Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages
Publisher: Bantam (February 1, 1984)
target group: adults
An unknown man is shot and dumped into the sea in the middle of the Mediterranean. He is found barely alive by fishermen two days later and he ends up in the care of an alcoholic expat doctor from the UK, called Geoffrey Washburn, at Île de Port Noir, a small island on the coast of France. For three weeks he remains comatose while the doctor nurses him back to health. When his consciousness returns he finds himself amnesiac – a man without any memory of his past. The doctor tries to help him and they start to figure out who and what he is. Their findings are disturbing. There is evidence that very professional plastic surgery has altered his face to make him able to blend in with a crowd, and change his appearance with the addition of contact lenses, hair dye, or a bit of facial hair. French, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese: in all of these he seems to be completely fluent. A thin strip of microfilm, implanted beneath his skin, leads the man to a bank in Zurich where a name of Jason Bourne is revealed, along with the sum of four million dollars. Is it really his true name, though? Who had paid him so much money and what for? Some nasty hit squads are attempting to end his life. Why?
Slowly, tantalizingly, remnants of Jason’s past are revealed. He has been recognised by someone who thought he was dead, who wants him dead. News of him reaches the ears of the CIA, and of a professional assassin named Carlos. Bourne finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place as he tries to understand his past, which comes back to him in flashes, triggered by a street, a building or a face. Bizarre memories of a secretive ops unit from the Vietnam War, known only as Medusa, begin to resurface as well, bringing out hidden emotions, feelings, and most importantly to Jason, names. In a desperate bid to escape his many pursuers, he kidnaps a woman named Marie St Jacques, a Canadian PhD and a financial whiz. Together they try to piece together his past, and keep each other alive. Who is he? Who does he work for? Whose side is he on?
What I liked:
If any reader expects “The Bourne Identity” to be just like the movie, he’s in for a surprise. Up until the episode at the bank in Zurich, it’s a bit similar. After that the book takes a wildly different path. The only things the book shares with the movie are the general concept (assassin with no memory hunted by some other assassins) and a few character names. That’s about it.
Despite having seen the movie based on The Bourne Identity (and not enjoying it almost at all), I could recall very little of it. Reading the book I could relate to its main character, Jason Bourne: fragments, names, and faces coming back to me at irregular intervals, but with no context in which to place them. The film sets a different scenario, creating different characters, definitely more shallow and less interesting I must add. The biggest difference can be spotted in the case of Marie. In the book she is a very intelligent, mature woman, an economist with plenty of stamina and incredible analyzing skills, in other words a fully -fledged heroine with a voice of her own. The movie Marie is merely a pretty vagabond student, just another Bond…sorry, Bourne girl, an accessory, not a character. Her main asset is her dilapidated car. You barely remember her name.
Let’s return to the book. From cover to cover Robert Ludlum’s thriller does not let up on suspense, mystery, or pace. The plot is really intricate and be warned- cliffhangers are not solely confined to the end of a chapter. It is really a highly readable book that keeps you turning the pages. Thrillers seldom get as good as this.
What I didn’t like:
Even a good plot with some clever and intriguing bits couldn’t make up for the fact that Bourne’s superhuman abilities grated after a while – for example he could get shot really a lot of times and somehow survive while he only needed to shoot the baddies once and they were so conveniently dead. It is my usual complaint when it comes to gung ho thrillers: if the hero is so good and brilliant and skilled, how come he is constantly in trouble? In normal life such people don’t exist but somehow thriller writers are immune to such a reasoning.
Apart from that the style of writing was a bit of a drag – I found the narration long-winded at times and stiff. Because of that the book was a bit too long. There’s really no need to repeat ad nauseam how confused and conflicted our hero is; most readers will keep that in mind after a while and you can save some trees reducing the number of unnecessary pages.
One last thing – the book was written and published before the era of mobile phones (1984) and somehow reading about a super-hero who must run from one phone booth to the other had strange effect on me – it was sometimes funny and sometimes simply ludicrous, making me grin in the middle of dead serious scenes! That’s the problem with technology – it changes so fast, providing unintentional comic relief!
An entertaining and truly engaging read I can really recommend for those who have plenty of time to kill while e.g. traveling or sitting on a beach. Even if you saw the movie you will enjoy this one. I will read the rest of the series when I am less busy for sure!