My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming (1964)

This is a strange and eerie tale about a ‘Garden of Death’ in remote and exotic Japan, so I liked it more than the straightforward adventure yarn of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, set in France and Switzerland.

As often, Fleming uses a simple but attractive structure for his tale, in this case dividing it into two parts: 1. ‘It is better to travel hopefully…’ 2. ‘… than to arrive.’

Plot summary

If Bond was hacked off in OHMSS (which began with him composing a letter of resignation from the Service), in this one he has lost all interest in not just his job, but life itself. Eight months have passed (p.24) since his wife, Tracy, was shot dead just hours after their marriage, by the dastardly Blofeld, and Bond has gone to pieces. He’s drinking heavily, not sleeping, missing appointments (to the anguished concern of his secretary, Mary Goodnight, and M’s PA, Miss Moneypenny). Bond has (not very believably) been sent on two missions during this period, both of which he’s ballsed up (p.22). Again he says he wants to resign (p.29).

M calls in the latest of umpteen nerve specialists, Sir James Molony (p.20) who says Bond needs to be shocked out of his gloom with a good tough mission, just like the last war forced so many people to stop dwelling on themselves and pitched them into challenging situations, which ‘cured’ them.

Cue M calling Bond in and giving him a rather peculiar mission. Turns out the Japanese secret service have been cracking Russian codes in the East (‘from Vladivostok and Oriental Russia’, p.30) and deciphering vital information about nuclear weapons testing, giving the system the codename MAGIC 44 (p.49). But they only share it with the CIA, not us. Bond’s mission is simple: go meet the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, and do whatever it takes to persuade him to secretly share their deciphered information with us (behind the backs of the CIA; maybe not that difficult as Tanaka is given a page-long speech expressing his dislike of American ‘culture’ and its revoltingly decadent exports, p.59).

Tanaka is a hard man. He gained a First in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) at Trinity College, Oxford, before the war – and so has a veneer of Western manners – but returned to Japan to join the military, becoming a member of the Kempeitai (‘their wartime Gestapo’), rising to be personal aide to Admiral Ohnishi before training as a a kami-kaze in the closing stages of the war, only saved by the abrupt nuclear end to the war from flying his plane into an American battleship (p.15). Now he has risen to the top of his country’s secret service, the Koan-Chosa-Kyoku and is a canny, sly, ironic operator.

Rather oddly, Bond will be posing as a member of the Australian secret services, under the guidance of the loud, drunk, profane head of Australia’s station in Japan, one Richard ‘Dikko’ Henderson. (‘Henderson looked like a middle-aged prize fighter who has retired and taken to the bottle’, p.37). This leads to a sequence of hard drinking nights in geisha bars, and a lot of background briefing on Japanese culture, politics and society, all presented as drunken rants by the colourful Dikko.

(At one point he makes a typically tipsy and grandiose reference to ‘brother Hemingway’, p.43 – the only use of the ‘brother X’ formula in all the Bond books – and I immediately thought of John le Carré, many of whose self-mythologising, grand-standing characters refer to others in their little circles as ‘brother’ this or that. Also, the hard-drinking, swearing, boorish ex-pat culture which Dikko represents reminded me of The Honourable Schoolboy, the overblown middle novel of le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy, set among Hong Kong’s hard-drinking, boorish, ex-pat community.)

As so often, Fleming uses flashbacks to depict the various scenes outlined above and to give selected highlights of the month or so Bond has spent in Japan, steadily getting to like and respect Tanaka, which are all told from the position of the ‘now’ when the story proper begins.

‘Now’ is a lengthy sake-fuelled session lasting into the early hours, during which Tanaka finally states the terms of his deal. First a little background: He and his superiors have been dismayed by Britain’s decline and fall, by the speed with which she lost an empire and divested herself of her colonies, and then appalled at the fiasco of the Suez Crisis (1956). The long, apparently rambling conversation then wanders round to Japanese national characteristics and to the national fondness for suicide as an ‘honourable’ way out of various problems and of gaining face with family and ancestors. (Some 25,000 Japanese commit suicide every year and Tanaka is lavish in his praise of the rituals of seppuku, pp.70-73 [the current annual rate is 30,000, according to Wikipedia]).

