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I’ve found that one must try and teach people that there’s no top limit to disaster – that, so long as breath remains in your body, you’ve got to accept the miseries of life. They will often seem infinite, insupportable. They are part of the human condition."
- Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice
Ian Fleming took James Bond off the interstate of his more traditional espionage novels with the last couple books. 'You Only Live Twice' is Fleming putting James back into the "game". The settting for most of this novel is Japan. Bond is hunting (for the Japanese) Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who turns out to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. It is interesting enough, but seems a bit dated with the NINJA scenes and Yellow Face.
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Oh Bond. Not your finest work, or is it? In the wake of Tracy’s death, Bond is in a personal and professional tailspin, so M gives him a promotion. He is a member of the diplomatic core, and get secrets directly from Japan concerning Russia, something they were supposed to be getting, but weren’t because the CIA was cutting England out, and Japan thought England post-war was slipping.
It was sort of like a metaphor for Bond post-Tracy. I see what you did there, Fleming.
Enter Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japan’s Secret Service, and Bond’s future friend. He exchanges the intel if Bond agrees to do him a favor. He takes this as agreement that Bond will kill a major thorn in Japan’s side—a botanist from Switzerland who created a “Garden of Death.” It started as a place where the man started growing rare plants, but as many were poisonous, it became a destination for people seeking suicide. There were barracudas on the grounds. And other fun little death traps. Despite danger warnings, it’s popularity was only increasing, so Tiger wanted the man and his ugly wife dead.
He trained Bond in Japanese customs, got him set up on an island where he got ready to swim over in the company of a former Hollywood actress who dove naked for shells, and trained him a bit to be a ninja. Seriously, James Bond, ninja. Instead of eating eggs, he was eating live lobsters and tofu. He prayed to Shinto gods. He learned that the man who created the death garden was not Dr. Shatterhand, but Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who killed Tracy, and who he had tried to bring to justice before. If he hadn’t wanted to kill him before, he did now.
What is fascinating about this story is the notion of self. Bond loses his memory after an explosion, and the novel ends with him only beginning to recover it. For most of the novel, he immersed himself with the customs of another culture for the sake of a mission. When he has no memory, he lives for months without the burdens of James Bond, 007, killer, spy, English. Was Fleming trying to give Bond some happiness back that he had taken away by killing Tracy? It was a false happiness as it wasn’t his real identity, and she even sends him chasing a memory, instead of back to the friend she knows, Tiger. Strange ending to the Blofeld trilogy. James Bond cannot be settled, or happy. That is not his life.
Martin Jarvis is a good narrator. His Bond is more likable than in my imagination, but so are his other characters. His Tiger is amusing without being insensitive. Dicko is, but Fleming wrote the Aussie larger than life. There is only one section which Jarvis cannot save: a list of poisonous plants. I am fairly positive that no reading can make this interesting. In point of fact, I am not sure which is a more flagrant display of Fleming’s breadth of knowledge— his list of poisonous plants, or his unflinching grasp of Japanese culture. The latter certainly is more impressive with its fluidity.