In Solo, 007 ventures into diplomacy to stop a West African civil war
A momentous year in the Bond world, 2013 marked 60 years since the publication of Fleming’s first novel CASINO ROYALE. To underscore the anniversary, a Bond novel was released in the fall, SOLO by William Boyd. The publication is, of course, in conjunction with the Fleming estate’s protocol to crank out a continuation novel, every year or so, by a notable author-of-the-day to position the franchise in the sphere of “serious” literature. The promotional email I received from Katie O'Callaghan, the Harper Collins marketing director, highlights Boyd’s oeuvre and the awards he’s achieved over the years. In other words, the product branding has a line drawn in the sand: the new Bond novel sits on the side of intelligent fiction and so distant from the other side where the original pulpy Fleming pieces reside. After all, this is William Boyd, a glorious literary being, who carries the distinction of exploring African settings in his works: AN ICE-CREAM WAR and A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA, for example, both emphasize the British presence in colonial and postcolonial Africa, respectively.
With SOLO, Boyd (a Ghana-born Briton) maintains this streak, plopping agent 007 into a West African country, Zanzarim. Apparently, he’s also unaware that CARTE BLANCHE (the previous 007 novel by Jeffrey Deaver) is set primarily in South Africa. Still, in Boyd’s opus, the African setting alone is enough to signal that his effort is another fine addition to his canon. Yet it turns out that SOLO is not entirely without oddities. One that comes to mind is the fictitious country Zanzarim—yes, a non-existent country. The real West Africa offers us the mystique of, say, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Nigeria—exotic settings for a Bond novel; but Boyd gives us Zanzarim, which could easily convince some stoner that the name is an allusion to the prog-rock epic song, “Xanadu,” by Rush. Nevertheless, we do learn that the villain of SOLO, Kobus Breed, resides in Zanzarim, where rebels struggle to overthrow the established regime in a long brutal civil war. This premise, I must admit, doesn't deepen my knowledge of Africa but it does offer more than what I can gleam from ABBA’s “Waterloo,” which has no reference whatsoever to the intriguing continent.
Another oddity is the title: SOLO is certainly an unusual choice, lacking the dramatic flair and intriguing sense of a Bondian title. It was enough to provoke fans to speculate, before the novel’s publication, on the title’s meaning in context to a Bond adventure. The most reasonable interpretation was that Boyd had in fact written a fictional biography of Han Solo, one of the main characters in the Star Wars mythology, and that James Bond was his direct descendant who toppled the Galactic Empire when he swung from a vine and landed on Emperor Palpatine’s beachfront property and shot the despot with a pellet gun.
This is, in fact, untrue. The title gains significance near the end of the novel when Bond embarks on a solo mission to seek revenge on the evil chappies who tried to kill him. If this doesn't sound all that thrilling, please remember it was concocted by William Boyd, who also wrote STARS AND BARS, his third novel, a solid work of incompetence concerning a hapless hero who shuffles from mishap to mishap. Not surprisingly, the promotional email from Harper Collins doesn't mention this misstep; instead, it flaunts a quote from Corinne Turner, Managing Director of Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, who insists that Boyd’s “thrillers occupy the niche that Ian Fleming would fill were he writing today and with similar style and flair.” Ah, so the marketing ballyhoo reveals an existential phenomenon: Boyd is Fleming incarnate. But wait, so were his predecessors, the aforementioned Deaver and Sebastian Faulks (DEVIL MAY CARE), who were all touted to reflect Fleming’s prose style. Are there so many authors roaming the world, who just happen to be a virtual Fleming? Yet Boyd is a tad more special, as he himself admits, his writing surpassing that of Fleming’s, who he denounces as a bigot, molded from the baggage of western imperialism:
'It's unbelievable to read [the Fleming books] now. I think if you were of that privileged upper class, born at the beginning of the 20th century, you were probably racist, sexist, right wing and anti-Semitic.' (Buchdahl)
Specifically, in crafting the inevitable Bond girl conquests, Boyd’s approach is, well, superior to Fleming’s:
‘The sex [in the Fleming books] can veer from terrible Barbara Cartland romanticism to almost sadism.
