Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Day of the Jackal 40th anniversary

This interview with Frederick Forsyth comes from the Telegraph on the 40th anniversary and re-issue of Day of the Jackal - often called the assassin's manual.
I love this book, re-read it every year and watch the great black and white film made in the 70's.
Every time I pass the Gare Montparnasse I watch for the window where the Jackal made his shots at de Gaulle and once I even attempted to get in the building a la the Jackal but alas couldn't crack the door code. No assassin with a prosthesis containing a rife of my own design, me.
Day of the Jackal influenced so many; mercenaries, writers and the way the world looked at politics. Here's part of the article. I hope you enjoy it, read the Day of the Jackal again or for the first time. I was thrilled to learn more how Forsyth wrote the novel. From the Telegraph interview with Frederick Forsyth:

There’s a bullet mark on the case of the typewriter that Frederick Forsyth used to write The Day of the Jackal.The damage was done during the Nigerian Civil War in the late Sixties, which Forsyth covered first for the BBC and then as a freelance reporter.

But when he got back to London, Forsyth was flat broke, kipping on a friend’s sofa and tired of the hand-to-mouth slog of freelance life. So in the bitterly cold January of 1970, he sat down at the rickety fold-out table in his friend’s kitchen with his battle-scarred Empire Aristocrat typewriter and, in just 35 days, wrote the thriller that broke the mould.

The idea for The Jackal first dawned on him years earlier, while he was working for Reuters in Paris. Between 1961 and 1963 there was a series of assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle by a French terrorist group, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), fighting to prevent Algerian independence. “It was just a question of watching the concentric rings of security around de Gaulle,” he says, “and coming to the conclusion that the OAS were not going to kill him. Most of the OAS were ex-army – which meant they were on file. Or they were white colonists from Algeria – neo-fascists.” If the terrorists really wanted the job done, Forsyth figured, they should hire an outsider: a professional hit man with no ties to them and no file with the French police.

The thought simmered away. “I would come back to it in airport lounges,” he says, “but I never thought I’d do anything with it.” Then, in Biafra, he met hired guns for the first time. “Some of the mercenaries were psychopaths, sociopaths, sadists and the cruelties they perpetrated have been recorded and are very unpalatable indeed. Others were just ex-soldiers, down on their luck. Well, I would tag along behind them on raids behind Nigerian lines because that was the story. The other half of the story – of course – was the camps where the children were dying.”

Why would such men allow Forsyth to “tag along”? He offers me a grim smile. “There was one man, a German called Steiner,” he explains. “He’d been in the Hitler Youth, missed the Second World War by a few months, joined the Foreign Legion, took a bullet in the lung in China and been invalided out. He was nutty as a fruitcake – styled himself 'Colonel’ Steiner. He only spoke German and French and as so many of the other mercenaries only spoke English he needed an interpreter. That got me in. So I was sitting around campfires in the jungle doing my best to look non-threatening and listening to the scuttlebutt and the gossip. I heard some pretty miserable life stories, out of which came how to get a false passport, how to get a gun, how to break a neck.” All the tricks that Forysth’s fictional assassin would need to get to de Gaulle.

Back at the typewriter in London, Forsyth had almost all the material he needed. “I went to the British Library and read copies of Le Monde and Figaro from the period. And I bought a street map of Paris.” He didn’t have high literary or commercial expectations. “I’d never wanted to be a writer. I devoured H Rider Haggard and John Buchan as a boy, and as a young man I admired the ingenuity of John le Carré, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but I never thought of imitating him. Growing up, all I wanted to be was a pilot [at 19, he became one of the youngest-ever RAF pilots by lying about his age] and when I left the RAF in my early twenties all I wanted to do was travel, which is what motivated me to go into journalism. I just saw writing a novel – stupidly – as a way of making a bit of money. A means to get me out of a jam.”

He hawked his book around from February to September 1970, when it was finally accepted by a publisher, who told Forsyth he could see why The Jackal had been so roundly rejected. “They told me I’d broken all the rules,” he says. For starters, de Gaulle was still alive (he died in November 1970) so readers knew a fictional assassination plot (set in 1963) couldn’t succeed. Forsyth had even told readers, early in the novel, that de Gaulle would die in his bed. The publishers were also wary of a book whose central character has no name. The Jackal slips out of alias after alias, eventually being buried anonymously.

A small print run was planned. Then, to the surprise of both Forsyth and his publishers, buyers at bookshops began reordering copies before publication. “The run went up to 8,000 copies,” he says, “and that was felt to be one hell of a risk. There were no reviews. The book slithered out through the summer of ’71. Slowly, the orders began to move faster. It was all word of mouth. Then my publisher phoned me at 4am in my bedsit. He’d sold the book to an American publisher for $365,000, which was roughly £100,000. And I got half of that. I’d never seen money like it and never thought I would. My family were disbelieving. They read it. My mother, God bless her, never quite understood the reference to fellatio.”

