The premise is everything. Your opening scene? A man floating on the ocean. Of course: The origins of life. Vishnu sleeps on an ocean. It fits. Now have the man rescued, drawn up from the pre-existent state into existence. After he’s revived (that is, reborn), it’s revealed he has amnesia. He was someone else, before his immersion and emergence. But now he has no memory of that life.
Perfect. Your little parable-parallel with Indian philosophy is coming along: Reincarnation, with the newborn remembering nothing of its past lives. But you want this to be something people with no particular interest in Eastern philosophy can read and enjoy, for the sake of the story.
So: set up the action. He’s been a bad person in that past life. He’s been an assassin. Powers that know about his past life are out to get him. Gunfire and explosions, terror, confusion, and generalized suffering ensue, and he doesn’t know why. (But the metaphor knows why, wink wink: Bad karma.)
More explosions. Jabbing throats, dislocating the arms of mysterious assailants, loading and firing automatic rifles with unexpected facility, he struggles to recall his past life. One crucial thing he learns is his name. Here’s the kicker: His name is Born.
Wait, too obvious. Switch up the spelling. Bourne. It has a high-literary aspect, too: The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne / No Traueller returnes . . . , at least not with his memory. (“Borne” is the original 1623 Folio spelling: now there’s one death-in-life, life-in-death double meaning to blow the mind.) “Bourne” will be perfect. The book will write itself after that. And what will you call this clever allegory of rebirth, the Self, the expiation of karma? The Bourne Amnesiac? No, that’s no good. How about . . . The Bourne Identity?
With the Wachowski Brothers in Matrix, the theological structuring is obvious and obviously deliberate. It shows every sign of an aging civilization’s spiritual eclecticism. The digital unreality of the Matrix is analogous to maya, the illusion of materiality which the unenlightened think of as the “true” reality. Neo (oNe) is the One, the Messiah—he actually dies and comes back to life at the end of the first movie. The Matrix itself has, according to the third movie, been created and destroyed several times (another Indian idea, that of the kalpa, the periodic destruction and creation of the cosmos). Books have been written on the religious elements in the Matrix movies; I myself think it’s the most successful example of that kind of thing in the history of film. (Hollywood attempts it all too often—sometimes so hamfistedly it makes a heathen like me a bit uncomfortable, like 2006’s Superman Returns.) But just as in Superman Returns, the Matrix trilogy’s religious echoes aren’t accidental.
What about Robert Ludlum’s?
Bourne’s real real name, by the way, is Webb. Which brings to mind spiderwebs, the insect trapped, paralyzed, and bound, the sinister invisibility of design. With The Bourne Identity, I have to hold myself back. Don’t get me started on the significance of Bourne’s archenemy, Carlos the Jackal, the jackal being traditionally associated with Kali . . . .
Did Ludlum set out to do this, or is his theologically spot-on premise just an accident that happened in the course of churning out thriller after three-word-titled thriller? He knocked them out at the rate of one a year during the seventies. The Gemini Contenders, The Chancellor Manuscript, The Holcroft Covenant, The Matarese Circle. And then, in 1980, came the one that has lasted, The Bourne Identity. If you look at the math, he was writing Identity the year I was born, 1979. I’m not solipsistic enough to think that’s significant, but if I did think the universe existed solely for my benefit, that little fact would click in place nicely.
In more than one daydream-sequence, I have encountered Robert Ludlum. He is wearing the somewhat pretentious trench coat he posed in for his dust jacket photographs—as if he himself were a spy in a movie, some Cold War runner who had agreed to meet me on a sidestreet in Berlin, or Zurich, or whatever European locale we choose for our scene. For atmosphere’s sake, let’s make it nighttime. Rain. A siren in the distance. We engage in a predetermined exchange, the precursor of those authentication questions so big a part of Internet security.
He challenges, Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man.
My passphrase? It would be better for him if he had not been . . . Bourne.
He nods. I don’t have much time.
And so, in a hushed, pressured voice, I lay out the secret I’ve discovered. That he, Ludlum, wrote an esoteric Hindu parable in the guise of a popular spy thriller. Tapped into some Jungian archive in the collective Mind deeper than the Kremlin’s sub-basement, totally went above his clearance, which was Eyes-Only, and accessed some Third-Eye-Only level material, and hid it, as they say, in plain sight: A 544-page doorstop published by Random House. A nice touch, going through Random House. Flaunting the—seemingly?—random nature of the parallels. I tell him that I am onto him. I haven’t been fooled by the distractions he surrounded it with, those formulaic, cat-and-mouse genre novels. I show him a chronological list of his novels between 1971 and 2001: Between The Scarlatti Inheritance and The Sigma Protocol, there are exactly eleven novels above and below The Bourne Identity. Eleven published before it, eleven published after it. He buried it a little too neatly. Even the most brilliant covert operatives will make the occasional mistake.
Because I know what he is. The perfection of that premise is beyond chance. If I concede the operation of chance in the novel, I must admit the possibility of chance in the theology it mirrors. And this would be sacrilege. It might cause the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Widespread unrest, revolution, between myself and my faith a mutually assured destruction. This secret is too dangerous to keep. I have to go public with it, send it to all the papers. I have to expose Ludlum as the supreme Hindu novelist he is, the one Greater Maker who has translated ancient Indian metaphysical concepts, until then locked in Sanskrit terminology and crosseyed guru-speak, into language indistinguishable from middling, popular prose. This has been the most sublime feat of all: Sublimity of idea descending and taking on the form of a crude genre novel, like a god taking on human flesh—Sanskrit, avatar. I have decrypted Bourne’s Identity, and now I’m going to expose Ludlum’s.
But I give him a choice: He can confess to me, privately, now, whether he designed that premise or hit on it by accident. Whatever he says, even if it’s not what I want to hear, I’ll accept it and keep this matter hush-hush, deal with the fallout on my own. Langley won’t find out, and neither will MI-6, Interpol, the Mossad, or the Russians. He can go on living his double life. But he has to tell me.
Ludlum stares off at a blinking neon sign across the street. The water runs off our umbrellas. He is holding a cigar. He flicks the ash from it and speaks smoke. Your books don’t sell very well, do they?
Then he turns and disappears into the night, headed for the safest of safe houses, where I will never find him again.