The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was a phenomenally successful author of international thrillers, publishing some 24 novels plus the three Bourne novels, and lending his name to another dozen or so books either co-written with, or entirely written by, other writers. Thus, after Ludlum’s death, with the full permission of his estate, the splendidly named Eric Van Lustbader has produced a further ten Bourne novels.

Like most modern American thrillers this is a long book, at 566 pages. If you see a few of the Bourne paperbacks side by side you get the feeling that, like so much else in American culture, American authors and publishers in this genre measure by size – and this text is as big and unsubtle as a Texas steak, packed with protein, big in size, scope and ambition, raw and bloody.

However, The Bourne Ultimatum is the only one of this large brood I’m likely to read because the price of being so productive, of churning out so many very long texts, is a concomitant thinness of fabric and style and a curious metallic emptiness of character. In fact this is one of the very rare books which I eventually found so insulting to my intelligence and taste that I abandoned it around page 300. I was hoping it would be gripping and intelligent and found it the opposite. Ludlum makes Frederick Forsyth look like Tolstoy.

The plot

There are a lot of facts to digest, but the basic idea is that Jason Bourne’s body is found floating at sea by fishermen who bring him aboard and hand him over to a portside doctor who nurses him back to health. He is fit and intelligent but has lost his memory. Stitched into his body is a microfilm with the address of a bank in Zurich, so the doctor gives him some money to travel to Switzerland where the novel becomes very violent. At the Swiss bank he runs foul of its strict security measures and is attacked on the way out by men with guns; he manages to fight his way free and get back to his hotel where he is again surrounded by a number of armed men so he grabs a hostage, a woman lecturer named Marie attending the economics conference being held at the hotel.

Jason drags Marie out the back of a packed auditorium using her body as a shield against the bad guys, shoves her into a car and forces her to drive around town, while she has hysterics, tries to escape, panics, cries, pleads to be released etc. They go to the house of a legless old concentration camp survivor – Chernak – whose name Jason had been given as a contact, but when Jason turns his back the old man pulls out a gun and is about to shoot him, when Jason shoots first.

Back on the street they are caught by three goons. The boss despatches goon 1 with Marie, saying take her to the river, shoot her and dump her in it. After some interrogation Jason manages to shoot or disable his interrogators and escapes, going down to the river to rescue Marie who he finds being raped in the back of a car by goon one, prior to being shot dead.

Jason rescues Marie, though the baddy gets away in the confusion of gunshots. Marie drives Jason to a village outside Geneva where they rest and recuperate. They review the evidence – that Jason is known and feared wherever he goes, whichever contact he talks to is petrified of being seen with him. They all refer to him as Cain. Meanwhile, the men seeking to kill him appear to work for a figure called Carlos, head of some kind of gang or cartel. (We are shown Carlos, bizarrely, working out of a confessional box in a Catholic church, where he receives a succession of old, ancient men who form a network of agents and messengers. A touch of the deliberately grotesque.)

I’d just got to the scene where Jason has abducted another woman, the owner of a high-class boutique in Paris who is some kind of contact for Carlos. She explains

  • that Cain/Bourne came from a network of assassins and killers groomed during the Vietnam War for illegal operations in one ‘Operation Medusa’
  • that out of that environment came a number of killers who set up international hitman organisations
  • that Carlos has been top-dog in Europe for some time and that Cain/Bourne had carried on being ultra-cruel, ultra-effective killer in the Far East
  • but that some disruption has forced Cain/Bourne to come West and set up in direct competition with Carlos

So that’s why Carlos, via his hitmen, is out to kill him; and also explains the shadowy links to someone or something in the States, maybe the original controllers of the ‘Medusa’ set-up…

After three or four days together, the woman Jason has kidnapped, slapped and hurt and threatened with death and whose actions led directly to her being raped – has fallen in love with Jason. They have sex, and Marie begins to use her in-depth knowledge of international economics, and specifically banking practices, to figure out how to help Jason find out who he is and to counter his enemies…

Rape then love

My son, like me, gave up reading at the point where the woman who has been kidnapped and violated falls in love with Jason. This seems so unlikely as to be unpleasant and repellent. It simply defies belief and breaks the credibility of the story. I suspect any person who’s undergone such a trauma doesn’t particularly want to have sex with anyone for a while. Especially not with a man who kidnapped her and indirectly caused it all.

From this point on the novel treats both characters as if they are sincerely and deeply in love, with many paragraphs devoted to their concern for each others’ feelings etc. These struck me as unreadable, sentimental, fantasist hogwash and were the biggest reason for me abandoning reading the book.

The problem is acknowledged in the film version where Bourne abducts Marie but there is no rape scene and, after they go through some hair-raising chases and shootouts together, their slow rapprochement to becoming lovers is therefore a bit more believable. Or less preposterous than in the novel.

Suspense (lack of)

A thriller is meant to thrill. A key element in this is ongoing suspense about what’s going to happen next. The Bourne Identity suffers for the simple reason that the reader knows there are 12 or so sequels and a whole box set of movies about the guy – and the sheer fact of their existence indicates that Jason Bourne sticks around. Coming to the text with all this baggage means there is no mystery or suspense about the hero’s survival. He survives and thrives, by the look of it.

