Alan Furst's Red Gold

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

January 5, 2004   


Alan Furst, Red Gold, Random House, New York, 1999; ISBN 0-375-75859-3

When I was in a writer's workshop at NYU over twenty years ago, the instructor said something that has stuck with me over the years: there are perhaps no more than ten plots in creative writing that are simply recycled over and over. One of the most familiar is the "road" plot that puts a couple of characters out on a river or highway, where they meet adventures of one sort or another. This would include "Huckleberry Finn" as well as Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." It would also include the movie "Thelma and Louise."

In the world of spy novels, there is perhaps only a subset of these basic plots since all genre literature by definition involves limits as to plot and character. In the novels of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, you often discover a man leading a settled existence who quite by accident finds himself in the center of international intrigue. Heroism is something that is forced on such risk-avoiding characters rather than sought out.

Widely viewed as the successor of Greene and Ambler, Alan Furst utilizes this plot in "Red Gold," a 1999 work whose hero Jean Casson, a down-and-out film director, ends up as a liaison between the Gaullist resistance and the CP underground. He is chosen because of past contacts made with party members in the film industry. He has little interest in politics except a visceral distaste for the Nazi occupation, whose forced rationing of both food and fuel increases a misery brought on by the collapse of the film business.

The book's title refers to the funding of the French Communist resistance movement during WWII. Weiss, a Kremlin agent working in Paris, is driven by the need to raise funds for party fighters:
Money. He needed money.

Before the war, moving secret funds from Moscow to Paris was easy, using couriers or borrowed bank accounts or phantom companies. In fact, the party had been notorious for its money. On a trip to London during the spy panics of the 1930s, he'd seen tabloid headlines plastered all over the kiosks -- HE BETRAYED HIS COUNTRY FOR RED GOLD. Weiss smiled at the recollection. He supposed that calling money gold made it more sinister.
Besides sharing an affinity with Eric Ambler for making heroes out of ordinary, apolitical citizens drafted willy-nilly into dangerous spy work, Furst also defies conventional thinking about what it means to be a Communist. His Communists are three-dimensional characters with strengths and weaknesses just like other human beings, just as they are in Ambler's work. Rather than being robots directed by the Kremlin, they are motivated by a thirst for justice that the party alone can satisfy. This is especially true for the Jews among them, who were pariahs across Europe, including France itself.

One of these Communists is Jules Slevin, a twenty-year-old cutter in the garment industry. His father threw him out only four years earlier for running with the wrong crowd, gambling, drinking and whoring. He started off as a delivery boy in the garment trade and moved his way up by working hard. Joining the Communist CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) trade union was part of his career path.

Slevin volunteers to assassinate a German officer for reasons that have little to do with Marxist ideology:
A bomber pilot. Slevin thought about that for a long time. Like thoroughbred horses, he figured. Hard to replace -- you lost one of them, it mattered. Right about then, the guys in the union had put the word out--it's time to deal with these assholes. For a year and a half they'd swaggered around the city, had free run of the place, made themselves at home. That had to stop. The message was clear: Uncle Joe needs you to break some heads.
Anybody who reads "Red Gold" will be struck at once by the eagerness of ordinary French citizens to risk their lives against the occupation in a manner that suggests the Iraqi resistance. In many ways, foreign occupation is the ultimate indignity. When the occupation army is imperialist in character, even the most inchoate forms of resistance can have a progressive character -- even when the results are not what people like Jules Slevin intended.

When he finally confronts the Nazi pilot in the Metro station, nothing goes according to plan. He fires once and misses. The next time he fires, the gun falls apart in his hands. A couple of days later Jean Casson, who is traveling on a barge loaded with machine guns for the resistance, reads a brief report in a newspaper he bought in Dijon: Attack in Paris Métro. "An attempt on the life of a German flying officer had failed. In reprisal, a thousand Jewish doctors and lawyers had been deported."

If assassination attempts backfire, you will find nothing in the way of a lecture against them in "Red Gold." The mood is much more one of resigned existential acceptance of their double-edged nature in a fashion that evokes what André Malraux once said. "Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one's ideas, to take a calculated risk -- and to act."

After Jean Casson is arrested for a petty robbery to raise money for his next meal, a detective asks him why he returned to France from England. Casson replies that it was a woman and not patriotism that brought him back.

The detective, a Gaullist agent named Degrave, invites Casson to take an hour or so to decide whether to go to work for the resistance. "There was no point in waiting an hour. He took the job he didn't have it in his heart to refuse." His motivation, like the young Jewish Communist's, was in the heart -- the source of the energy that drives all of Furst's unlikely heroes. When Casson asks Degrave why he has been selected to make the first contact with the CP in hopes of creating a united national movement:
It must be somebody neutral, apolitical, not a socialist, not a conservative. Somebody who has not fought in the political wars. You have certainly had contact with party members in the film industry-incidental, without problems. They will know who you are, they will know you haven't worked against them.
Eventually Casson and Degrave work together to buy and transport a cache of machine guns into Paris where they will be used against the Nazis. Although Furst very deliberately eschews cheap melodrama of the kind that typifies most spy novels, there is a scene that crackles with excitement, all the more so in contrast to the chapters that describe the rather mundane horse-trading involved with lining up the machine guns.

After being confronted by one of Pétain's militia units on the highway, led by an arrogant youth named Jacquot, they are forced to shoot it out:
Casson never knew who shot first or why, but there were five or six reports from the front of the truck. Somebody shouted, a car door opened, somebody screamed "Maurice!" When Casson saw Jacquot's hand move, he grabbed for the Walther, pulled it free of his belt, and forced the hammer back with his thumb. In front, a shot, then another, from a different gun. Jacquot's hand came out from under his sweater, Casson fired twice, then twice more. Jacquot grunted, there was a flash in the shadows. Casson ducked away and ran around to the front of the truck. On the road by the Citroën, somebody lay on top of a rifle.
The pleasures of Furst's novel are many. Those who are looking for sheer entertainment will not be disappointed. It is an expertly plotted affair with riveting dialogue. The scenes that match the cool and somewhat detached Casson with his Communist counterpart Weiss is particularly interesting since they evoke the marriage of convenience that existed during the entire Popular Front alliance between de Gaulle, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Casson would never put himself at the service of any ideology, but he knows how to make clear ethical distinctions:
"We have a lot to offer, Casson. Help with field operations, intelligence -- but they have to ask. From the first contact we felt that no matter how hard we've fought against each other in the past, we now have a common enemy, so it's time for us to be allies."

"War changes everything."

Weiss smiled. "It should, logically it should. But the world doesn't run on logic, it runs on the seven deadly sins and the weather. Even so, we have to try to do what we can."

"And it helps," Casson said, "to have machine guns."

Alan Furst, Red Gold, Random House, New York, 1999; ISBN 0-375-75859-3

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Published January 5, 2004
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