Friday, 13 April 2018

Book Review: The Road to Gandolfo by Robert Ludlum

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17817510-the-road-to-gandolfoThere are many reasons why Italy is a country of longing for so many people worldwide. The mild climate allures winter-weary Northerners craving for the sun, the remains of ancient Roman civilisation stir the nostalgia of history as well as classics enthusiasts, priceless works of art from more than two millennia mesmerise art lovers and the Pope as living idol of millions of faithful Roman Catholics brings streams of pilgrims to Rome. In the 1975 satirical novel The Road to Gandolfo by Robert Ludlum highly decorated US army veteran Lieutenant General MacKenzie Hawkins makes out a fictitious Pope Francesco I as his ticket to retirement without financial worries. He blackmails army lawyer Sam Deveraux into helping him to put his audacious plan into practice with hush money squeezed out of four international crooks and with the willing support of his ex-wives. But the Pope doesn’t react as expected.

Robert Ludlum was born in New York City, New York, USA, in May 1927. Graduated in Drama from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he became a US marine before taking up acting and producing. Only in 1971, he turned to writing novels and brought out The Scarlatti Inheritance that was followed by others in short succession. Among his early novels Trevayne (1973) and The Cry of the Halidon (1974) first appeared under the pseudonym Jonathan Ryder and The Road to Gandolfo (1975) was initially published under the name Michael Shephard. The most famous among Robert Ludlum’s works are the thrillers of The Bourne Trilogy, comprising The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986), and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), to which different authors wrote sequels since. Others of his notable novels are The Holcroft Covenant (1978) and The Matarese Circle (1979). The Road to Omaha (1992) and The Matarese Countdown (1997) are sequels to The Road to Gandolfo and The Matarese Circle from the 1970s respectively. In addition, he instigated the Covert-One series that is written by varying authors under the Ludlum brand. Robert Ludlum died in Naples, Florida, USA, in March 2001.

Major Sam Deveraux has almost done his time as an army lawyer, when he unknowingly gets on The Road to Gandolfo clearing the diplomatic muddle that highly decorated but uncouth Lieutenant General MacKenzie Hawkins produced in Beijing after having been drugged. He has a hard time convincing the man who is commonly known as “the Hawk” that his only way out is to apologise to the Chinese in a public trial and to leave the army, but in the end everything works out as planned and Deveraux believes that this is the last that he has seen of the general.
“Devereaux had left the Hawk over two weeks ago in California, just after the press conference at Travis. Sam had flown back to Washington, his discharge barely three days off, and he had spent the time wrapping up any and all desk matters that might conceivably, even barely conceivably, stand in the way of that glorious hour. Hawkins wasn't a desk matter, but his mere presence was an abstract threat. On general principles.”
Tricked by Hawkins into escorting him and taking classified material out of the army intelligence building, Devereaux can’t refuse to work for him instead of returning to his job in a prestigious law firm in Boston as planned. Only after having prepared a limited partnership agreement, Devereaux learns that the Hawk uses the secret files to blackmail a New York Mafia boss, a powerful English nobleman, a retired German spy, and an Arabian slumlord for the capitalisation. And to his horror, Hawkins tells him the true purpose of the Shepherd Company officially formed for brokering the acquisition of religious artifacts.
“Kidnap the pope! My God! That’s what the crazy bastard said. He was going to kidnap the pope! All of Mac’s other insanities paled by any stretch of comparison! World War Three might be more acceptable! A simple war would be so much, well, simpler. Borders were defined, objectives properly obscured, ideologies flexible. A war was duck soup compared to 400 million hysterical Catholics, and heads of state moaning and groaning their obsequious platitudes, […]”
Realising that kidnapping the pope might indeed lead to World War III, Devereaux is determined to stop the Hawk. But the army general knows his man and sets his four beautiful ex-wives on keeping him in check. From his headquarters in a chateau tucked away on vast grounds in a remote Swiss mountain valley the Hawk enlists seven well-selected provocateurs in need of a job for the kidnapping. Devereaux is confined to his room without clothes to prevent him from disturbing the preparations although he tries despite all. And then, the pope himself gives the kidnapping a completely unexpected turn…

The third-person narrator of The Road to Gandolfo is an unconcerned observer who indulges in evoking a bizarre, not to say funny story set against the background of the Cold War. The result is a blend of espionage thriller and crime novel in a thoroughly playful and humorous tone, thus a light comedy of the usual genre fiction. Admittedly, the well-designed plot with the planned and eventually executed kidnapping of a fictitious Pope Francesco I as its red thread doesn’t seem particularly realistic, but the author probably never intended it to be although he took great care to make the course of events entirely logic and plausible. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of the described spy activities actually were inspired by the Watergate affair, altogether the references to politics and incidents of the time are too few, though, to justify calling the novel a period work. All characters are more or less stereotyped, sometimes almost to the point of the grotesque, which adds to the comical nature of the book, of course. As for the language, it’s simple and permeated with so many American colloquialisms from first to last page that it annoyed me towards the end.

All things considered, The Road to Gandolfo by Robert Ludlum has been a rather light and amusing read that gave me more pleasure than expected when I opened the book. The story reminded me a bit of another satirical spy novel – or entertainment as the author himself called it – that I liked, namely of Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (»»» read my review), although apart from both making fun of the spy trade they have little in common really. Regarding the elegance of language, Robert Ludlum can’t compete with Graham Greene at all. They play in different leagues – like slapstick and political cabaret! However, each of the books has its merits and for someone just seeking temporary escape from depressing reality, The Road to Gandolfo surely is a good choice because instead of inspiring deep thought it makes smile, even laugh. And for this it deserves my recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. I have read my share of Ludlum but never this one. It sounds entertaining. I have read Our Man in Havana. You are right about the different leagues of the two authors!

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