This week’s novel, You Only Live Twice is a significant one for me, for a bunch of reasons: One, I think it may be Fleming’s best novel (not necessarily his best BOND novel, which I’ll elaborate upon shortly). Two, it was the last Bond novel published while Fleming was still alive — the two remaining, The Man With The Golden Gun and the short collection Octopussy and the Living Daylights, were published posthumously. Three, the film version is my favorite of all of the Connery Bonds (and therefore, arguably, my favorite of all the Bond films), despite the fact that the film’s plot bears no resemblance at all to the plot of the novel… and, in fact, was the first film to differ so completely.
The novel begins with Bond still suffering from the murder of his wife Tracy in OHMSS — depressed and his career fading. M promotes him to a special branch of MI6 (renumbering him as 7777), largely in a cashiering move to a desk job to finish out his career. He offers Bond one last chance to get back into things again, though, assigning him the task of traveling to Japan and liaising with the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka, in order to get the Japanese to share a source of intelligence within the Soviet Union, known as Magic 44. Tanaka offers Bond a quid-pro-quo — he’ll share the info if Bond kills Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a “Garden of Death” where people go to commit suicide. In perhaps the least-surprising shock of all, Shatterhand is revealed to be Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in hiding — so Tanaka helps Bond go undercover as a Japanese fisherman in order to better infiltrate Blofeld’s castle.
I find this to be Fleming’s best novel, just from a writing standpoint. It isn’t the best of the Bonds, because, like The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s another example of Fleming experimenting and discarding the typical Bond formula — in this case, crafting a novel driven by character, rather than plot. There are few action set-pieces — most of the novel is an exploration of Bond as a truly broken man. Fleming’s eye for detail is still present — extensive sections of the novel are given over to observation of Japan and its culture (which started a fascination in me that culminated with my major in East Asian Language and Culture in college).
Bond kills Blofeld in a duel, but suffers a head injury that leaves him with amnesia — leading to the novel continuing past its nominal climax (the death of the villain) into a section where Bond lives as a Japanese fisherman, with his cover wife, Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki, concealing his identity from him because she’s in love with him and wants him to stay with her forever. Bond stumbles upon the word Vladivostok, however, which resonates with him — and, thinking that it may hold the key to his missing identity, he leaves for Russia, leaving a pregnant Kissy behind. At which point, the novel ends.
Aside from the believability of an Englishman successfully passing as a Japanese fisherman (although, to its credit, the surgery and training in the novel is a tad more believable than the slight squinting, ruddy make-up and Beatles wig that Connery affects in the film), the entire sequence is heartbreaking — made all the more so by Kissy Suzuki, one of the best Bond girls ever written: headstrong, competent, but without the usual damage and neuroses that Fleming often gave his heroines — and there are times when I sincerely wish that the posthumous Bonds had never been published, because this would’ve made a brilliant send-off for the character.
But the series did continue after Fleming’s death from a heart attack in 64 — with a somewhat lackluster return to the more standard Bond formula in The Man With the Golden Gun, which some argue was actually an incomplete rough draft fleshed out by others. We’ll talk about that next week.