Monday, 28 November 2016

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

 
published 1964

12th book in the James Bond series


 
You Only Live Twice

And then, following the path on the other side of the lake, two strolling figures came into his line of vision and Bond clenched his fists with the thrill of seeing his prey.

Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword while his left was hooked into the arm of his companion, a stumpy woman with the body and stride of a wardress. Her face was totally obscured by a hideous bee-keeper's hat of dark-green straw with a heavy pendent black veil reaching down over her shoulders. But there could be no doubt! Bond had seen that dumpy silhouette, now clothed in a plastic rainproof above tall rubber boots, too often in his dreams. That was her! That was Irma Bunt! Bond held his breath. If they came round the lake to his side, one tremendous shove and the armoured man would be floundering in the water! But could the piranhas get at him through chinks in the armour? Unlikely! And how would he, Bond, get away? No, that wouldn't be the answer.


 
You Only Live Twice 2


commentary: What a strange book this is. It has a memorable, dream-like feel to it, and the Japanese setting is very well-done and intriguing. Fleming, as was his wont, includes plenty of local colour and explanations, with his safe assumption that 99% of his readers had never been to Japan and were not likely ever to go. So the multiple details include James Bond dressed up as Japanese (!!), and the local ways with raw fish, fugu and even live lobster (which crawls away from Bond).

In the usual mystifying manner, Bond at one point ‘finds a Palomar pony to run with’, which seems to have the meaning of finding a drinking companion, and also needs to have the word ‘poofter’ explained to him.

There is an extraordinary passage on the kamikaze phenomenon (as described by the Palomar pony):
It was a terrible and beautiful thing to see an attack wave going off. These young men in their pure white shifts, and with the ancient white scarf that was the badge of the samurai bound round their heads, running joyfully for their planes as if they were running to embrace a loved one. The roar of the engines of the mother planes, and then the take-off into the dawn or into the setting sun towards some distant target that had been reported by spies or intercepted on the radio. It was as if they were flying to their ancestors in heaven.
I’m going to pinch the Wikipedia description of the main plot: ‘Tanaka asks Bond to kill Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a politically embarrassing "Garden of Death" in an ancient castle; people flock there to commit suicide. After examining photos of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond discovers that "Shatterhand" and his wife are Tracy's murderers, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt. Bond gladly takes the mission, keeping his knowledge of Blofeld's identity a secret so that he can exact revenge for his wife's death. Made up and trained by Tanaka, and aided by former Japanese film star Kissy Suzuki, Bond attempts to live and think as a mute Japanese coal miner in order to penetrate Shatterhand's castle.’

Dr Shatterhand! What a great name.

We are helpfully given a long boring list of plants that might be poisonous, and there does seem to be one hole in the plot: we are repeatedly told that the Japanese care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide, so it doesn’t make sense that they are so anxious to get rid of what is excellently described in the book as ‘a Disneyland of Death’. Also, could Bond not have infiltrated the garden by pretending to be a would-be suicide?

But it is churlish to ask these questions, as there is so much to enjoy. I liked this description of the debased British who have lost their moral fibre:
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.
With a few changes (lottery instead of pools, pop stars and celebrities instead of aristocracy) it sounds like a newspaper editorial of today.

Bond has a go at haiku, and uses Freddie Uncle Chuck Katie as a euphemism while discussing the Japanese lack of swear words. He eats pemmican (just like the Swallows and Amazons of recent blogging). There is a fascinating encounter with some huge and worrying statues.

The whole thing is terrific fun, with a surprising ending including James Bond’s obituary. But there is still another Bond novel to come…

Photo of Japanese warrior from the National Museum of Denmark.

Archer drawing from a 19th Century book on Japan.



















18 comments:

  1. This does sound strange, Moira. I remember seeing the film many years ago. I have to confess I don't remember much about it, but I do remember liking the Japanese setting for a lot of the film. And it sounds as though it's done even better in the book. As you say, unusual, but sounds like fun.

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    1. I have never seen the film and now quite want to. And there is something quite haunting about the garden of death in the book.

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  2. I remember this as being rather morbid and of course being shocked that is had practically nothing common with the movie - but then, that was written by Roald Dahl ...