When the young Forsyth was working for Reuters in Czechoslovakia, he was regularly tailed by the secret police. One night he locked eyes with a beautiful woman in a bar. They went for dinner and a swim in a local lake, then spread out a blanket on the shore. Driving home, Forsyth noticed the usual set of headlights weren’t bobbing in his rear-view mirror. “I wonder where my STB escort is tonight?” he wondered. “You just made love to it,” replied the woman sitting next to him.

“The gay pickup in The Jackal shocked some people in the Seventies,” he says. “Not everybody knew about that side of life.” What shocked Forsyth was the public admiration for his fictional hitman. “I thought Lebel [the assiduous French detective] was the hero. Jackal was the villain. I was very surprised when readers said they loved him. He was the ruddy killer.”

But surely we all envy somebody who can move that cleanly and untouchably through the world? He’s quite cool. Also, he spends most of the book enjoying expensive meals and fine wines in European hotels. “Hmm… maybe. I had expected women to hate him. He used, then executed, his mistress. But no, he had a lot of female admirers.” The author shakes a baffled head.

There are those whose fascination with the book went beyond escapist pleasure. It has been described as “an assassin’s manual”. A copy of the Hebrew translation was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the extreme-Right militant who shot and killed Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan bomber, was nicknamed “Carlos the Jackal” after a copy of the book was found in a London flat he had occupied, although the novel turned out to belong to a later tenant.

Forsyth tells me his second novel, The Odessa File, helped identify Eduard Roschmann, the runaway Nazi concentration camp commander it described. “They made it into a film, which was screened in a little fleapit cinema south of Buenos Aires, where a man stood up and said, 'I know that man, he lives down the street from me,’ and denounced him. He decided to make a run for it to Paraguay and died of a heart attack on the river crossing. They buried him in an unmarked gravel pit. I hope they tossed a copy of the book in on top of him.”

He also claims one of his later books, The Dogs of War, was used as a guide to the invasion of the Comoros Islands by the French mercenary Bob Denard in 1978: “The mercenaries all had a copy of Les Chiens de Guerre in their back pocket. They were coming up the beach thinking, 'What do we do next?’” – he mimes taking a copy of the book from a pocket and flipping the pages. “Ah yes, we take the radio station.”

So his pride in his work is essentially journalistic? It’s still about digging for the truth? “Yep,” nods Forysth. “There’s a moment in research where you start to think, 'I’m pretty certain that happened.’ Then you write it. Then you find out it’s true. Gotcha!”

I finally mention the tall, slim gun leaning against his patio door. “Are you sure you’re going to try and keep out of trouble now? It doesn’t look like it.” He laughs. “That’s just an air rifle. For the grey squirrels.” He squints out at the swaying trees, momentarily Jackalesque as he seeks a bushy-tailed target. Are you a good shot? I ask. “Reasonably good,” he smiles, “yes.”

Cara - Tuesday
The whole interview is http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8524091/Frederick-Forsyth-I-had-expected-women-to-hate-him.-But-no....html

in NYC and hoping Yrsa will contain the Icelandic volcano


  1. You are so right about the influence of this book, Cara. Of all the heart pumpers I read before The Day of the Jackal, this is the only one I distinctly remember. Then again, that could have something to do with how forty years no longer seems all that long ago.:)

  2. Great read and very influential (not least the fact he wrote it in five weeks.)

    However, Forsyth has turned out be one of those blowhards it's difficult to escape from over here in the UK. Always on the radio, or in the press, spouting off some rather unsavoury opinions. I normally don't allow the political views of writers colour my view of them - who cares after all, as long as they don't ram it down your throat in their work. Unfortunately Freddie is such a ubiquitous rentagob it's become almost impossible to divorce his books from the ludicrous image he's cultivated.

    DOTJ is still a great book though.

  3. Ok, another classic I have to read. I'm on 'The Executioner's Song' right now. Thanks for the interview reprint, Cara!


  4. TDOTJ is a great book. I didn't read it until after I had seen the film and yet it still was so exciting. Ridiculous really, because you know the Jackal isn't going to succeed.
    Frederick Forsyth is like Sapper, or Mankell, you can enjoy their books even though you don't subscribe to their political opinions. I even found myself agreeing with Noam Chomsky, when he was interviewed the other week.

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  6. This book was so memorable, it is hard to believe that 40 years have passed since its writing (of course, I feel that way about a lot of things). Thank you for posting the interview. Mr. Forsyth sounds like an interesting, and complicated man.

  7. Hi Cara - did I not do a good job for you? I managed to keep the cloud away from the airports in France. Hope you made it and are now having a good coffee in some quaint Bistro.