Thursday 19 August 2010

First Bourne: Carlos, Chaos and Haute Couture in Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity

Having recently finished the first novel in Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Identity (1980), I've been struggling to work out what I think of it. At times whilst reading it I thought it was brilliant: pacy and kinetic, in parts it barrels along at a fair old clip, with thoroughly thrilling action sequences. At other times, the tin-eared dialogue made me actively cringe, particularly that between Jason Bourne and Marie St Jacques. Then again, some of the scenes where shadowy American intelligence types are sitting around jawing, trying to work out what the hell Bourne's up to, are gripping. On the other hand there's the frequently tiresome (although to some extent necessary) introspection on Bourne's part, as he tries to piece his fractured past together, forever repeating key phrases ("Get Carlos! Trap Carlos!") until you're sick to the back teeth of them.

It's a puzzle. It's a really good book and a really rubbish book rolled into one baffling rubber-band ball. One thing it certainly is is reasonably close to Doug Liman's 2002 film. Both have essentially the same structure: Bourne is found at sea with no memory of who he is, and has to track his way across Europe trying to put the pieces together, all the while fending off assassins and the fuzz. Marie is in both the book and the movie, as is Alexander Conklin. But there is one character who doesn't make it over from the book – probably in part because he was languishing in jail by the time the film was made: Carlos the Jackal.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was one of the most feared terrorists the world has ever known, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. He claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1500 people, masterminded the 1975 OPEC hostage crisis, and was involved in countless terrorist operations around the world. If only half the claims about him are true, he would still rank as one of the most dangerous criminals of all time. In The Bourne Identity, Ludlum casts Carlos as the villain of the piece, pitting Bourne against him and even having the two fight hand to hand. So far so barely believable. But Ludlum goes a lot further, turning Carlos into an all-pervasive Bond villain and creating a background and scenarios for him that frequently beggar belief and occasionally enter the realm of the delusional.

For one thing, it's strongly hinted in the novel that Carlos was the person who pulled the trigger when JFK was assassinated – despite the fact that Carlos would've been fourteen years old at the time. Then we get Carlos disguised as a priest, dispensing orders from a confession booth. Best of all though is the disguise Ludlum creates for him in Paris. Here Carlos is using a high end fashion house as his front, with the higher-ups in this establishment fully aware that they're working for the most dangerous man on the planet. But that's still not quite enough for Ludlum. Because not only is Carlos using this organization for his own nefarious ends... he's also quite possibly working there himself as its chief clothes designer!

It's all utterly barking, and again either brilliant or bloody terrible. I doubt I'm ever going to work out if it's the former or the latter. I do know one thing though: on this evidence, I'll definitely be reading The Bourne Supremacy.


  1. Have to agree... barking at times, but when I read it as teen, it was just simply a wonderful page-turner. In fact the last page turner that delivered the same rip roaring anticipation was "First Blood".
    The second "Supremacy" is only half barking!
    Great review!

  2. Thank you, sir! And incidentally, you can find a post on that self same First Blood right here.