French law firm, is asked to help. Unsure what he is getting into, but resigned to help his mother country, he is soon looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed – he doesn’t know who by, it could be the Spanish fascists, the Gestapo, the Russians. Inter-cut with Ferrar’s story are excerpts from the front line in Spain where preparations are being made to fight the Battle of the Ebro. The need for the weapons is desperate, as bullets are counted out for each soldier.
Working with an odd mixture of diplomats, gangsters and generally shady characters, Ferrar first travels to Berlin where there is a glimpse of the pre-war country which with hindsight gives us a chill. The Gestapo follows them at every step. Then there is a nail-biting train journey to Gdansk, as an arms shipment goes missing. The climax is a thrilling boat journey from Odessa to Valencia. Ferrar, is a lawyer not a spy, he is simply an ordinary man doing what he can to help. An ordinary man who is, meanwhile, having a sprinkling of love affairs which may or may not be authentic.
If you have been put off before at reading novels about the Spanish Civil War because the politics is confusing, you will enjoy this novel. The shadow of war in Europe is cast over every page, the sense of approaching doom however does not seem to affect the nightclubs of Paris, or the shops of New York where the cheerful atmosphere seems unreal. Ferrar faces moving his family from Louveciennes on the outskirts of Paris, the picturesque country west of the capital which was painted by the Impressionists, to the safety of New York.
This is the first novel by Alan Furst I have read, picked up at random in an airport bookshop. I will read many more.