Review: The Parsifal Mosaic , by Robert Ludlum
Coming right after The Bourne Identity The Parsifal Mosaic seems to significantly follow that book’s pattern, opening with a scene of violence marking a break with the protagonist’s prior life, after which the protagonist pursues the mystery of their personal past as an American security state which, convinced that an important former agent has become a menace, pursues them with shoot-to-kill the order of the day, all of which is of course tied up with something bigger. Also as with Bourne the scenario is of the more nationalistic than post-Watergate variety — a particularly extreme version of the “Commies have infiltrated the government!” hysteria scenarios of the Cold War. (The Sonnenkinder of The Holcroft Covenant were too obviously a thriller device, even in the eyes of those fearful of fascism’s resurgence, but in Cold War America urban legendish nonsense about armies of Soviet sleeper agents was the kind of thing in which a good many people were ready to believe — and as Russiagate shows, still are.) This time around, however, the treachery reaches into much higher places, and the stakes are literally the highest such thrillers offer — heading off an imminent threat of all-out nuclear war between the two superpowers.
Intricate political scenarios, especially at the international level, have generally not been a strength of Ludlum’s. (Even when he did a better job, as with Trevayne and The Chancellor Manuscript, the setting was domestic.) That we see such a scenario working out up close makes it harder to overlook the implausibilities — the more in as Ludlum treats it all at such length, The Parsifal Mosaic the first of his six hundred pagers (or at least, close to it, my copy of the original hardback ending on exactly page 599).
Compounding the problem is that the book as a whole is awkwardly structured.
The story starts with a defining moment in the life of “Consular Operations” agent Michael Havelock. Having learned that his lover, Jenna Karas, is working with the KGB he is forced to personally gun her down on a beach in Spain. Sickened by her betrayal of him, and by his betrayal of her (he did love her, after all, and he cold-bloodedly murdered her), he calls it quits and retires to an academic existence. But of course it is the case that like Michael Corleone in the third Godfather film, he barely thinks he is out when they pull him back in — the entreaties of various recruiters failing to bring him back to the Great Game. However, something else doing the trick in short order, Havelock’s spotting Karas in a train station in Rome. She’s alive! And she knows he knows that she knows that he knows that . . . And off he goes after her as she desperately tries to evade the man who shot at her on that beach, Havelock determined to find out how he has been deceived, and why, while American intelligence determines to stop him.
During this phase of the book — which lasts more than half of its six hundred pages — there is an abundance of incidents, but very little forward progress of the story. Rather the mechanics of pursuit, evasion, surveillance, combat are, a few hints of more apart (a Soviet mole in the upper reaches of government, the odd behavior of an American Secretary of State whose stature is basically the legend of Henry Kissinger times twenty, the fear that somehow this will lead to nuclear war), pretty much all the narrative has to offer. It is only after the midpoint of the book that Havelock finds Jenna, and that they start investigating the conspiracy that brought them to this state. The biggest revelations come early, after which the remainder of the book consists mainly of Havelock trying to find a mole whose identity is unambiguously revealed to the reader (even if there are a few other surprises in store), and never packs quite the dramatic punch that it should because responsibility for Havelock’s betrayal ultimately ends up being so diffused.
The result is that The Parsifal Mosaic feels like two, or two-and-a-half, smaller thrillers strung together, each of which runs longer than it ought as a result of the number of links in the chains being longer than would have been optimal, and a fair amount of overwriting, with many a lengthy scene or subplot amounting to less than the space allotted it ought to have warranted. (Havelock’s attempt to intercept Jenna at the Franco-Italian border was overlengthy, the description overly complicated. Meeting with a man in New York who has important information for Havelock about Karas’ whereabouts Havelock realizes that he is a Nazi criminal whose atrocities he personally witnessed as young Michal Havlicek back in Czechoslovakia during the war, now living here under a false identity — but apart from adding yet another dramatic shock the fact is quite unimportant. And so on.)
As might be hoped, for all the overwriting and overreaching Ludlum’s skill with the mechanics is by no means absent, and the book does have its moments. The scenes depicting Havelock’s discovery that he has been lied to by his own people in Rome and his readiness to turn on his bosses have real bite, while the revelation of the secret at the heart of the crisis was memorable. So was the dramatic irony of a significant meeting between an unsuspecting Havelock and the man the reader learned was the mole almost a hundred pages earlier as the story approaches its climax. While I found Secretary of State Anthony Matthias an exceedingly unconvincing creation (the product of not much more than Ludlum’s rather characteristically centrist tendency to portray the power elite as the superhuman “brilliant” and “best” of the meritocracy he is so sure exists), the surrogate father/son, mentor/protégé relationship between him and Havelock was not without its interest. And if the book lacked the edge that contributed to Ludlum’s best (works like Trevayne, The Gemini Contenders, The Chancellor Manuscript — and among the books of the ’80s, The Aquitaine Progression) in favor of McCarthyish hysteria about Soviet sleeper agents and suchlike he at least displays more nuance than many another writer handling such themes did. (Ludlum, at least, acknowledges that “Commies” became that in reaction to the horrors of history as others had experienced it — “A God who threatens eternal fires if one rises up against a living hell is no God for nine-tenths of mankind” says a Soviet defector who never abandoned his loyalty to the ideology, even after he broke with his government — while Ludlum more generally allows the moderates in the Soviet government ready to work with the hero in averting the danger their ideological affinity rather than requiring them to break with it in order to be recognized as men of conscience.) All the same, there were a good many times when the book tried my patience, when it was easy to put it down and say “I’ll just come back to this later,” and in the end it seemed less than the sum of its parts, again leaving me thinking that Ludlum’s earlier, leaner narratives were more satisfying than those that followed.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.