Like several other of the early books I have chosen in my 60 books from 60 years challenge You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was a book that my father had on his shelves and I read as a teenager but have never read since. I was surprised, therefore, that I actually recognised some of the passages and scenes. My father had most of the original James Bond series in paperback and I read them all at the time.
There are films of the books, of course, and I have seen most of them. I always regard Sean Connery as my definitive Bond as he is the first that I saw but I thought that the recent films with Daniel Craig were excellent and Skyfall was magnificent. The books and the films are, however, two very different things. The first couple of films were based more on the books but few of them are absolutely accurate to the source material and some have only the title to connect them.
This book is set straight after On her Majesty’s Secret Service where Bond marries and is immediately bereaved. That film’s ending does echo the book very well. At the beginning of this story Bond is still grieving and is lured back to active work by being asked to do a job that M thinks is impossible. His mission is to persuade the Japanese secret service to disclose intelligence material to the British. He secures a promise of access to the material but only after he makes a commitment to murder a man that the Japanese want removed because he has started a cult of death and suicide. Bond reluctantly agrees to undertake the task and is smuggled on to the island where the deaths are occurring.
This is actually quite a straightforward spy novel with virtually nothing in the way of backstabbing or betrayal. A lot of the book is designed to compare the Japanese culture with the British way of life and I suppose that when it was written Japan must have seemed very alien and unknown to most British readers. Unfortunately this means that the author uses every available stereotype of Japan and continually, overtly and sometimes more subtly, shows that he thinks that Japan is inferior to Britain. When it comes to disguising Bond as a Japanese person this seems to be done to everyone’s satisfaction by changing the shape of his eyebrows – he is rendered unrecognisable to at least one character with this cunning disguise. The Japanese are portrayed as obsessed with death, backward in culture and unable to deal with this situation without help from the experience of James Bond (who does nothing that I suspect that they couldn’t do). The attitude to women is, however, more respectful here than in the films although not what we would expect of a book written today.
Having just finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (see my review here) I found it interesting to compare the two books. Both Fleming and Le Carre worked for the intelligence services but they have written very different books. I have read a theory that Fleming was determined to hide the truth about what it was like to be a spy by writing books very far away from real life and certainly James Bond seems invincible whereas Alec Lemas struggles all the time. Fleming lauds Britain but Le Carre seems to say that all countries are much the same. You Only Live Twice depicts a spying world that is glamorous and attractive but in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the secret life is grubby, dangerous and maybe even futile. These two books were published only one year apart but they are very, very different.
You Only Live Twice has a lot of flaws, the racism not being the least, and it is nowhere near as brilliantly written as the Le Carre. It is, however, a quick and engaging read and the final couple of chapters are amazingly touching and well done. I won’t track down the rest of Ian Fleming’s books because this one didn’t engage me enough but I think that any reader of thrillers and spy novels should read at least one of the James Bond novels.