In fact, Tanaka, goes on to explain, over the past year a strange sequence of events has occurred. Nearly a year ago a foreign scientist – Dr Guntram Shatterhand – and his wife, Frau Emmy (p.61) came to Japan, toured the country, then bought a derelict castle in the southern island of Kyūshū. From here they have imported every form of poisonous plant, tree, fish and insect known to man (spiders, scorpions etc) to create a ‘Garden of Death’. They gained permission from the Japanese authorities after promising to ultimately leave the garden to Japanese botanists, as well as to make available various rare poisons which Japanese scientists could use to experiment with cures and serums. (Fleming gives a four-page list of the poisonous species of tree, shrub and bush in the Garden, complete with Latin names and precise properties – pp.66-69).

But news of this intense ‘Garden of Death’ has leaked out to the general Japanese population with the result that depressed, unhappy, shamed or humiliated Japanese have been making their way there to kill themselves – to break into the ‘Garden of Death’, assured of being stung, bitten, grazed, poisoned or infected by any of the poisonous life forms in it. In the past year no fewer than 500 (!) Japanese have died in the Garden, despite Dr Shatterhand’s best attempts to put up security fences, employ security guards from Japan’s notorious Black Dragon Society (p.64), and so on.

The deal

‘So, Bond-san,’ Tanaka says. ‘My government is willing to share the secret Russian information we are intercepting – on condition you show your country still has pride, still has valour and that you enter the Garden of Death, uncover its secrets, render it harmless.’ In other words, kill Dr Shatterhand. No Japanese could do it, because the government would lose face if it failed. If Bond is caught or exposed, the government can claim he was a foreign agent (which he is).

Kill Dr Shatterhand and you get the secret information. Then Tanaka shows Bond photos and maps of Shatterhand’s hide-out on a remote coastal promontory, along with photos of the man himself and his wife. Bond is electrified: it is Blofeld, the wicked evil Blofeld who planned to detonate atom bombs in America in Thunderball and to decimate British agriculture in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and who, along with his squat ugly accomplice, Irma Bunt, shot dead Bond’s newly-wed wife, Tracy on the last page of the previous novel.

Bond had been hesitating before, about the propriety of assassinating a foreign national on foreign soil. Now his heart is set. Now it is personal. It is going to be revenge, pure and simple (p.115).

Turning Japanese

You Only Live Twice often reads like Fleming swallowed a guide book on Japan whole. There’s a friendly amount of cultural background on Jamaica, whenever Bond goes there; Fleming provides 2 or 3 page backgrounders to Saratoga races or Harlem or Las Vegas when Bond visits them in the States; half of From Russia With Love is set in Turkey which gives Fleming plenty of opportunity to describe Istanbul, Turkish food, customs and people: but none of the previous books has been so saturated with local colour as You Only Live Twice, which offers up guidebook facts and schoolboy explanations of Japanese history, customs and language on every page. Among many other things, we learn that:

