THE GORDIAN KNOT by Bernhard Schlink

Book Quote:

“He didn’t think of himself as immoral. One didn’t trample on the weak, exploit the poor, or cheat the simpleminded. […] It was a question of instinct, and reached only as far as one can perceive the consequences of one’s actions. There were certain things one simply didn’t do, because one wouldn’t be able to face oneself in the mirror. One doesn’t like to face oneself in the mirror when one has pimples, either, but one’s complexion is not a question of morals.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (JAN 14, 2011)

Just now and again in this novel, as in the quotation above, one gets a glimpse of Bernhard Schlink the moral philosopher who probed so deeply into the German past with his novels The Reader and Homecoming and especially the non-fiction Guilt About the Past. But readers looking to this novel for deeper insights will be disappointed. Although the publishers do nothing whatever to indicate that this is not a new novel, its references to Francs and Deutschmarks, to East Germany as a separate country, and to the still-standing World Trade Center show that the book is not of our time. It is in fact a translation of a comparatively early novel by the German author-jurist, first published in 1988. This matters little to readers willing to accept the book on its own terms, but will disappoint those expecting to follow the recent development of Schlink’s sophisticated thought.

This is an entertaining little espionage thriller, but sophisticated it is not. The hero, Georg Polger, has given up a career in law to settle in the South of France, where he earns a precarious living as a translator. Suddenly everything seems to go right for him: he is recruited by a new agency, becomes managing director of an old one whose owner mysteriously dies, and acquires a new girlfriend, an amorous but elusive young woman named Françoise Kamsky. Long after the reader suspects as much, Georg realizes that he is being used; he is surprisingly naive for a former lawyer approaching forty. But his realization brings catastrophe, and soon both his success and his mistress have disappeared.

The latter two-thirds of the book are set in America, first in New York City then moving to San Francisco for the climax. Schlink has some good descriptions of both cities, and a neat way of comparing them: “He thought one might portray San Francisco as a seductive virgin in starched frills, a virgin simultaneously flaunting and withholding her charms, while New York was an old hag, heavy and squat, sweating, steamy, stinking, bubbling incessantly, sometimes screaming.” Georg’s search in New York is somewhat arbitrary, and Schlink’s plotting seems amateurish beside the masters of the genre such as Le Carré, Forsyth, or even Clancy. But Georg’s adventures do keep you reading, as he discovers a situation that is tighter and more intricate than he had first supposed.

Towards the end, there is an interlude of comparative inaction which Georg compares to being encapsulated in a train, moving towards a place where one could once again take action, but rendering him incapable of action now. Here, the tone of the novel changes, again somewhat improbably, but at least giving Georg time for some of the reflection that will become Schlink’s strongest suit as a writer. While I doubt that this early work will win many fans for the author on its own merits, it does have some interest in showing where the present-day writer is coming from.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from X readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Unabridged edition (December 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Bernhard Schlink
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Self’s Murder

The Reader



Self Detective Novels:


Movies from books:

January 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: France, New York City, Noir, Thriller/Spy/Caper

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.