Monday, March 11, 2013

You Only Live Twice

“[Roald Dahl] had known Ian Fleming well. Both men had worked in espionage for William Stephenson during the war, and both had similar reputations as hard-drinking, gambling, womanizing sophisticates ... He admired Fleming. He thought him one of the few writers worth meeting ... But he was less enamoured of his friend's writing skills, describing You Only Live Twice variously as 'tired', 'bad' and 'Ian's worst book'.”
Donald Sturrock, Storyteller – The Life of Roald Dahl, p. 434. 
It's not Fleming's worst book, but otherwise Roald Dahl was right: You Only Live Twice (1964) is a marked drop in quality and disappointing end to the Blofeld trilogy.

It begins in Japan, in the midst of an adventure. That is usually a good way to grab the attention, but here Bond drinks too much and plays stone, scissors paper against the head of Japanese intelligence, the shrewd and deadly “Tiger” Tanaka. That is rather it.

This is because, to Fleming, Japan is so exotic it might as well be in outer space. The book italicises and explains such alien terms as samurai, futon, sake and sumo. I realise we're simply much better accustomed to such things today, but the more Fleming tries to make Japan seem glimmeringly different, the more parochial Bond becomes.

We then cut back some time to the last day of August in London, and Bond sweating and ugly, grieving over the death of his wife (in the previous book). Doctors have told him there's nothing wrong with him and pills don't seem to help.
“And now he had just come from breaking off relations with the last resort – the hypnotist, whose basic message had been that he must go out and regain his manhood by having a woman. As if he hadn't tried that! The ones who had told him to take it easy up the stairs. The ones who had asked him to take them to Paris. The ones who had inquired indifferently, 'Feeling better now, dearie?'”
Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice, p 25. 
 Bond's indifferent shagging isn't just about him. The decline is symbolic of the state of British intelligence and of Britain more generally. There's a hint of the shadow cast by the Cambridge spies, which feels more like le Carré (whose name I think had been made with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published a year before this):
“Bond knew that M. had tendered his resignation after the Prenderghast case. This had involved a Head of Section with homosexual tendencies who had recently, amidst world-wide publicity, been given thirty years for treason. Bond himself had had to give evidence”.
Ibid., p. 31. 
Despite what Skyfall implies, I assume that evidence is not because was involved in something gay – especially given his response to plain-speaking (read: bigotted) Richard Lovelace “Dikko” Henderson of Her Majesty's Australian Diplomatic Corps:
“'Don't talk to be about aborigines! What in hell do do you think you know about aborigines? Do you know that in my country there's a move afoot, not afoot, at full gallop, to give the aborigines the vote? You pommy poofter. You give me any more of that liberal crap and I'll have your balls for a bow-tie.'
Bond said mildly, 'What's a poofter?'”
Ibid., p 43.
Bond's been sent to Japan on an impossible mission to prove to M that he's not completely useless. MI6 are after top secret intelligence that the Japanese hold about the Soviet nuclear programme. An intercepted message spells out the scale of the threat – and the UK's paltry standing in the world:
Ibid., pp 50-1.
Bond has battled nuclear threats before, but this is an order of magnitude bigger than events in Moonraker or Thunderball, and never before has Britain sounded so puny. Perhaps that's in consequence of events in the real world, with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. The real and the fictional mix when a self-confessed fan of James Bond comes to Britain's rescue:
“Then President Kennedy had come out with the strongest speech of his career, and had committed total reprisals from the United States in the event of a single nuclear device being exploded by the Soviet Union in any country in the world outside Soviet territory.”
Ibid., pp. 55-6.
Kennedy, of course, wouldn't live to see his name-check.

Dikko sends Bond to Tiger, who throws him a party, women and a meal that might kill him, and then they get down to business. In previous books, Bond muttered darkly about the loss of the Empire and the young punks too young to have fought in the war. Here, though, it's Tiger who criticises the state of Britain, in a speech that might as well begin, “I'm not racist, but...”:
“But Tiger was not to be hurried. He said, 'Bondo-san, I will not be blunt with you, and you will not be offended because we are friends. Yes? Now it is a sad fact that I, and many of us in positions of authority in Japan, have formed an unsatisfactory opinion about the British people since the war. You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands. All right,' he held up a hand, 'we will not go deeply into the reason for this policy, but when you apparently sought to arrest this slide into impotence at Suez, you succeeded only in stage-managing one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world, if not the worst. Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to the trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day's work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so admired. In its place we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure – gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.'
Bond roared with laughter. 'You've got a bloody cheek, Tiger! You ought to write that out and sign it “Octogenarian” and send it into The Times.'”
Ibid., pp 76-7.
It's interesting having Bond defend modern Britain – especially as in the movie Goldfinger, released the same year as this book, he slags off the Beatles like some reactionary dick. When he slates Japanese pretensions in a similar tone, Tiger is impressed enough to offer Bond a chance to prove himself. Again, Bond is offered an impossible mission that he's in no position to refuse. Tiger will share the all-important secrets with M if Bond will kill an annoying European living in Japan.

