by Bernhard Schlink; Vintage Books; 246 pages; $15.95
During one of the most exciting chase sequences in his latest amateur-detective novel entitled The Gordian Knot, Bernhard Schlink dubs his protagonist a “paper tiger” and unwittingly describes the unfortunate condition of his book with more verbal dexterity than I can possibly muster. Not to say that the novel doesn’t boast all of the exotic colorations and striped patterns that have made Schlink famous and turned his first effort, The Reader, into a best-selling sensation as well as an Academy Award-winning film adaptation.
On the contrary, Schlink’s trademark simplicity of diction and his talent for expressing the vulnerability of the human condition still carry over beautifully in this stage of his career as he continues to specialize in the conveyance of naked emotion through characters that bare their souls as well as their bodies in a metaphorical device that never loses its poignancy. However, as the plot of The Gordian Knot attempts to branch out from the tradition of its author’s most successful venture, this jungle cat proves itself to be more endangered than it is dangerous.
Still clinging to brevity and personal experience as rules to write by, the German novelist presents in this slim read a central character whose ancestry, bilingual occupation and transcontinental lifestyle closely mirror hats that Schlink himself might be accused of wearing. However, what Georg Polger may or may not have in common with his creator is his own stake in an international conspiracy to steal plans for the most recent technological breakthrough in areal weaponry.
Equally fabricated must be the middle-aged translator’s affair with a mysterious and emotionally tortured spy whose sudden disappearance turns Georg into a devil-may-care journeyman with an obsession for regaining the comfortable existence that is stolen from him by a conglomerate of false associates and shadow organizations. In fact, as the storyline fans out into these various layers of intrigue, any resemblance that the novel has to Schlink’s usual formula is eventually swept behind a curtain of pseudo-espionage that may in fact be made of “iron” if Georg’s assumptions are correct.
It is this sort of makeshift cloak-and-dagger approach that robs the proverbial tiger of its teeth by hiding Schlink’s typically raw-boned brand of a human interest story within a maze of misadventures that are exhaustively reminiscent of Robert Ludlum’s “Jason Bourne” series. Although rays of the uniquely soulful delicacy that once endeared audiences to Schlink’s style occasionally shine through in certain scenes, these moments are brief and frequently rushed to make room for trivial and often confusing details.
Lance Hicks is an English major at Jacksonville State University.