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The Cold War, James Bond style
on January 26, 2014
Re-reading this novel for the first time in almost fifty years, I was struck by how many differences exist in the James Bond as created by Ian Fleming and the caricature of that persona that quickly took off in the film equivalents of these books. While the film of this novel adhered more closely to the plot of this book than most of the other films, ‘From Russia With Love’ is clearly rooted in the Cold War world of the 1950’s when The Soviets and the Western powers were engaged in covert, and sometimes overt, chess games where, even when one power could not overpower the other through sheer force of weaponry, they would at least win through outwitting their opponents.
The British Empire no longer held the ascendant authority as policeman of the planet as it once had. That role had been seized by the United States. Britain’s impotence was underscored by high profile defections of agents Burgess and Maclean, both of whom are cited in this novel. However, SMERSH, the real-life Soviet counterintelligence agency, still sees Britain as a formidable opponent as exemplified in the exceptional agent James Bond. They list their recent defeats at his hand i.e. incidents recounted in most of the preceding novels of the series and devise a circuitous plan to kill him and embarrass the British Secret Service in a fresh scandal, using a beautiful Russian agent who wants to defect but only with the aid of the great spy James Bond, with whom she’s fallen in love at first sight of a photograph. In return for Bond’s aid, Tatiana Romanova will deliver the Spektor, a prized Soviet decoding machine.
Bond’s superior, M, directs Bond to accept the job despite his disapproval of Bond’s amorous escapades. M and his colleagues are enticed by the prospect of obtaining this machine (inspired by the Enigma decoding machine used in World War II) and see Bond as the most qualified for this job as escort for the love-smitten young Russian agent. They, and Bond, see it, naively, as a fairly straightforward operation.
While Bond has the obvious reputation as something of a playboy, unlike his cinematic counterpart he actually seems somewhat monogamous. At the beginning of the novel he is still recovering from the slow dissolution of his romance with Tiffany Case, the female protagonist of the previous novel, ‘Diamonds are Forever,’ and is not initially eager to plunge into another romantic intrigue. Of course, once he meets Tania (as her friends call her) he quickly becomes intrigued and a bit infatuated to the point that he is concerned about her fate (and theirs as a couple) after this operation is concluded.
The Soviet scheme is devised by chess master Kronsteen and Rosa Klebb, head of Operations and Executions. They enlist the homicidal Red Grant as Bond’s killer. Most of this is unknown by Tatiana, who is a pawn with limited knowledge of the extent of the game she is playing. There is no single diabolical villain who lusts for world domination, just a few psychopathic Soviets out to embarrass the decadent Brits.
As I read this novel, I noted how much space is devoted to what Bond eats for breakfast, the cigarettes he smokes, the martinis he drinks (although the phrase ‘shaken not stirred’ is not used once), how he dresses. Fleming is describing a lifestyle that he envies or at least idealizes as much as he is writing a spy thriller. There are so many passages that don’t obviously propel the plot but simply add atmosphere to the tale. Fleming’s books have been described as travelogues—and they definitely fit that description—but they are also depictions of a fantasy lifestyle of romance, danger and the good life or what Fleming would like to persuade his largely male readers is a good life.
Regarding Bond’s ‘license to kill’ I noticed how, when his Turkish ally Darko Kerim vows revenge against a Bulgarian refugee named Krilencu, Bond accompanies him but inwardly recoils at Kerim’s killing of the man ‘in cold blood’ (shooting the man in the dark using an infrared sight after he escapes from a trapdoor embedded in a movie billboard, emerging from Marilyn Monroe’s mouth). I sense that Bond is at heart still tied to an ideal of sportsmanship. I don’t recall if the license to kill was depicted in the novels as consent for Bond to kill with discretion as it seems to be in the films. I will have to revisit more novels and films to make an assessment of that feature.
I will not be revealing a spoiler by stating that it ends with Bond being stabbed by a poison tipped blade emerging from Rosa Klebb’s shoe and falling to unconsciousness as ‘From Russia With Love’ is only Novel # 5 of 12 (Fleming also wrote a couple of collections of James Bond stories). He certainly intended to leave Bond’s fate up in the air at the novel’s conclusion. Perhaps he saw this as a possible exit strategy much as Arthur Conan Doyle had done with Sherlock Holmes at the end of his story “The Final Problem.” Obviously, he continued the series. Far from being the final Bond novel, ‘From Russia With Love’ falls clearly within the first half of the series.
Although Fleming’s Bond fantasies bear only a tenuous resemblance to real life MI6 operations (it took John Le Carre’ to bring a sense of authenticity to the real life of a British secret agent in the Cold War era), they still seem more rooted in a world resembling ours than the film series that grew progressively more absurd and exaggerated. Fleming describes a character that is not simply a killing machine or a seduction machine or a ‘shaken not stirred’ martini drinker. While he is never as conscience-ridden as most of Le Carre’s protagonists, James Bond is a recognizable man who worries and berates himself for not measuring up to ideals that have been set for him or that he has set for himself. I think he basically wants to be a good agent (it’s the only job for which he’s really qualified) but he’ll live as much of this ‘good life’ as he can along the way.