Charlotte's Reviews > The American: A Special Edition of A Very Private Gentleman

The American by Martin Booth
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's review
Sep 18, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in September, 2010

Martin Booth's 1990 thriller, originally titled "A Very Private Gentleman", is an interesting and unusual novel. It's funny to me that an edition of the book titled "The American" (so titled because it has just been adapted into a movie starring George Clooney who probably cannot do an English accent) has now been released, because the first-person voice of the narrator is so very English. Yes, in the novel, the narrator and protagonist is an Englishman. He handcrafts high-quality guns with sometimes unusual specifications to be used (and remain untraceable) in assassinations, commissioned by various individuals (who usually retain aliases). His is a job that requires secrecy, constant vigilance, and an on-the-move lifestyle (he usually picks a city or town to complete a job, and then moves on, and has lived all around the world).

In the novel, the narrator has picked a small town in rural southern Italy for his latest job. He is known by the locals as "Signor Farfalla," or Mr. Butterfly, since they believe he is a reclusive man who is commissioned to paint flowers and butterflies for a living. As Signor Farfalla proceeds with his work and spends time in his lovely apartment, about the town, and in the countryside, he begins to fantasize about finally leaving the business after completion of this job, settling in the small town he is slowly falling in love with, and spending his twilight years with Clara, a young local prostitute whom he has been visiting regularly (of course they fall for one another). Of course just as Signor Farfalla begins to envision a peaceful, romantic future for himself for the first time in his life, a shadow-dweller (this term is used consistently throughout the novel) appears in town and begins to watch and follow him. Signor Farfalla knows he is not safe and must find out who this person is and what he wants.

This novel left quite an impression on me because of its very distinctive and unusual style, moody atmosphere, and wistful, evocative tone. The voice of the narrator is at once refined but intense, romantic but cynical, thoughtful but arrogant. As I said above, it is written in a very English narrative voice and style. No short, concise Hemingwayesque sentences here. The language is quite ostentatious (at times even flowery), but yet no-nonsense, with a very masculine perspective. Signor Farfalla is in late middle-age and spends a lot of time recounting stories from old jobs and reflecting on the past. In fact the novel is as much a meditation on life, love, and death from someone entering his twilight years as it is a thriller, and the two combine for a surprisingly compelling read. I have to admit that I was initially turned off (the first 60 pages or so) by the seemingly pedagogical, patronizing voice of the narrator, but then became somewhat enchanted by it. Rural southern Italy is, of course, an important character, and lends to the nostalgic yet dark feel of the novel. I would definitely recommend it, especially to any lovers of the English language. It is certainly not for someone who is expecting a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. In fact it is quite slow-paced, and only really has a burst of action at the end.
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