Of course, the European in question is a grotesque creation living in a “garden of death”:
“Tiger exploded his golden smile. 'Bondo-san, I can see from your face that you think I am either drunk or mad. Now listen. This Doctor Shatterhand has filled this famous park of his uniquely with poisonous vegetation, the lakes and streams with poisonous fish, and he has infested the place with snakes, scorpions and poisonous spiders. He and this hideous wife of his are not harmed by these things, because whenever they leave the castle he wears full suits of armour of the seventeenth century, and she wears some other kind of protective clothing. His workers are not harmed because they wear rubber boots up to the knee, and maskos, that is, antiseptic gauze masks such as many people in Japan wear over the mouth and nose to avoid infection or the spreading of infection.'
[Bond replied:] 'What a daft set-up.'
Ibid., p. 65.
Tiger doesn't sending Bond into such a place empty-handed, and offers him some training at his top-secret ninjutsu school:
“'All the men you will see have graduated in at least ten of the eighteen martial arts of bushido, or “ways of the warrior”, and they are now learning to be ninja, or “stealers-in”, which has for centuries been part of the basic training of spies and assassins and saboteurs. You will see men walk across the surface of water, walk up walls and across ceilings, and you will be shown equipment which makes it possible for them to remain submerged under water for a full day. And many other tricks besides. For of course, apart form physical dexterity, the ninja were never the super-humans they were built up to be in the popular imagination.”
Ibid., p. 93.
All this authentic-sounding detail suggests privileged access to stuff most tourists never see. Not for the first time in the Bond novels, it's a load of cobblers. In fact, the ninja myth owes a lot to Bond:
“Considering the ubiquity of the ninja in twenty-first-century popular culture, it is remarkable how fast they appear to have sprung out of nowhere in the 1950s and 1960s ... Any attempts to make a scholarly study of ninja lead down a series of false trails, with modern sources that end up only citing each other, and credulous populist works that claim any reference in an old account to shinobi (stealth, spies, assassins) was in fact a reference to one of several secret ninja societies that stayed in the shadows. This fad achieved global recognition with the appearance of ninja in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) – reaching, by nature of its genre and franchise, a far wider audience than any more reasoned, less fantastic account of Japanese martial traditions.”
Jonathan Clements, “Clap your hands if you believe in ninja” (11 May 2010), an online excerpt from his A Brief History of the Samurai (2010).
Bond's chief fascination is when he sees ninjas being hit in the groin without flinching. Tiger explains:
“'Well, the sumo wrestler will have been selected for his profession by the time of puberty. Perhaps because of his weight and strength, or perhaps because he comes from a sumo family. Well, by assiduously massaging those parts, he is able, after much practice, to cause the testicles to re-enter the body up the inguinal canal down which they originally descended... Then, before a fight, he will bind up that part of the body most thoroughly to contain these vulnerable organs in their hiding-place. Afterwards, in the bath, he will release them to hang normally. I have seen them do it.”
Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice, p. 103.
It's that last sentence that's the killer.

Bond is fast going native, and will be carefully disguised to look like a deaf and dumb fisherman (in the film, he's conveniently taken a first in oriental languages at Cambridge). But there's one last night in a smart hotel in Kyoto, where he can enjoy the very best of Western civilisation:
“The comfortable bed, air-conditioning and Western-style lavatory on which one could actually sit were out of this world ... Bond ordered a pint of Jack Daniels and a double portion of eggs Benedict to be brought up to his room”.
Ibid., p. 98.
Just before Bond sets off on his mission, he learns an incredible new detail: Doctor Shatterhand and his wife just happen to be the very fellows Bond's been hoping to get hold of:
“Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Irma Blunt. So this was where they had come to hide! And the long, strong gut of fate had lassoed him to them! They of all people! He of all people! A taxi-ride down the coast in this remote corner of Japan.”
Ibid., p. 116.
There's no other explanation for this extraordinary coincidence, no hint that M knew exactly what he was sending Bond into, or that British intelligence was – contrary to reports – that extra step ahead. It's not intelligence but dumb luck, which rather kills the drama. It feels too much like cheating.

