A Very Private Gentleman - Martin Booth Anyone who has seen The American with George Clooney will not recognize this book. The opposite is also true. They are very different. The book is literate; the movie is entertaining (unless you like car crashes and piles of bodies dripping gore in which case you will be bored -- I was not.)​​​​​​

The man’s character and occupation are revealed in bits and pieces, slowly, almost like creating a mosaic or jigsaw, although, as he repeatedly states, much of it may be untrue in order to hide his location and identity. “I have hidden in the crowds all my life. Another face, as anonymous as a sparrow, as indistinguishable from the next man as a pebble on a beach. I may be standing next to you at the airport check-in, at the bus-stop, in the supermarket queue. I may be the old man sleeping rough under the railway bridge of any European city. I may be the old buffer propping up the bar in a rural English pub. I may be the pompous old bastard driving an open Roller — a white Corniche, say —."

The protagonist meditates on killing, that he is a part of history through his actions, that killing itself is essentially meaningless, since death is something that happens to all of us. “Death is but a part of a process, inescapable and irrevocable. We live and we die. Once born, these are the only certainties, the only inevitabilities. The only true variable is the timing of the event of death. It is as pointless to fear death as it is to fear life. We are presented with the facts of both and have to accept them. There is no Faustian avoidance on offer. All we can do is attempt to delay or accelerate the approach of death. Men strive to postpone it.” How the killing is accomplished is important: surgically, quickly. “. . .for death can always be justified. It was the mutilation that was wrong. They should have been satisfied with the end of their enemy. It is not a matter of aesthetics or moralities, of political expediency or humanity. It is simply a waste of time. The dead feel nothing. For them, it is over. For the killers, there is nothing.” “History is nothing unless you can actively shape it. Few men are afforded such an opportunity. Oppenheimer was lucky. He invented the atom bomb. Christ was lucky. He invented a religion. Mohammed was just as fortunate. He invented another religion. Karl Marx was lucky. He invented an anti-religion”

Assassins are essential, he muses, “society would stagnate. There would be no change save through the gradations of politics and the ballot box. That is most unsatisfactory. The ballot box, the politician, the system can be corrupted. The bullet cannot. It is true to its belief, to its aim and it cannot be misinterpreted. The bullet speaks with firm authority, the ballot box merely whispers platitudes or compromise. . . .There is more gross profanity in one corner of the political world than in the whole of the red-light areas of Naples, Amsterdam and Hamburg all rolled into one.” “For what is hell if it is not the modern world, crumbling into dissolution, polluted by sins against the people and the earth mother, twisted by the whims of politicians and soured by the incantations of hypocrites. I drove away in a hurry.”

And yet, he is not the killer; he only supplies the means. “As I care little for death, it follows I care not that I create it for others. I am not an assassin. I have never killed a man by pulling a trigger and taking a pay-off. I wonder if you thought I had. If this is so, then you are wrong. My job is the gift-wrapping of death. . . . “ Has he contrition or committed sins requiring forgiveness? “ “I have told untruths. I have been economical with the truth in the very best traditions of those who govern us. These lies of mine have never done harm, have always protected me at no expense to others and are, therefore, not sins. If they are such, and there is a god, I shall be prepared to answer my case in person when we meet. I shall take a good book to read — say War and Peace or Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago — for the queue for this category of sinner will be very long and, knowing the arrogance of the Christian church, will be headed by cardinals, bishops, papal nuncios and not a few Popes themselves.”

Many lovely phrases. One I particularly liked: “Bats do not so much fly as flicker-splash in neurasthenic parabolæ.” Another: “ Here, rain is an Italian man who does not kiss hands and fawn like a Frenchman, or bow discreetly like an Englishman, keeping sex at bay, or get brazen like an American sailor on shore leave. Here, the rain is passionate. It does not fall in sheets like the tropic downpour or drizzle miserably like an English complaint, snivelling like a man with a blocked nose. It slants down in spears, iron rods of grey water which strike the earth and pockmark the dust, spread out like damp stars upon the dry cobblestones of the streets and the flagstones of the Piazza del Duomo. The earth, far from succumbing to the assault, rejoices in it. After a brief shower, one can hear the earth click and pop as it sucks its drink.”

Part meditation on life, happiness, society, individual worth, personal satisfaction, I very much enjoyed this book, a thriller, but not in the traditional sense of providing a thrill, but rather providing intense sensations. As Farfella himself says, “In a book, Salome can seduce me, I can fall in love with Marie Duplessis, have my own Lady of the Camellias, a private Monroe or exclusive Cleopatra. In a book I can rob a bank, spy on the enemy, kill a man. Kill any number of men. No, not that. One man at a time is enough for me. It always was. And I do not always seek experience second-hand.” Exactly.