Feb 14, 2014

Valentine's Day Book Review: The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum (1982)

Is the hero named Parsifal? Nope. It is, however, a codename given to the unknown enemy, with a tenuous connection to the Wagner opera.

Is there a Mosaic? Well, not literally, no, but in the same metaphorical way there is in all of Ludlum’s conspiracy novels. Who cares? It’s a great title!

The Parsifal Mosaic may be the ultimate break-up novel—at least within the spy genre. Basically, it’s about a guy, Michael Havelock, who makes a really, really bad mistake in his relationship (he believes evidence that supposedly proves his girlfriend, Jena Karas, is a Russian spy), breaks it off in the worst way imaginable (he, um, tries to have her killed—and even believes he succeeds), and then realizes he can’t live without her. After his first attempt at a rebound goes typically awry (he ends up getting a KGB recruitment offer at gunpoint instead of the one-night stand he expected), Havelock sees the error of his ways and spends the first half of the book trying to get Jena to just so much as speak to him again (the problem is now she wants to kill him, too... rather understandably), let alone realize that they’re right for one another. He knows he messed up, and he wants to apologize to her for that, and give her everything he should have given her to begin with. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who want to see them both dead, which makes all of his efforts at reconciliation considerably more difficult. But that doesn’t stop Havelock from pursuing his elusive former love all over the world (from Madrid to Rome to Paris to New York and beyond), fighting all sorts of adversaries, and getting to the bottom of a vast global conspiracy along the way. (Would it be Ludlum without a vast global conspiracy?)

Havelock is an agent of Consular Operations, the fictitious intelligence branch of the U.S. State Department that features in many of Ludlum’s novels. (I suspect its creation came about because the author, in the post-Watergate, post-Church Committee 1970s, couldn’t stomach making a CIA agent a hero in The Matarese Circle.) Or rather, as the novel opens, he’s a former agent, having turned in his resignation following the messy operation that resulted in the supposed death of his lover. He watched it play out, too, observing on a beach on Spain’s Costa Brava as Jena was gunned down by members of the Red Brigade, per his own elaborate set-up. It was more than he could handle. He resigned, and now he’s wandering around Europe, visiting all the places where he previously operated (with her), but never got to enjoy as a tourist. Then, one day at a train station in Rome, he sees Jena. Alive. He tries to go after her, but she flees. This sets into motion his relentless pursuit, which in turn sets agents of various intelligence agencies (as well as freelancers) on his trail. Everyone realizes that he’s now back in the game, but no one’s sure who he’s working for. Neither the Russians nor the Americans can afford to let him live, and he finds himself cut off from his greatest resource back in the States—his mentor, hailed the world over as a “great man,” the Kissinger-like, Czech-born, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Secretary of State Anton Mathias. Ludlum had a great distrust for the self-proclaimed “best and brightest,” so anyone identified as a “great man” comes under instant suspicion, but Mathias’s story takes some interesting twists and turns and doesn’t necessarily lead where seasoned Ludlumites might expect.

Meanwhile, there is a Soviet mole somewhere at the heart of the American government, close to Mathias and close to the President. This really messes things up for Havelock, because the mole believes that Havelock’s relentless pursuit of Jena may lead to his or her exposure. So even if Havelock can convince someone in the U.S. government that he hasn’t switched sides, the mole is still in a position to call the shots and send American-backed hit squads in his direction.

I first read The Parsifal Mosaic, like most Ludlum novels, when I was in middle school, and I’ve remembered it ever since as being one of the author’s best. After revisiting it recently (via Audible audiobook), I now realize that those impressions must have been based largely on the thick novel’s first half, which is as gripping and exciting as anything Ludlum’s ever written. Unfortunately, the story loses some of that momentum when Havelock and Jena are reunited about halfway through—too soon when it was the prospect of that reunion that was driving the story. The focus in the second half shifts to the wider conspiracy that Michael’s pursuit of Jena has uncovered. The nature of this conspiracy (a mosaic which ensnares the President, the mole and the Secretary of State among others) is highly creative, but unfortunately the untangling of it mainly involves Havelock and Jena, thus far the book’s protagonists, holed up in a safe house making phone calls while others do the legwork. (Though regular Ludlum readers know that in his world, “safe houses” are usually anything but.) The unrestrained force that propelled the novel through its breakneck first half is lost a bit in the second. Overall, The Parsifal Mosaic is definitely a good read (and an essential one for the author’s fans), but not quite in a league with Ludlum’s best, like The Bourne Identity or The Chancellor Manuscript. Still, the set-up is there for it to make a truly fantastic movie, and I'd love to see that happen! (Chinese director Zhang Yimou just signed on to direct an adaptation for Universal.)

