Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Day of the Jackal (1971)

Thrillers make even more riveting reading when they are based on historical happenings. This novel is based on a combination of 2 important events. Charles De Gaulle was probably the most important leader of France in the past century, seen as the helsman who would make France strong. On the other story, the Algerian question was an important one. Algeria wanted freedom from France, with an insurgency happening in Algeria, and an important section of the French wanting to stamp out this insurgency and ensure that Algeria remains with the French. And then De Gaulle shocked the nation by announcing that Algeria would get independence. Such a news was so shocking for the right-wing hardliners that an organization called the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrète or Secret Armed Organization) attempted to assassinate De Gaulle in order to stop the granting of independence to Algeria.
The novel takes as the starting point, an actual attempt on De Gaulle's life, spear-headed by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry on the 22nd of August, 1962 in a suburb of Paris called Petit-Clamart. The attempt failed, even though a massive number of bullets were fired. The novel starts from this point, and moves onto the realm of fiction, with the OAS hiring a skilled assassin who comes close to actually shooting De Gaulle, thwarted only by a extremely skilled police detective who is chasing him.

Day of the Jackal (1971)
The interesting part is, all of this would have been in secret, so if any such attempt had actually been carried out, it would probably have remained in top secret. The French would have refused to make information public about an attempt that almost succeeded, it would have also made the target seem attainable. The novel, when it came out in 1971, was widely praised for its detail, for the level of research that seems to have been carried out, and is still known as a great piece of fiction.
It is also somewhat infamous, since some of the more infamous people have been seemingly inspired by it. For example,
* A copy of the Hebrew translation of The Day of the Jackal was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the extreme-right militant who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995.
* Real-life terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was nicknamed "Carlos the Jackal" by the press in reference to the novel, which was found in what was assumed to be his bag (but wasn't). Nevertheless, the nickname stuck.
* Recent assassin Vladimir Arutinian, who attempted to kill US President George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to the country of Georgia, was an obsessive reader of the novel and kept an annotated version of it during his planning for the assassination.
Day of the Jackal is a fast paced thriller, taut, keeps one wanting to continue reading. You also get a great insight of how such a police chase works, where the police has to find such a plot, and then to identify the person who is the plot ring-leader, all in time so as to prevent the plot from getting executed.
The novel is about the hunt for such an assassin, a skilled person who was capable of shooting his target when the target was traveling at high speed, through a very small window of opportunity. The assassin meets with the ring-leaders in Vienna, and then starts his planning, including manufacturing his multiple identities and disguises. French intelligence soon become aware of this plan, and Inspector Claude Lebel is assigned the task of defeating the Jackal. And Lebel starts his effort, calling in his old boys network, and getting a lot of help from the British; enough to close in on the Jackal, but he evades capture as he keeps on getting inside information.
And then the police realize an important event is coming up: Liberation Day, on the 25th of August, commemorating the liberation of Paris in World War II. This is not something that De Gaulle will avoid, and makes an ideal hunting spot for the Jackal. The Jackal manages to avoid the dragnet, using first a woman, and then another man for help, killing them as he leaves them. In a remarkable disguise as a war veteran, the Jackal manages to get past the police barricades and into position where he can put General De Gaulle in his cross-hairs. Lebel is following close behind, but not close enough to prevent the Jackal from taking a shot. What saves De Gaulle is the French custom of kissing both cheeks, and the time gives enough time to Lebel to arrive at the scene. The Jackal kills the policeman along with Lebel, but in the short time-off between Lebel and the Jackal where they recognize each other, Lebel manages to kill the Jackal using a machine-pistol; the only thing that the public know is that a vehicle back-fired producing the noise similar to the machine gun.
However, in the end, there is an element of surprise. The British gentleman who was suspected of being the Jackal, Charles Calthrop, re-appears after a fishing trip, so no one really knows who the Jackal was. And so it ends, with a lonely funeral for the Jackal, attended only by Lebel. A great novel by Frederick Forsyth.

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