A Spy and a Gentleman

William Boyd’s James Bond is the most human yet.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: October 5, 2013 2:09 am

William Boyd’s James Bond is the most human yet.

Book: Solo

Author: William Boyd,Jonathan Cape

Pages: 322

Price: Rs 599

If James Bond had a real life,he would have turned 90 this year. In his lifetime as a franchised popular culture product,he has suffered the attentions of three literary authors — Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham),Sebastian Faulks and now,William Boyd. Desperate Bond fans,these ‘continuation writers’ have approached him with motives not unlike certain women who marry men in order to improve them.

So there are no Bond girls in Boyd’s Solo. Instead,there are women of flesh and blood to go with the man whom Ian Fleming himself had dismissed as a “silhouette”. Not only is William Boyd’s depiction of women and sexuality distressingly real,he has the audacity to draw attention,quite incorrigibly,to the physical beauty of a “mature woman”. The man is a dangerous iconoclast,defacing the very god he worships.

Or is he a rebel without a choice? Literary Bond writers have generational difficulties with the long,tall shadow of Ian Fleming,who had created 007 for a freshly postcolonial world which is long dead. As dead as the English cold warriors who peopled his pages and even deader than the confused memories of empire that animated them. The misogyny,alcoholism,racism,luxury manias,casual cruelty and Whitehall uber alles ethic of Bond’s world seem ridiculous in our times. Like Faulks,Boyd takes the easy way out by locating his story in the past,in 1969. Faulks had chosen 1967 for Devil may Care, following on from The Man with the Golden Gun. The further back you go in time,the more comfortable your Bond is.

Literary Bond writers also have to fight off the visual power of the movie franchise. The face of Bond is Daniel Craig,Pierce Brosnan,Timothy Dalton,Roger Moore or Sean Connery,depending on when you grew up and stopped watching closely. The stories they enact may have tenuous connections with Fleming’s text. For instance,Octopussy was written up from scratch by a trio including George MacDonald Fraser,best known for the Flashman series,and appears to retain only the title of the original,which had appeared in Fleming’s last,posthumous collection in 1966. Octopussy. Eight of ’em! So bizarrely Bond that it had to be retained.

With great freedom comes great irresponsibility,and the movies have pigged out on guns,gizmos,girls and gonads. In reaction,literary writers have tried to civilise Bond. In his retrospective preface to Colonel Sun,Kingley Amis railed against the Hollywood Bond,“that rakish nonentity who drops yobbo-style throwaways out of the corner of his mouth before or after escaping by personal jet-pack or submersible car fitted with missile-launchers…” His Bond must live by his wits and muscles and get his spying and slaying done without the distractions of caviare,champagne and Q’s latest joke gun.

Faulks had Bond break the habits of a lifetime by enjoying a bottle of wine — Château Batailley 1958,too — with his terrine in Paris. He had the enemy use an unusually literary password from In Flanders Fields,Lt Col John McRae’s haunting elegy to the dead at the Ypres Salient,where the demon of chemical warfare was born. Faulks wrote of anomie,quoted Byron and built his plot around a real military project of the Khrushchev era — the Ekranoplan or ‘Caspian Sea Monster’,a sea-skimming aircraft the size of a football field,designed to replace warships.

Solo opens with Bond dreaming of his first intimation of mortality. It is 1944,Bond is 20,fresh off Gold Beach in Normandy,bursting with beans,and he sees a German shot dead. He kneels down and vomits. And,to counter the racial supremacist tendencies of Ian Fleming,Boyd makes his psychopath — every Bond book must have one — a white mercenary. The book is set in Africa and this is a common or garden sadist who can probably be found in every lawless zone in the continent,like contemporary Somalia or Niger.

But humankind can bear only so much reality. Boyd makes amends to the Bond tradition with a morally illogical ending in which he leaves a lover unprotected in order to protect her. Basically,he scoots. Remember Bond’s bizarre report on former lover Vesper Lynd in Fleming’s first book,Casino Royale? She commits suicide,admitting in a note that she was a double agent. “The bitch is dead now,” reports Bond laconically,and names his vodka martini recipe the Vesper.

Like his literary predecessors,Boyd has humanised Bond very successfully. His Bond even tries to rescue children starving to death in a devastated village in the African almost-country of Zanzarim. A double-oh operative sets aside his imperialist mission to save black children? There is a dangerously civilising streak in this William Boyd chap. Give him another chance and he could seriously improve James Bond.

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