Book review: The Parsifal Mosaic

The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Airport novels. They’re the ideal way to defrag your brain. It took me years to deprogram myself from the literature degree belief that everything I read had to be worthy, had to be a classic.

Sometimes, you just want some brain-popcorn rather than multi-clausal comedies of manners.

The Parsifal Mosaic is primo airport lit. Is it exceptional? Something I’ll remember for ever, full of insight and wit? Fuck no. But it features sleeper agents and doppelgängers, which is demonstrably better.

The novel tells the story of Michael Havelock, an intelligence officer who has seen his partner – a KGB double agent, he’s discovered – killed on a beach. He leaves the State Department’s black ops division for a regular joe life, which is going swimmingly until he sees, well, his partner.

At a train station.

Not dead.

What happens next involves nukes, incredible secrecy and a bunch of wheeling and dealing from a very poorly-disguised version of Henry Kissinger. There’s sleeper agents, assassins, deals and double-crossings. It has pretty much everything you’d want in a period thriller, including terribly written love scenes. (Ludlum is much better at describing explosions, let me tell you.)

A lot of other reviews indicate that The Parsifal Mosaic is one of Ludlum’s weaker novels. It didn’t appear to be all that weak to me, though I do agree with the criticisms of the work’s convolution. It’s an intricate thing, but seemingly without much cause. Occam’s razor has been chucked out and a mighty beard has grown in its place. You know, one of those quarantine beards, or one of the ones in the Lear poem wherein several birds may safely congregate.

Did I mention it belabours things a bit?

L.P. Hartley said that the past was a foreign country, and I suspect that’s part of the reason why I enjoy reading this type of novel so much. It was published in 1982, in the throes of the Cold War. It exists in a place from my youth – I was six when it was released – where there’s no internet, no on-tap information source. It seems … quaint. There’s something almost homely about the writing and the certainty of who’s-good-and-who’s-bad.

(I mean, check out the cover for this edition. The other Ludlums I’ve collected continue in this vein, featuring snakes, swastikas made of cash, shotgun shells and gauntlets dominating flags.)

There’s supposedly a film version – possibly directed by Zhang Yimou, no less! – on the cards. Or there was, at least, pre-2020’s 2020-ing. While I can’t imagine this would make any sort of splash the way the Bourne series of films did, I am keep to see where the idea of an extended Ludlum universe goes.

A potential film based on this source material would be good. Not great. But perfectly popcorn, the sort of thing you’d eat up on a flight or a lazy Saturday afternoon.

You know, just like the book.

My Goodreads profile is here.


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