  • samisen is a three-stringed musical instrument played at geisha parties
  • sake is Japan’s alcoholic spirit, to be drunk warm and, ideally, giving no outward sign that you are getting drunk
  • sumo wrestlers oil and massage their testicles from an early age so that, before a fight, they can retract them into their body cavity
  • bonsan means priest (p.54) so the Japanese can make a pun on Bond’s name, since it is polite to add san to the end of a name, thus Bond-san
  • futon is Japanese for bed
  • gaijin is Japanese for foreigner
  • tanka is a poem with 31 syllables
  • haiku is a poem of three lines and 17 syllables whose master was probably the 17th century poet, Basho (pp.100-101)
  • in Japan they don’t close doors to ensure security, they open all the doors and slender partitions in their houses so they can see that no-one else is eavesdropping
  • light switches go up, taps turn to the left, door handles likewise
  • samsara is a generic phrase for the good life, for wine, women and song
  • ‘All Japanese have permanent ON [a kind of moral/spiritual duty] towards their superiors, their Emperor, their ancestors and the Japanese gods.’ (p.42) The only way to discharge this burden of ON is to do the right thing, to behave ‘honourably’.
  • futsukayoi is an honourable hangover
  • four is an unlucky number in Japanese culture, as unlucky as 13 is for us in the West
  • According to Tanaka, the Japanese have no swearwords, which Bond finds hard to believe and gets him to explain at length (pp.83-84)
  • Food: Bond is astonished when the lobster he’s served begins to move – he is expected to eat it alive (p.89). He is similarly unimpressed at the fine strips of fugu, raw poisonous blowfish he is served later (p.104), or the bland and over-salty seaweed which comes with everything – although the raw beef he eats after meeting a farmer and massaging his cattle (!) does turn out to be the best steak he’s ever tasted (p.93). But he politely refuses a bowl of fresh bull blood when it is offered.

But for all the book’s immersion in Japanese culture, Fleming and Bond are still very sceptical and uneasy about the Japanese and their well-proven taste for the violent and the bizarre.

This suicide business in Japan is nothing more than a form of mass hysteria – an expression of the streak of violence that seems to run all through the history of Japan. (p.71)

It doesn’t change his mind when Tanaka gives a long and moving account of what inspired him to become a kami-kaze pilot on pages 87 to 89 – describing the excitement of dive bombing an American aircraft carrier, with detailed advice on where best to aim the plane (at the deck-top cranes and equipment). Tanaka makes it sound moving and heroic. Even worse is his eye-witness account of watching his boss, Admiral Ohnishi, commit ritual suicide by inserting a dagger in his belly and moving it from left to right and then upward to cut into the breast bone, all without flinching. Ohnishi in fact didn’t die of these self-inflicted wounds, but refused to move from his position and sat expiring for 24 hours. ‘A most sincere gesture of apology to the Emperor’ (p.89), Tanaka remarks.

Bond dislikes ‘the automatic, ant-like subservience to discipline and authority of the Japanese’ (p.152). Even the half-mad Blofeld is made to discuss ‘the profound love of horror and violence of the Japanese’ (p.134).

And the exaggerated politeness and stifling rituals get on his nerves. Bond becomes very exasperated at the never-ending bowing and sibilant hissing all the Japanese make from extreme politeness –

Bond had had about enough for one day. There weren’t many bows and smiles left in him, and he was glad when he was left alone… (p.85)

Bond hates having to sit on the floor in the lotus position until your knees are screaming with pain, and finds it impossible to sleep on an uncomfortable futon.

The isle of Kuro

Tanaka plans the operation with his lieutenants and Bond: the promontory with the Garden of Death is not far from a group of islands inhabited by the Ama, a self-contained tribe of Japanese who make a living diving for pearls in awabi or oysters (p.135). The divers tend to be lithe young women who often dive completely naked. They plan to dye Bond’s hair and skin to give him a Japanese complexion, then embed him in the little fishing village of Kuro, population 200 (p.121).

Travelling south Tiger takes him to visit a training camp for ninjas or ‘stealers-in’ (pp.93-98). Bond will be given a ninja black outfit, climbing rope and knife.

Here, Tanaka smirks broadly, Bond will be helped by the presence of one of the daughters of the community, Kissy Suzuki (p.113), a young girl who was talent spotted by roving Hollywood agents and went all the way to Hollywood to make a feature film, hated it, and has returned to the bosom of her family and community, but with a good working knowledge of English and of the Western mind-set.

