January 19, 2012

I don't remember, I don't recall, I've got no memory of anything at all

A lightning review of The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (New York: Marek, 1980). Hardcover, 523 pp.

An English doctor living in southern France nurses a man back to health after he is fished out of the water. He has been in a serious fight, suffering multiple injuries including gunshot wounds. Unfortunately, he also has amnesia: he cannot remember who he is, nor how he came to be floating in the Mediterranean. The only clues to his identity are his fluency in multiple languages and skill with firearms, as well as a card surgically implanted under his skin with the number of a Swiss bank account.

Jason Bourne (as he learns his name is) tries to access the account, unwittingly setting wheels in motion. Someone wants Bourne dead. A lot of poeple, actually, and most of them seem to work for the same international hit man. Allied with a female Canadian economist he originally held hostage before they fall for each other, Bourne must solve the mystery of his own identity so he can figure out why the assassin Carlos wants to kill him.

I have wanted to read The Bourne Identity for a few years, ever since seeing the 2002 Matt Damon movie. Unfortunately, Ludlum's novel has been on constant reserve for years. Fortunately, this was not the case in my hometown (where, with a population of 6,000 people and 31 years since publication, everyone who wanted to read it has had ample opportunity). So it became part of my annual holiday reading blitz.

It would be easy to dismiss The Bourne Identity as derivative: a superspy with the initials "J.B." battles a larger-than-life villain as the bodies start to pile up. H even introduces himself as "Bourne, Jason Bourne" once. Ludlum certainly characterizes Bourne more as a JamesBond than, say, a Jack Ryan or George Smiley. Bond himself is even struck with amnesia in one novel. However, for Ian Fleming's famed secret agent, it's not the books major plot device. (Bourne resembles Bond in one other way: apart from a few surface details, the movie bears little resemblance to the novel of the same name.)

The Bourne Identity's main prolem is that it is overlong and repetitive. If it were a quarter or a third shorter, it would have the potential to be a real nail-biter. As it is, it runs out of steam somewhere in the middle. So instead of being great, it's just OK. But I'd try reading Ludlum again.