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‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth

Bate breath: A scene from the 1973 movie adaptation   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When Frederick Forsyth landed in Paris in May 1962 as a 24-year-old correspondent for Reuters, his boss gave him one job — to shadow Charles de Gaulle. The President was on the assassination list after France’s Algeria tangle and troops of media tailed him wherever he went. At night after work, as the story goes, Forsyth would hang out at the bars frequented by the underworld, the police and OAS (Secret Armed Organisation in English) sympathisers, staring at the wall and pretending to not understand French. Picking up the chatter about concentric rings of security around the president, he was convinced that only a complete outsider could even think of taking a shot. Later, he would create such a man and call him the Jackal.

Forsyth’s debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, which turned 50 this June, is a chilling tale of a manhunt spread across several countries. Set in 1963, it is about an Englishman hired by the Operations Chief of the OAS to assassinate General de Gaulle. He must be stopped at all costs. But how will the French Police and Commissaire Claude Lebel trace an anonymous assassin not on any bureaucratic file?

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Watching, noting

In August 1962, the OAS came closest to killing de Gaulle, as Forsyth recalls in his memoirs, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. As the President’s Citreon DS 19 passed a road on the way to Orly airport, it came under fire from OAS men. One bullet whizzed past de Gaulle’s nose but the driver managed to drop him, his wife and son-in-law safely to the airport. De Gaulle’s only comment after the shootout was: Ils ne savant pas tirer (They can’t shoot straight). This real-life incident makes it to the book as a build-up to the story of the fictional attempt by a hired killer.

De Gaulle survived several attempts on his life; he resigned from office in 1969, and died a year later at home.

Dividing the novel into three parts, Forsyth uses his journalist’s instincts — “watching, noting, probing, commenting” — to give it a fast-paced, documentary-like feel. When Lebel is asked to unravel the murderous plot and stop the Jackal, he knows the French security establishment is demanding the impossible. All he knows at this stage is that the plotters, three top OAS men, are holed up in Rome. “There was no crime — yet. There were no clues. There were no witnesses, except three whom he couldn’t talk to. Just a name, a code-name, and the whole world to search in.”

Who is the Jackal?

That was precisely what Marc Rodin of the OAS had aimed for. He picked an unknown Englishman in his early thirties. The Jackal was athletic and lean, but his expressionless eyes bothered Rodin. Whatever thoughts did go on “behind the smoke-screen, nothing came through,” and, like all men created by systems and procedures, Rodin did not like “the unpredictable and therefore the uncontrollable”.

The real identity of the Jackal is never unearthed, with the Englishman adopting several alibis, leaving not a single trace of his past. The realistic plot backed by meticulous research has ensured that the Jackal has sold millions of copies and opened doors for writers from Robert Ludlum to Tom Clancy.

Forsyth, an airforce pilot, says he took to writing to clear his debts when he was 31, finishing the novel on a portable typewriter in 35 days. After several publishers rejected the manuscript, Hutchinson’s editorial director, Harold Harris, offered a three-novel deal. Forsyth promptly looked back at his other journalistic assignments in East Germany and Africa, and suggested a book on the Nazis (The Odessa File) and another on white mercenaries in Africa (The Dogs of War).

Jackal was made into a film by Hollywood master Fred Zinnemann in 1973. The thriller inspired several remakes, including August 1 in Malayalam. It has also earned notoriety — copies of the book were reportedly found among the belongings of the Venezuelan terrorist, Carlos, and with Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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