So they travel down to the southern island, taking in various tourist sights along the way (the oldest whorehouse in Japan (p.99) taking the Murasaki Maru, a modern ocean liner to cross to Kyūshū (p.100). Here they meet the commissioner for police of Fukuoka, the administrative capital of the island. There are a few incidents along the way, most notable of which is when a stranger jostles Bond in the crowd and picks his pocket. Later they become aware of a motorcyclist who’s following their car. Tanaka orders the driver to ram the biker, who then puts up a fight and is killed. The body is found to have Bond’s wallet on him. Hmm – someone knows who Bond is and is paying hoods to trail his movements. Suspense!

Once again, Fleming gives a very persuasive description of this idyllic place and of his first sight of the simple fisher people. In the midst of this perilous mission and Bond’s personal trauma, Fleming is able to convey the sense that this is a ‘good place’, these are good people. You often come across these persuasive and powerful scenes in Fleming.

Bond is introduced to the smiling sardonic Kissy, her ancient parents and the local priest. For the next few days he goes pearl fishing with her, obviously attracted by her firm sexy body which wears just a g-string while diving, but Fleming also devotes pages explaining the diving technique, the lives and values of this community.

The idyllic setting makes Fleming relaxed and whimsical: he invents a pet for Kissy, a tame cormorant who she keeps tethered to a string, who dives with her and who she calls ‘David’ after the only person she met in Hollywood who respected her, the English actor David Niven.

This sequence climaxes rather beautifully when Kissy takes Bond to see the squat stone statues of the six Jizo guardians, the ‘Kings of Death’, old Buddhist gods who look over the island and its people, also known as ‘the Children of the Sea’ (p.136). Kissy prays devoutly to them for Bond’s safety and Bond finds himself making a prayer and then – in an astonishing moment – thinks he sees the one he prayed to nod its head. Nonsense! Just a trick of the gathering dusk. Pull yourself together man.

The Garden of Death

That night Bond slips into the ninja outfit Tanaka left him and Kissy accompanies him as he swims to the mainland setting of the ‘Garden of Death’ and the ominous, ruined Japanese castle at its centre.

Using his ninja grappling iron, Bond ascends the defensive wall, then steps carefully through the Garden, witnessing two Japanese who are killing themselves – one whose face and hands are hideously swollen by some plant poison and who blunders into the central pond where he is shredded by piranha, another who bows politely and walks down into one of the Garden’s stinking fumaroles or volcanic mudholes, voluntarily incinerating himself with a final shriek of agony (p.147). Bond finds a work shed and hides behind a big pile of sacking, eating and drinking a little, and waiting till dawn.

He is awoken by the sight of Blofeld dressed in medieval chain mail (as protection against all the poison) and Irma Bunt in a rubber suit with a beekeeper’s hat, strolling around their macabre domain. Bond is tempted to attack them there and then but the armour would be difficult to pierce and he has seen members of the violent Black Dragon Society roaming the Garden as security.

Inside the castle

Bond hides until night falls and then breaks into the castle. A couple of tense pages describe his faltering process up dark stone staircases, along deserted corridors etc, all eerily empty. Finally, he enters a corridor he saw a servant just leave and is half way along it when it swivels in the middle and tips him helplessly into a stone oubliette where he cracks his head very badly. He comes to being beaten around the face by some of the Black Dragon goons and then Blofeld intervenes.

These final scenes feel oddly disconnected: they’re gruesome enough but somehow lack conviction.

First of all it takes Blofeld, dressed incongruously in a silk kimono, a little while to realise that this intruder is in fact James Bond, come to kill him. Blofeld and Bunt take their captive to the ‘Question Room’. This turns out to be a stone throne Blofeld has built over one of the Garden’s many volcanic geysers. Bond is forced to sit on a toilet seat above a little hole up which a spurt of 1,000 degree-hot volcanic mud erupts every fifteen minutes. So Bond sits there as the minutes tick by till the next eruption, his flesh crawling as he imagines the devastating fiery impact incinerating his lower body.

