Balladeer’s Blog previously examined my picks for The Top Seven Robert Ludlum Novels. Here’s a look at the novel that would have been in 8th place if I had done his Top Eight. FOR THE TOP SEVEN CLICK HERE
8. THE PARSIFAL MOSAIC (1982)
TIME PERIOD: Early 1980s
Chronologically, this novel was the last Ludlum work that I really enjoyed. I found the Bourne sequels silly and most of his other subsequent works to just be tiresome rehashings of the stories he had written from 1971 to 1982.
As it is, The Parsifal Mosaic itself reuses plenty of elements from other, better Ludlum books but has just enough new touches for it to be a worthwhile read.
HERO: American Michael Havelock, a Czech-born Intelligence Officer. Havelock’s father was retaliated against by the Nazis in the Lidice reprisal killings, just like Stefan Varak’s character in The Chancellor Manuscript. Also like Varak, Michael Havelock was just a little boy when the Lidice slaughter occurred and he spent weeks on the run in the nearby forests scavenging food and killing Nazi soldiers when he could.
And like Varak, Havelock’s father was targeted because he did covert work for the Allies, so when little Michael was brought in from the cold he was placed with well-to-do British and American families to complete his schooling all the way up through college.
The now-adult Havelock saw the clear similarities between Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism and in order to oppose the Communists he gravitated to Intelligence work. Michael’s mentor and fellow Czech-American (more on him shortly) had brought him into the State Department, just like Robert Winthrop had brought Brandon Scofield into the State Department in The Matarese Circle.
Also like Scofield, Havelock transferred to Ludlum’s fictional Consular Operations, the State Department’s covert arm. From The Matarese Circle we readers know that “Cons Op” as it’s called specializes in defections and in running escape routes from the Iron Curtain countries.
A very high-level defector with a secret agenda outside the typical Cold War machinations will loom large in the unfolding plot.
VILLAIN: An elusive figure or organization code-named PARSIFAL from Wagner’s opera about the Knight named Parsifal (Percival to the English). Parsifal’s conspiracy at first seems limited to fairly minor yet perplexing espionage activities but when all put together the title mosaic reveals a pattern that may trigger a three-way, all-out nuclear war pitting the United States, China and the Soviet Union against each other.
THE MENTOR: Anton Matthias, the fellow Czech-American who recruited Michael Havelock into the State Department out of college. Matthias is the fictional Secretary of State in this novel and seems to be a composite of men like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that Matthias has either been abducted by Parsifal, or has willingly disappeared, or is being held in seclusion against his will or is dead. As Secretary of State, Anton is technically Havelock and Jenna Karas’ boss at Consular Operations.
Synopsis: Embittered and heart-broken Consular Operations agent Michael Havelock resigns from that State Department covert agency. In a compound nightmare Havelock recently learned that his true love and fellow Cons Op agent Jenna Karas was secretly a plant from the VKR, the KGB’s internal cadre of political fanatics.
Not only that but in retaliation for the VKR’s action, American intelligence engineered Karas’ death on Spain’s Costa Brava … in front of Michael, who insisted on being on-hand until the very end of the love affair he now feels was a lie and a sham. With too many reminders of Jenna in his work environment Havelock cannot go on and chose to resign instead.
At first Havelock tries to ease his pain through constant travel, only to find that not only do many operatives in U.S. Intelligence believe he is NOT really out of the profession, but even the Soviets believe Michael’s resignation was staged. Old friends AND foes think it was all a ruse just to facilitate Havelock’s move to deep cover in some sort of Long Game against the U.S.S.R.
Through one such old foe – the KGB’s Pyotr Rostov – Michael is told that the Soviets believe that that supposed Long Game was launched to convince the KGB that Havelock was ripe for either defection or abduction. The purpose would be to have Michael mislead the Soviets with a fountain of misinformation and lies.
Rostov becomes convinced that Michael truly has resigned but wryly assures him his superiors will likely not buy it and will go on considering him “tainted bait” intended to set them up. He also tells the stunned Havelock that Jenna Karas NEVER worked for Soviet Intelligence.
The perplexed ex-Cons Op man continues his aimless drifting until one day, by sheer chance, he sees Jenna Karas ALIVE. He tries to pursue her but she quickly loses him. Havelock is now outraged and realizes that the supposed murder of Karas on the Costa Brava was faked and must be why old friends and foes are convinced he was part of that deception as preparation for a new undercover intelligence role.
The furious Michael makes contact with some old Consular Operations colleagues to report seeing Jenna Karas alive but they do not believe him. Instead the Director of Cons Op and his top strategists are led to the conclusion that they have an unhinged former agent who – given his traumatic childhood – may be a danger to himself and others.
Havelock demands an explanation about what really happened on the Costa Brava. When his former colleagues try telling him Jenna really is dead he remains skeptical and threatens to expose still-active Cons Op agents in Italy unless he gets some answers.
Those threats convince the Director and Strategists of Consular Operations that Michael is “beyond salvage” and must be killed. They string along Havelock by telling him that “Red” Ogilvie, a former superior of Michael’s with whom he had clashed, is being sent to Rome to rendezvous with our hero and provide info on Jenna Karas.
Ogilvie – codenamed Apache – is terminally ill, which is the only reason a man of his rank in Cons Op is being permitted to return to the field since he will either die bumping off Havelock or die shortly thereafter.
