Unraveling ‘Gordian Knot’ generates apathy

By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2010

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Georg Polger is getting over a breakup and making a meager living as a freelance translator in the south of France when he gets a call from the newly formed Bulnakov Translation Service. During his first meeting with the owner, Georg is not only offered steady work but is asked to accompany the young and beautiful Francoise Kramsky to Lyon to help represent the firm at an IBM conference the following week. At the conference their relationship becomes more than just professional. Soon Francoise has all but moved in with Georg and he’s flush with cash.

And as if that’s not enough good luck to make him suspicious, one of Georg’s former employers dies abruptly. At Bulnakov’s urging Georg applies (successfully) to take over management of the deceased’s translation business. The first project the company takes on under Georg’s leadership involves design and construction plans for military helicopters. By now any reader will have realized that all is not well, but Georg doesn’t catch on until he wakes up one night and catches Francoise photographing the schematics.

“The Gordian Knot’’ is a novel I really wanted to like, but in spite of some genuinely chilling moments and one exciting sequence during the denouement, I felt emotionally disengaged from the characters. That’s not appropriate for a thriller, even one as cerebral as this one.

Georg confronts Bulnakov about what’s going on. Bulnakov responds by destroying Georg’s business. Meanwhile, Francoise has disappeared.

Georg goes to New York because he has reason to believe Francoise is there.

He succeeds in finding Francoise (who now has a child) and moves in with her. Little by little, she tells Georg something of herself and her continuing work for Bulnakov. But what Francoise really reveals is just how little she cares about other people.

When asking himself why he loves her, Georg comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t know. I in turn was asking myself how dishonest, cold-hearted, and dangerous does a woman have to be to make Georg walk away?

Any believability the book possessed was destroyed when Georg secures Francoise’s cooperation in his plan to get back at Bulnakov by threatening her baby. To the extent that Georg is a character at all he is simply incapable of this, and you would think a woman in espionage would know an empty threat.

The book closes with an irritatingly self-conscious epilogue. It’s set years after the aforementioned events, Georg and Francoise live together in Lisbon, and Georg is entertaining an old friend who has taken Georg and Francoise’s story and written. . . “The Gordian Knot.’’ Georg and his friend discuss the emotionally distant quality of the narrative.

This self-referential epilogue makes sense given Bernhard Schlink’s concerns with the inadequacy of language. One of the themes of his critically acclaimed “The Reader’’ was whether written and oral accounts could make later generations truly understand the realities of the Holocaust. However, to take the idea of the inability of narrative to convey experience and embody it in a novel in such a self-conscious and frustrating manner is, to say the least, disappointing.

The first duty of an author is to make the reader care. And for the most part, I didn’t.

Kevin O’Kelly can be reached through his blog at

THE GORDIAN KNOT By Bernhard Schlink

Vintage, 256 pp., paperback, $15.95