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    1. Solid gold fact, Sergio! Yes, my limited knowledge of the film (which I will watch...) does suggest a quite different plot.

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  3. It is an absolutely fascinating book. I read it at a very early age, and out of sequence, but it made a real impression on me. The parts set in the Garden of Death gave me the shivers, and when I re-read the book years after the first time, I realised that I had remembered them almost perfectly. They are nightmarish in the truest sense.

    You do end up wondering how Fleming might have progressed as a writer if not for his early death. The novel is shot through with images and ideas of life, death and rebirth. At the beginning there is the broken, shattered Bond who can no longer function. He is stripped of his 00-prefix and figuratively dies, only to be reborn as 7777 in his semi-diplomatic mission. Later on he has to die as Bond to be reborn as his Japanese fisherman disguise. Finally he must travel through the Garden of Death and into the Castle of Death and kill Death himself (by now Blofeld has become truly monstrous, Tanaka calling him a 'Devil who has taken human form') before dying and being reborn again. I'm not sure if Fleming was aware of all of this, and it was certainly missed by all of the sneering highbrow critics of the time, but once your aware of these themes, they give the novel an extra depth.

    That attack on the British could almost come from a leader article today! It's interesting that it triggers an equally splenetic response from Bond, who goes on to champion his country against Tanaka's criticism. I've always thought that it goes a long way to rebuffing John Le Carre's claim that Bond is unpatriotic, since the speech that he gives could almost be from Richard Hannay, or Bulldog Drummond, or any of the patriotic, pipe-smoking old-fashioned pre-War heroes.

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    1. That's a great way of looking at the plot, and tallies with the dream-like quality of those scenes in the book, they really are surreal and strange. I know, you do long to know how Fleming would have gone on - it's so sad to contemplate him near the end, knowing he was ill and wouldn't survive just when he had achieved success, fame and riches.
      I like Bond when he talks about the UK in his witty, gentle and affectionate way.

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  4. I LOVE the quote about the Brits. Well, I don't "love" it, but it is so spot on.

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  5. This is a very strange series, each book so different. From your description here this almost sounds like a fantasy novel, without magic or elves, etc.

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    1. HOnestly, it is a bit like that - very dream-like and weird. I gather the film is nothing like. But it was an interesting departure on Fleming's part at this stage in the series.

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  6. Old Shatterhand is (was)a recurring character in the Winnetou books by Karl May, but how this name made it into a Bond book is anyone's guess.

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    1. I'd not heard of the Winnetou books, so just looked them up - how very interesting! The mind boggles slightly.

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  7. Moira, after reading many of your reviews of Ian Fleming's novels, I can't help thinking that they lack the glamour and attraction of the Bond movies. Although, I'm sure they are entertaining to read.

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    1. The more I pursue both books and films the more different they seem to be, Prashant, you are quite right! They have diverged widely over the years.

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  8. You mentioned that it seems a plot hole that the Japanese “care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide”, so why are they so anxious to eliminate the garden of death.
    That made me wonder how it plays out in real life in the modern day. In the Atlas Obscura article on the Aokigahara Suicide Forest, I read: “Due to the vastness of the forest, desperate visitors are unlikely to encounter anyone once inside […], so the police have mounted signs reading ‘Your life is a precious gift from your parents,’ and ‘Please consult the police before you decide to die!’ on trees throughout. […]
    “Japanese authorities discontinued publishing exact suicide numbers in order to avoid making the place even more popular.”

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    1. Oh that is very interesting, and not something I knew about at all. In the book Bond goes into some detail about the Japanese attitude to death, saying that, for example, after a road accident no-one has any care or respect for the bodies...

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    2. Interesting -- I was stationed in Japan for three years but am no expert on the country or its traditions*. I do remember after Fukushima reading about the mourning rituals being observed for the livestock and the pets that died (and seeing a photograph of a rather touching set of cat reliquaries (wish I could figure out how to attach a jpeg file. I used the photograph for a conference presentation).

      It's hard to reconcile this kind of respect for animals with a complete lack of honor for human bodies, isn't it?

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    3. Yes indeed that IS interesting, and strange, it would be good to read an overview of these traditions and attitudes.

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