Except that, oddly, Bond isn’t actually tied there and, a minute before the eruption, he simply gets up and strolls over to Blofeld and admits who he is – just as the volcanic mud squirts up the hole. So not that dangerous, really.

Even odder, Blofeld allows Bond to be escorted back to his ‘audience chamber’ and then dismisses his guard, relying on his own skill with a massive, razor-sharp samurai sword to keep Bond in check.

And now, he does what all the baddies do – conducts a long soliloquy in which he justifies all his wicked actions, insofar as they have roundabout beneficent results. And, as usual, this long rant gives Bond the opportunity to scope out the room and make a plan. As it draws to an end (‘and now to finish you for good, Mr Bond’) he makes a leap for a long wooden stave one of the guards had left leaning against a wall.

Bond a) clouts Irma Bunt in the head, knocking her out, then b) embarks on a long and tense fight withg Blofeld, the latter’s razor-sharp sword against Bond’s stave, with Blofeld steadily getting the upper hand, until Bond desperately throws himself at Blofeld, grabbing for his throat and, despite all blows, pummeling and biting, proceeding to strangle Blofeld to death, and to carry on choking and bludgeoning him long after he’s dead in a red mist frenzy.

Balloon escape

Bond comes out of his bloodlust daze and runs into the Question Room, using the machinery he saw to move a lid over the volcanic vent – that should block it up then cause quite an eruption! Back through the audience chamber and out onto the balcony, but it’s a sheer 100 foot drop to the ground, when he sees that a big balloon is tethered to the balcony balustrade. He tethers the loose rope round his body, then undoes the knot and – whoosh – is immediately lifted up into the air and moving away. Only at about this point does he become really bothered by the very painful throbbing in his head from the large bump he picked up when he fell into the oubliette. A few shots from the castle graze him as the Black Dragon goons realise he’s escaping before, suddenly, the entire castle shimmers, shakes and explodes with the force of the mini-volcano he had blocked. Cascades of boiling mud and then flames as various gas pipes etc rupture.

Bond clings to the rope as the balloon flies out over the sea, but the pain in his head is obliterating everything else and he can feel himself getting weaker and then, and then… He feels the rope slipping and passes out as he falls hundreds of feet into the sea below.

Amnesia with Kissy

If certain parts of the previous narrative had seemed disconnected and dreamlike, the final ten pages are unique in the Bond oeuvre for their strange and floaty feel. For Bond has complete amnesia. Impact with the sea completed what the heavy blow to his temple had begun, and he has completely forgotten who he is and what he does. Kissy and Bond had arranged that she would swim out to meet him every night, and so she sees his body fall from the balloon into the sea. But when she gets to him he doesn’t recognise her, doesn’t know what he’s doing in the sea.

Kissy’s heart sings as she realises she can make him hers forever, and she ferries him slowly in the rescue position back across the straight to Kuro, where she calls the village doctor, then fixes up with the village priest to tell the people to keep his presence a secret. While she tends his wounds and nurtures him back to health, the villagers stonewall a succession of visitors from the outside world, first Tiger, then British embassy officials. To all of them the villagers say they saw him depart, then the castle blew up, and they haven’t seen him since.

Far away in London, six months passes and the Service concludes Bond is missing presumed dead. M contributes an official obituary to The Times, in which we get a potted biography of Bond’s life, parents, upbringing and so on. But on the small island Bond is lovingly nurtured to health by Kissy and enjoys the simple healthy life of a pearl diver.

It may be a far-fetched comparison but a lot of this reminded me of Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In each of its six books a knight from the court of King Arthur sets out on a heroic Quest, encountering, battling and overcoming various allegorical figures along the way. By the sixth and final book, though, you can feel Spenser’s tiredness and are not surprised that, when Sir Calidore encounters a rural community living in complete equality, peace and harmony with its rural surroundings, the knight simply abandons his Quest and decides to live with them and enjoy pastoral simplicity and happiness.