And if we know these fundamental outcomes – he survives, he will ultimately find out who he is – then the reader’s focus turns more onto the style, the page-by-page experience of reading the text. Does that grip and hold and please us?


Once you stop believing in the story, you are left with the style, which is deliberately clipped, abrupt, telegraphic.

Four slaps in rapid succession, flesh against flesh, blows maniacally administered, received with muted screams of terror. Cries terminated, gasps permitted, thrashing movements part of it all. Inside the car! (2004 Orion paperback edition p.128)

Ludlum uses italics to emphasise things, particularly when a character is thinking or several characters are talking  ‘My God, what shall I do next?’ It becomes very distracting: is it meant to make the prose seem more immediate, or does it reflect a failure to make the words exciting by themselves without having to add extra shouty italics? And in case you didn’t realise that the italics are being used in urgent and exciting moments, there are lots of exclamation marks at the ends of sentences to help!

Here is Marie learning that the colleague she contacted back in Canada to help her track down some of the bad guys’ bank payments has himself been murdered:

‘They killed him. They killed him! My God, what did I doPeter.’
‘You didn’t do it! If anyone did it, I did it. Not you. Get that through your head.’
‘Jason, I’m frightened. He was half a world away… and they killed him!’ (p.198)

She’s scared, you see. You can tell by the italics. And the exclamation marks!! — The odd thing about this epidemic of italics is they often read, to me, to be in the wrong place, giving an odd emphasis to the sentences:

‘Why is it so important?’
‘It… just is.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Yes… No, I’m not sure. Don’t ask me now.’
‘If not now, when? When can I ask you? When will it pass? Or will it ever?!’
‘Stop it!’ he suddenly roared, slamming the glass down on the wooden tray. ‘I can’t run! I won’t! I’ve got to stay here! I’ve got to know!’ (p.209)

Characters like robots

Harder to demonstrate with quotes because it only emerges over lengthy sections, is the way the dialogue, the supporting text, the access to characters’ thoughts, all make them seem like robots. There is no doubt or hesitation. Bourne – none of the characters – really make mistakes or fluff things. They are relentless calculating machines, working the odds and angles, a predatory ruthless attitude which finds its fulfilment in the regular action-packed shootouts. All the accounts of actual combat I’ve read indicate how confusing and bewildering it is, involving a great deal of chaos and accident. In this text there is certainly wild firing which doesn’t hit its target, but it is always extremely clear who is where, who is good, who is bad, what are the angles. It is a fantasy of violence. A video game world with no real risk.

This mechanical, robotic, computer game element lends itself perfectly to the films which set a new standard for incredibly fast, precise, robot-like fights and shoot-outs, with Jason and his opponents converted into terminator level killing machines. As a man, it is thrilling and totally absorbing to watch these techno-fights; your body tenses and flexes as you watch, feeling yourself one of the participants.

But the ‘novel’, as developed by Defoe and Richardson and Austen as a device for the minute calibration of characters’ thoughts and feelings, for the subtle exploration of human consciousness, delicacy of feeling and sentiment, doesn’t feel the right medium for this story. To put it another way, this shallow, overblown, confusing and patronising text doesn’t feel like it belongs to the same tradition or same world at all.

The franchise

Like McDonalds or Krispey Kreme, the Bourne brand has become a franchise. The original three novels by Ludlum – known as the Bourne trilogy – have been joined by nine further Bourne books (with one in the pipeline), written by noted thriller author Eric Van Lustbader. As and when Lustbader desists there’s no reason the franchise couldn’t be taken up by another author(s) and continue forever.

It is tempting to say that Bourne franchise is as globally successful – and as tasteful and as good for you – as McDonalds and Krispy Kreme, and for the same kind of reasons: it delivers a concentrated burst of flavours/sensations/predator memes ruthlessly targeted at the most obvious taste buds/brain receptors which prompt instant and overwhelming nervous system/lower brain gratification but which, if consumed without any variety of over any length of time begin to make you really very ill, and which, even at the moment of consumption, makes you aware that what your body really wants is healthy, nutritious, more subtle, more soulful sustenance.

The movie

The three Ludlum-written Bourne novels were made into box office smash movies – The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Their success is down to the fact that they ditched a lot of the plot and paraphernalia of the novels, replacing Bourne’s rivalry with fellow international assassin Carlos, with a completely different emphasis on the idea that he is a CIA-trained superassassin and his worst enemy is actually his own people who are trying to track him down and kill him before he blows their (illegal) assassin-training operation.

The movies are so brilliant because the scripts so comprehensively dump much of the novel, keeping only the central idea of the super-assassin who’s lost his memory, because they are extremely well directed (Doug Liman the first one, Paul Greengrass for the second two), and because Matt Damon inhabits the role with total, blinding conviction. But also because the concept and sequences themselves belong in the flashy, fast-moving medium of film, not in the slower, more thoughtful world of prose.

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