Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"You only live twice: Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face"

Arguably the best 50p I've spent recently was on a 1964 copy of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, book 11 in the James Bond series. I've bought a couple of these 1960s paper backs before; the cover designs and bold 'James Bond' type are irresistibly collectable, but You Only Live Twice really jumped out to me when I remembered from the movie adaptation that this was James Bond in Japan. 

You Only Live Twice was the first novel published after Ian Fleming's death and can be seen as a step change in the series. Bond fans generally will read in this particular novel the end of the Blofeld trilogy and a specific cycle of books when many of the classic Bond tropes has been established but You Only Live Twice is a fascinating read whichever way you look at it. Movie fans will notice the fresh nuances Fleming introduces in this novel that was published once several Sean Connery/EON films had been released. M's eulogy at the end of the book even goes as far as to suggest that Bond himself has Scottish ancestry which demonstrates that Fleming himself was accepting a kind of Connery/Bond blend.

For me this novel is all about the setting in Japan which Fleming writes with both an awareness of post war Japanese modernity and simultaneous deep roots in the mystic Orient. Fleming himself had been commissioned to write a travel piece about his own trip to Japan and this novel is essentially an extension. The novel is far less about shoot outs, car chases and fist fights and more about Bond's search for a zen like recuperation after the loss of his wife Tracey in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fleming weaves into the narrative a number of key Japanese cultural themes; isolation and suicide, strict societal formality, US cultural imperialism etc which simply didn't make Roald Dahl's subsequent screenplay adaptation. 

Alongside the contemporary references Fleming can't resist scenes set at a Ninja training camp and the Russian roulette experience of eating poisonous fugu fish which are more a reflection of 'exotic' Japan through Western eyes. There is a tendency today to think of Japan in these hyper modern yet deeply traditional terms but Fleming's writing shines a light on just how other Wordly Japan was to the eyes of the sixties Briton.

The story is fun, arch enemy Blofeld poses as a famous horticulturalist in a volcano hideaway which Bond must infiltrate as a favour to the Japanese secret service in exchange for documents needed by M, but the real thrill of the novel is Bond's conversations with the characters he meets along the way. The train ride to the South Islands with Tiger Tanaka and deep sea diving with Kissy Suzuki are moments where the novels always deliver something that the films ignore.

Personally, the scene where Bond drinks post dinner sake from a small tumbler whilst watching the lights along the coast at Yokohama is pure Bond.   
I read this novel in paperback not long after a business trip to Yokohama.
You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming published by Pan,  228 pages.      

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