Bond heads off to face Blofeld, his cover story being that he's related to a girl in a nearby fishing village, Kissy Suzuki. Kissy is not some naïve island girl – she's spent time in films in America, but didn't like it very much. In fact she's named her pet cormorant after the man Fleming had wanted to play Bond. David Niven was, Kissy tells us,
“the only man I liked in Hollywood”.
Ibid., p. 128.
Kissy helps Bond get up to Blofeld's garden of death, where Bond sees people dying in various horrible ways and dodges the same grisly fate. When he's then captured and stripped of his ninja suit, things all get a bit homoerotic:
“Bond put his hands down to his sides. He realized for the first time that he was naked save for the brief vee of the black cotton ninja underpants... And then Bond was standing in the middle of a small, pleasant, library-type room and the second guard was laying out on the floor Bond's ninja suit and the appallingly incriminating contents of his pockets. Blofeld, dressed in a magnificent black silk kimono across which a golden dragon sprawled, stood leaning against the mantelpiece beneath which a Japanese brazier smouldered. It was him all right. The bland, high forehead, the pursed purple would of a mouth, now shadowed by a heavy grey-black moustache that drooped at the corners, on its way, perhaps, to achieving mandarin proportions, the mane of white hair he had grown for the part of Monsieur le Comte de Bleuville, the black bullet-holes of the eyes.”
Ibid., p. 162.
It's the most peculiar visual image, and that sense of camp continues. When Blofeld taunts Bond with an especially nasty death, Bond responds sarcastically,
“we'll get Nöel Coward to put it to music and have it on Broadway by Christmas”.
Ibid., p. 168.
Yet when Blofeld criticises Bond, he's exactly on the nail:
“'You are a common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places. Having done what you are told to do, out of some mistaken idea of duty or patriotism, you satisfy your brutish instincts with alcohol, nicotine and sex while waiting to be dispatched on the next misbegotten foray. Twice before, your Chief has sent you to do battle with me, Mister Bond, and, by a combination of luck and brute force, you were successful”.
Ibid., p. 171.
It's as much a criticism of Fleming's own sometimes lazy plotting than it is of 007. I wonder if it's not cribbed from a bad review. Blofeld, still in his fetching kimono, then threatens Bond with a big sword. Bond – in just his tiny pants – fights back, and they wrestle in a manner that I couldn't help but imagine as a bit like Women in Love (1969). Bond kills Blofeld rather prosaically and makes his escape just as the whole base explodes – something more like a Bond movie than the previous books. It all feels a bit pat and camp, and strangely unaffecting.

Except the next chapter pulls off quite a surprise. It purports to be a Times obituary for “Commander James Bond, CMG, RNVR”. It's very exciting to finally have the man's past life spelt out:
“James Bond was born of a Scottish father, Andrew Bond of Glencoe, and a Swiss mother, Monique Delacroix, from the Canton de Vaud. His father being a foreign representative of the Vickers armaments firm, his early education, from which he learnt a first-class command of French and German, was entirely abroad”.
Ibid., p. 178.
We learn they died in a skiing accident in the Aigulles Rouges above Chamonix when Bond was eleven, and that he,
“came under the guardianship of an aunt, since deceased, Miss Charmian Bond, and went to live with her at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent ... in a small cottage hard by the attractive Duck Inn”.
The young Bond was expelled from Eton for some,
“alleged trouble with one of the boy's maids”.
Ibid., p. 179.
He then went to Fettes. And finally, we learn Bond's age: in 1941 he was 17, and – faking his age and using his father's connections at Vickers - got a job at what would become the Ministry of Defence. We can even narrow his date of birth down a little more: Tiger tells Bond he was born in the year of the Rat (page 57), so he must have been born sometime between 5 February 1924 and the end of that year. (If I've got my sums right.)

The reference to Kennedy means that the events of You Only Live Twice take place no later than November 1963, and it was apparently written at the start of that year, so Bond is thirty-eight or -nine. And, of course, he's not dead.

Kissy rescues him from Blofeld's lair, and nurses him back to health. Bond is suffering from total amnesia, but Kissy regains the most important aspects of his memory by purchasing a love potion and some porn. It has the desired effect. In the previous book, Bond was married and widowed on the same day, but here Fleming still up the stakes:
“Kissy wondered what moment to to choose to tell Bond that she was going to have a baby and whether he would then propose marriage to her.”
Ibid., p. 189.
Of course, there's no happy ending – that's rare enough for book Bond. Instead he sees the word “Vladivostock” in a bit of old newspaper and is sure it means something important, so leaves Kissy to go and find out. The implication is that Bond never knows he's going to be a father. That child would now be just turning fifty (so older than Daniel Craig).

Kissy's tragedy ought to mean more to us, but she's hardly been in the book and made little mark. She's just another in a long line of women to fall for Bond and then get the cold shoulder.

But also, for all it's a shocking to see Bond in such a bad way having looked death in the face, for the most part the book is taken up by willy-waving discussions with Tiger. It's often funny – Bond now knocking our droll one-liners just like his big-screen counterpart – but for all the macho posturing and apparent threat, all too often I was struggling to care.


Mark Wyman said...

I rather like that your dating of Bond's birth to within all but the first month of 1924 means he could have been an exact contemporary of William Russell, who you referred to the other day for some reason that escapes me :)

0tralala said...

Oh! That's great. Well spotted.

Clemmo said...

Very pleased to see that superb Samurai book getting quoted. Did you know that there is a sort-of sequel to You Only Live Twice, which itself inspired its own Japanese Bond Museum:

0tralala said...

I would be fascinated to know your own opinion of the book, Clemmo-san. Also, the last photo on that link should be your Official Author PhotoTM.