In the last ten pages of You Only Live Twice, something similar happens and James Bond, cynical city slicker and worldly secret agent, forsakes his livelihood, forgets his raison d’etre and, tired and ill like his maker (Fleming was a sick man by the time the book was published in 1963), longs to become part of a simpler world, a healthier life, a place without conflict.

But will it last…?


Bond as Saint George

When Tanaka offers him the challenge, he puts it in Arthurian medieval form: ‘you are to enter this Castle of Death and slay the Dragon within.’ (p.78) Similarly, when Bond realises Shatterhand is Blofeld, he not only declares it is now a matter of personal revenge – he says: ‘It was ancient feud’ (p.116). ‘Ancient’? Hardly. His wife was murdered 9 months earlier. Calling it ‘ancient’ is part of the process of giving Bond a mythic, archetypal overtone.

Later Tiger says: ‘Does it not amuse you to think of that foolish dragon dozing all unsuspecting in his castle while St George comes silently riding towards his lair across the waves?’ (p.119)

In The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming had the female lead, Viv Michel, refer to Bond several times as her knight in shining armour, as her Sir Galahad, and Thunderball contained references to St George. It doesn’t especially deepen the pleasure of reading the books, but it is an indicator of the kind of quest-like, rather simple-minded Victorian-medieval hero worship, which is one thread underpinning the texts.

Visions of paradise

It’s only a paragraph or two, but as Bond arrives at the island community of Kuro he is struck by how it seems to be one of the world’s good places.

It was a pretty scene, with the delicate remoteness, the fairyland quality of small fishing communities the world over. Bond took an immediate liking to the place, as if he was arriving at a destination that had been waiting for him and that would be friendly and welcoming. (p.120)

Fleming’s writing conveys a genuine sense of peace and tranquility. It has several times before, especially in Jamaica or when he was in the hotel in Istanbul looking out over the Bosphorus at sunset. But here the setting has the added fairy tale element which threads strongly through the book.

At that moment, it all seemed to Bond as the world, as life, should be, and he felt ashamed of his city-slicker appearance, let alone the black designs it concealed. (p.123)

This ability to perceive and respond to natural beauty, and to find a refreshing innocence and loveliness in it, is one of Fleming’s most appealing features.

Male camaraderie

Bond may be a figure of male fantasy fulfilment in a number of obvious ways (easily available women, fast cars, tough fights which he always wins). One of the under-reported ones is his male friendships.

There’s the deep, abiding warmth of his father-feeling for M (‘James Bond felt a quick warmth of affection for this man who had ordered his destiny for so long’, p.32).

There’s the buddy-buddy act with his CIA pal Felix Leiter, who appears in no fewer than six of the novels and allows Fleming to let rip with pulp American slang and indulge Bond’s boyish bantering side.

There are the one-off friendships, forged in the intense closeness of a dangerous mission would include the elemental life force of Darko Kerim (From Russia With Love), the wise and clever Marc-Ange Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and in this novel, the canny clever ex-kamikaze pilot Tiger Tanaka, owner of a ‘formidable, cruel, samurai face’ (p.14).

All three are elemental figures of masculinity, rooted in foreign cultures untouched by Western norms or political correctness; they have very dubious morals or pasts (Darko involved in various scams against the Russians, Draco the head of the Corsican mafia ie a dyed-in-the-wool criminal, and Tiger with his unapologetic devotion to the kami-kaze ideal); and all three smile big grins every time they explain another outlandish custom, extravagant scam or unacceptable piece of behaviour.

There is an elemental male aspect to their bonding; but there is also naughty schoolboy japery as well.


Credit

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was published in March 1964 by Jonathan Cape. Fleming died in August the same year.

All quotes and references are to the 1965 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1964

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

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