Ogilvie is a very interesting character. After supervising Michael in a Cons Op network in the Dardanelles, Ogilvie at some point was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned in a Siberian Gulag. A paramilitary raid in conjunction with Consular Operations rescued him before the full extent of his Top Secret knowledge was suspected by the USSR.
At any rate, Ludlum again rehashes a story element as Red Ogilvie sets out assuming that his former subordinate Michael is unstable or turned traitor, just like the Alexander Conklin/ Jason Bourne dynamic in The Bourne Identity.
Ogilvie dies during the meeting with Havelock, who survives the trap and carries through on his threat to expose Cons Op personnel in Italy. Back in Washington D.C. the Consular Operations Director and Strategists are killed off by “Ambiguity” – an associate of Parsifal.
In Europe, Michael continues trying to track down the still-living Jenna Karas while simultaneously running for his life from every American Intelligence operative on the continent. At length our hero locates a female acquaintance of Jenna’s who has been helping her stay on the lam.
This woman informs Michael that after the operation at the Costa Brava, Jenna became convinced that Michael had turned traitor and was trying to kill her. So, while he was misled into thinking that she was a VKR agent and had been killed for it, SHE was misled into thinking that he had sold out and wanted her dead.
But why was this deception mounted in the first place? And how is it connected to Havelock’s inability to make contact with his old mentor, Secretary of State Matthias?
SPOILERS: Well, actually, the rest of The Parsifal Mosaic is SO dependent on solutions to interlocking deceptions that it would rob first-time readers of the only real high points in the remainder of the story.
Yes, I’ve revealed the endings to other Robert Ludlum novels in my SPOILERS section but those books were not as enigma-based. In the case of this novel any more spoilers would be as bad as giving away the identity of the murderer in a mystery novel.
MORE LUDLUM REHASHINGS: Instead I’ll do a quick checklist of how Robert Ludlum recycled other themes from his previous works:
*** A dignified, aristocratic American diplomat with a pencil-thin mustache, like Munro St Clair in The Chancellor Manuscript and Robert Winthrop in The Matarese Circle. In The Parsifal Mosaic that diplomat is named Emory Brooks, one of the least subtle names Ludlum ever gave to one of his pastiches of a real-life figure – in this case Brooks Emeny.
*** Prominently featured in the second half of the novel are Soviet sleeper agents called Paminyatchiki. These figures were Russian agents planted with American families when they were children, in hopes of using them as intelligence assets when they matured. This makes them Soviet versions of the Nazi children planted as sleeper agents in The Holcroft Covenant.
*** Just as the Nazi children were led by one of their own – the handsome, well-built and charismatic Johann Von Tiebolt, the Paminyatchiki were led by one of their own – a handsome, well-built and charismatic figure whose identity I won’t reveal. I CAN say that he is the Parsifal associate using the codename Ambiguity.
*** Ludlum loves to write male figures romantically pining for their dead true love, like Lawrence Fassett in The Osterman Weekend, Brandon Scofield in The Matarese Circle, or David Webb before he became Delta (and later Jason Bourne) in The Bourne Identity. In The Parsifal Mosaic that figure is the boozy, discredited newspaper columnist “Alexander the Great”, who seems to be Ludlum’s pastiche of Joseph Alsop.
*** The American Intelligence operative who engineered the fake murder of Jenna Karas on the Costa Brava is depicted as an adrenaline junkie who came to live only for the risks he faced in the field, beginning during the Vietnam War. This is similar to David Webb/ Delta in his down time following the Vietnam War until he was recruited for his undercover assignment as Jason Bourne.
TEASERS: Other tantalizing aspects of the mosaic created by Parsifal include:
+ A veritable concentration camp for slave labor … in Pennsylvania.
+ An East Coast American Island which houses a highly detailed duplicate of Washington D.C.
+ A fictional president – Charles Berquist – who has formed a small ad hoc group of advisors whom he consults because the U.S. government is being blackmailed by Parsifal … and is doing whatever is demanded.
+ The Parsifal associate codenamed Ambiguity is coordinating his actions with the fanatics of the VKR and is basically running the remaining paminyatchiki for them.
Overall The Parsifal Mosaic is enjoyable and it highlights Robert Ludlum’s view that left-wing zealots are every bit as destructive as right-wing zealots. Ultimately, however, the disappointing motive behind Parsifal’s mosaic is a bit “undergrad” or like something from a creative writing course. Readers tend to expect better from Ludlum.
On the plus side the author included his usual bits of verisimilitude, especially regarding his fictional Consular Operations. In The Parsifal Mosaic we readers are told that Spain is still so shaky following Franco’s death in 1975 that there is no Cons Op station in Madrid. The clandestine organization’s operations in both Spain and Portugal are directed out of Lisbon.
Exposure to the writings of Robert Ludlum and George MacDonald Fraser at a young age was an immense help to me in seeing the flaws and foulness of both the political left and right. Just as Ludlum definitely leaned left but included a lot of what would be labeled “right-wing” sentiments in his writing, Fraser definitely leaned right but included a lot of what would be labeled “left-wing” sentiments in his writing.
The non-dogmatic approach employed by those two men stands out to me more and more, as shrill partisanship comes to cloud so much present-day writing. +++
FOR MORE OF THE TOP LISTS FROM BALLADEER’S BLOG CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/top-lists/
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