Sunday, August 30, 2009

James Bond Daily: You Only Live Twice

Bond is a broken man as You Only Live Twice begins, the one thing he cared about in life (however clumsily Fleming had set that thing up in the previous novel, One Her Majesty's Secret Service) taken from him. He's fumbled two missions in a row, and this time he's not amusing himself with writing mental resignation letters -- he's beginning to expect M to demand his resignation, for cause, at any time.

You Only Live Twice is the Bond novel I remembered most clearly from when I read them all about twenty-five years ago, and it's probably the best book in the series. (And that must be gratifying to the shade of Fleming, since this is the last book he finished and saw published.) Series novels often have trouble making credible threats to their heroes, but Live Twice starts out with Bond still in shock from an event that happened eight months before, has his obituary prominently featured, and ends with him walking unknowingly into the worst possible danger for a man in his line of work. And that doesn't even include what happens to him at the Castle of Death -- a refurbished medieval pile on a rocky Kyushu cliff, filled with the deadliest flora and fauna of six continents and its own indigenous volcanic fumaroles -- or at the hands of its mysterious master.

You Only Live Twice is a "you've got one last chance" novel -- I believe that wasn't nearly the cop-movie cliche in 1964 that it became in subsequent decades -- in which Bond's boss M sends him to Japan on a secret diplomatic mission: to ingratiate himself with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, and to get the British access to the Japanese sources of Soviet intelligence. (At the moment, those are heading directly to the USA, which is not inclined to share with a country they're more and more considering a very junior partner.) So it is grounded in the specifics of that moment in the Cold War, like the best Bond stories -- tied strongly to the geopolitics of two large blocs facing each other, and elbowing sharply within the ranks on each side.

Bond spends some time with Tiger, and the two become something like friends -- across a gulf of cultures that Fleming portrays well, if in the terminology (and with the unexamined biases) of his time. And Tiger decides that he'll give Bond what he wants...if Bond does a mission for him.

And that's where the Castle of Death, owned by an eccentric Swiss biologist, comes in. The Japanese government is concerned by the ever-growing number of suicides that the Castle is attracting, but has no aboveboard reason to expel him and can't be seen to move against him directly. So Tiger tells Bond to kill the man, shut down his bizarre garden of death, and then all will be well. It doesn't go that smoothly, even with the aid of Kissy Suzuki, a gorgeous young Ama shellfish diver from a nearby village; the secretive lord of the Castle of Death is an old enemy of Bond's. The last fifty pages of Live Twice are a series of attacks on Bond -- mentally, physically, and emotionally -- and nearly all of them strike home, and most of them do permanent damage.

You Only Live Twice is a doom-laden book, filled with death, decay, and the promise of mortality. It's easily the best of the Bond novels, folding the by-now-familiar spycraft and smirking, self-satisfied villain into a larger context and making a world in which Bond is no longer larger-than-life, just a damaged man who's no longer even as good at the one thing that used to distinguish him. I'm unsure if it works quite as well out of the context of the other novels, but it's well worth reading, even for readers who have no interest in working through the rest of Fleming.
Listening to: Laura Cantrell - Love Vigilantes
via FoxyTunes

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