If there's one thing college students all have in common, it's that we're all a bit unsure of ourselves. Thrown out of our parents' cozy houses and into the great big world, we're finally faced with the big questions with no one to shelter us from them. "What should I study?" "How should I vote?" "What job should I get?" "Who do I want to be?" "Who am I?"
It's a kind of uncertainty I share with Martin Odum, the middle-aged private eye protagonist of Robert Littell's excellent spy novel Legends, which I picked up at the library a few months ago and recently decided to re-read. Martin's identity crisis is a bit different than mine, though.
As an ex-CIA agent with a long history of field work, Martin has a catalogue of aliases or "legends" filed away in his head. The trouble is, he's developed a case of multiple personalities, and he can't remember which is the original identity and which are fabricated. Is Martin Odum, New York PI, his true self? Or is he actually Lincoln Dittmann, a sniper and Civil War aficionado? Maybe he's really Dante Pippin, the Irish demolitions expert? Or perhaps Martin's psychiatrist is right, and there's a fourth personality repressed deep within Martin's subconscious? It's a hell of a mid-life crisis, but even though it's implausible, the thematic element of "wondering who you are" turns Martin from an aloof operative into a believable, relatable character. And as the mystery gradually unravels, the possibility of a Shyamalanic twist is left open.
Our story begins when a mysterious woman approaches Martin with a deceptively simple case: find her sister's missing husband, a reclusive businessman who disappeared without a trace, leaving his Orthodox Jewish wife without the means to procure a divorce. The job leads him on a journey around the world, from Brooklyn to Israel to Russia, and unraveling a conspiracy that his former CIA handlers don't want him to uncover. This journey leads to great scenes like the interviews with Russian mobsters in Israel, the shootout in London, or the escape from a biological weapons research facility.
One of the great things about this novel is the way the past has bearing on the present. During the flashback sequences in which we gain a glimpse into each of Martin's personalities, we can see where the lines between each legend begin to blur, as quotes and personality traits are repeated and discarded. And the adventures of Martin's past selves are just as interesting as his present: one barely survives an undercover operation with Hezbollah, while another deals arms in a region of South America.
Martin isn't the only character struggling with his identity. Littell masterfully weaves the motif of changing or secret names into almost every character in the story. A cab driver claims to be a former chess grandmaster. A Russian girl takes on the name of her late twin sister. One of Martin's love interests is a Taiwanese refugee living under an assumed name. Martin's client is in witness protection and can't reveal her true name.
|Sean Bean as Martin Odum in the TV series|