The Audible edition is read by Scott Brick, one of the most reliable narrators in the business, and like all of his Ludlum readings it’s first-rate—with one glaring caveat. This may just be a personal issue, but my frame of reference when I first read this book for the name “Havelock” was the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Therefore, the hero’s name has been locked in my head for years as the name is pronounced in the film—“have a lock.” But Brick drops the middle syllable, pronouncing it “have lock” throughout his narration. That drove me nuts. But on all other fronts, he does his usual, excellent job! Overall, I find the audio versions a fantastic way to revisit the works of Robert Ludlum and a great way to kill time in Los Angeles traffic. I highly recommend an Audible membership.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.


Quiller said...

Glad to see the Ludlum Dossier return, and at a most opportune time -- the announcement that no less than Zhang Yimou will direct the film version of Parsifal. (Would it be a cliché if I observe that Zhang's involvement is a plot twist worthy of Ludlum himself?)

Parsifal is, after nearly twenty years (my God, has it been that long?), my favorite Ludlum of all time. I read it when I was still somewhat new to Ludlum, having only read Bourne Supremacy and Osterman Weekend previously, and it remains the one Ludlum novel that I had absolutely no idea where it might be going, plot-wise. Later that same year, I made one of the worst mistakes I ever made in my thriller-reading life: I bought a copy of a book you no doubt have in your own collection, The Robert Ludlum Companion. Well, it didn't occur to me that such a tome was bound to be chock-a-block with spoilers. (Or, more likely, it didn't occur to me at fourteen that spoilers were a bad thing.) So pretty much every other Ludlum novel in print at that time was well and truly spoiled for me. But when I read Parsifal, that was all in the future. As a result, all of the big surprises and twists were indeed surprises and twists for me.

Parsifal is best described as "spy opera." And what is spy opera, you ask? Well, it's a term I coined myself (so far as I know) to describe a type of spy story that is similar to the sci-fi subgenre space opera in that it emphasizes larger-than-life action and adventure, with ultra-high stakes and world-shaking consequences, and containing multiple competing political/national/governmental factions. I regard Ludlum as having invented the spy opera form, and I confess it's hard to think of other writers whose work qualify. Clancy in Sum of All Fears, maybe, and Frederick Forysth in his "not-too-distant-future" thrillers like The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiatior and Icon. (Le Carre would never qualify as spy opera; the stakes in his novels are never high enough, and of course that's by design on his part.) Similarly, what separates James Bond stories from spy opera is that in my experience, spy operas are played absolutely on the level with no tongue-in-cheek or self-parody elements.

I agree with you that the novel goes somewhat haywire in the second half, but for a different reason: so much of theaction rising toward the climax centers on an amazing narrative digression -- namely, who performed the autopsy on a character who never appears alive at any time in the novel. Twenty years on I'm still not sure what that was supposed to prove. But it makes up for that with the most wickedly insidious of Ludlum's global conspiracies, as well as being the one true Cold War thriller in Ludlum's canon. It also has one of Ludlum's best and most affecting heroes: Michael Havelock is a genuinely compelling character, not the usual Ludlum scion of privilege but a haunted man who's been running, we understand, all his life. David Webb and Brandon Scofield at least had some memory of a normal life before they turned to spying, but Havelock was forced to become a killer and survivalist far too early in life, as a child. The love story between Havelock and Jenna is indeed truly twisted and even perverse, and will make great cinema viewing when the time comes. And as screwy as this is going to sound, the novel's fictional President Charles Berquist is probably my favorite president in all of thriller fiction; you totally feel the man's keen intelligence, and his horror at the awful trap he's in.

Anyway, great review, and a Zhang-directed film version is by definition one of my most anticipated films of the coming year or so.

Tanner said...

Thanks for your comments, Quiller! It's always a pleasure to read what you have to say. "Spy Opera" is a great term for this novel! And other Ludlums. I love it! Can I use it? :) I don't know that I'd completely agree that something has to be played straight to fall into that category though. Because Shibumi, for example, feels like a spy opera to me on every level... except that it's also a parody! But not really a parody INSTEAD of being a spy opera; it seems to be legitimately both at the same time! But maybe that's a one-off exception...

You're right that the conspiracy in The Parsifal Mosaic is one of Ludlum's best. I didn't mean to sell it short; it's just that I was personally more invested in the love story (so wonderfully twisted!) that I felt let down when it took a backseat in the second half. And you're right about that autopsy doctor business. That was also a problem with the second half. But overall, it's all pretty deliciously enjoyable!