'I deliberately wrote those scenes well, not in the way Fleming would write them,' he said. (Buchadahl)
What kind of West African mosquito has bitten our ambassador to Zanzarim? Even more disturbing, Boyd reveals, rather unnecessarily, his political leanings, suggesting he’s been doused in western self-loathing as he expresses the progressive view that western powers—with its shadow of imperialistic oppression—is decadent and that if you marginalize this entity in some way, the result (whatever it is) is far superior than having it take the central role on the geopolitical stage. Hence, he resorts to the progressive ploy of class warfare as he wags his finger at the “privileged upper class” and alludes to the claptrap of an idyllic paradise (ah, yes, poverty, war, and inequality abolished forever!). And to think that this new utopia is within easy reach, only a handful of government programs away from reality; but the opposition—those pesky conservatives clamoring for less government in our lives, of which that nasty Fleming was a member—keeps getting in the way. It’s quite the PR stunt for a novel you’re peddling to the world: denigrate the creator of the series to elevate yourself above him while endearing yourself to the predominantly leftist media with progressive views. Yet could it be that Boyd’s unabashed contempt for Fleming is nothing more than lingering anger from his admitted rift with the Fleming estate? Reportedly, the literary handlers weren't all that pleased with how the novel was shaping during the course of the writing (Buchadahl). Either way, his outbursts, in tandem with the revelation of his ideology, paints a picture of his mind set as he tackled a 007 novel. With a such a distraught backdrop, it’s not surprising that SOLO is unfocused and too convoluted to be a succinct, engaging spy thriller.
So what is SOLO about? Well, it’s all about solitude, as its title suggests. The motif surfaces at different levels, sometimes effectively but sometimes it falters. In his personal revenge, Bond is a rogue agent, functioning outside the confines of the British Secret Service—trite but fair enough as a plot device. Moreover, it parallels the solitude of the secret agent, something which Fleming had touched upon in his works: ever solitary, Bond cannot escape the violence in his profession, forcing him to abandon those in his personal life to shield them from danger. The mission itself is rooted in solitude, which requires him to be a lone operative to stop a civil war in Banzai (although just why and how it’s to be done is never truly explained by M).1 These, and the bits of chin-stroking reflections, when Bond muses on the aloneness of man in the African wild, constitute the heart of Boyd’s novel and to which it owes its peculiar tone and structure.
The novel ambles right from the start with its main gimmick, a retro approach: it’s 1969, which evokes, more than the Cold War, Woodstock, the counterculture movement, Vietnam; and Bond is in London, at the Café Picasso, celebrating his 45th birthday and noting contemporary life in this age of Aquarius:
He forced himself to look around, glad of the diversion afforded by the [the restaurant’s] eccentric clientele—the dark-eyed girls in their tiny short dresses; the long-haired young men in their crushed velvet and their shaggy Afghan coats. . . . He ordered another glass of wine and an espresso and admired the small-nippled breasts of the girl on the next table. There was something to be said for modern fashion after all, Bond considered, cheered by the unselfconscious sexuality of the scene. (15-17)
Moments earlier, he was recalling a dream, immersing himself in events on the day after D-Day when he was 19, a lieutenant in the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He had seen bodies of British paratroopers in a ditch. The scent of woodsmoke, sodden trees, the gray skies over Normandy—it all entered his mind. He saw the shadow of his own death, in a barn, when he encountered a German solider. Boyd juxtaposes these recollections with contemporary London, attempting to get into Bond’s state of mind. But his technique languishes, never really getting into the heart of the matter, and the dream is never brought up again after these opening pages. It also goes against the persona of the character: Fleming’s Bond doesn't dwell deeply on the past. He tends to live in the present. For the most part, we see him in the here-and-now, engaged in the moment, or lost in his thoughts on the business at hand. When he does recall his youth, he typically remembers happy moments, not his time in the war. Reminiscing on the past is something that he shuts out from his current doings. Here he is, on a beach in France, at the start of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, remembering an idyllic time in childhood but he quickly pushes the nostalgia aside, reminding himself that all he has now, as a secret agent, is a dark reality:
To James Bond, sitting in one of the concrete shelters with his face to the setting sun, there was something poignant, ephemeral about it all. It reminded him almost too vividly of childhood [and] always in those days, it seemed, lit with sunshine. . . . It was all there, his own childhood, spread out before him to have another look at. What a long time ago they were, those spade-and-bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and the Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and the fizzy lemonade! Impatiently Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today he was a grown-up, a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories—a spy. (10)
Years earlier, during a flight to Istanbul, he stares out the window at the alpine snow and remembers skiing holidays during his student days, wondering about that young James Bond:
And what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognize himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear. . . . Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate, and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist, pickled in gin and nicotine, or a cripple—or dead. (From Russia, With Love 109)
In other words, he is where he is, an acknowledgement to just deal with who you are in the here-and-now. Life itself has, as its ultimate condition, death, which is the motivating principle for Bond to live, to live in fact a stylized life that asserts his existence. His hard drinking, hard smoking, his penchant for the finer things in life suggest an act of celebration—the celebration of his being. Sure, it’s a rehash of carpe diem mixed with some gloomy French existentialism. Yet it converges into a celebration that occurs only in the here-and-now.
In SOLO, what’s squandered is the opportunity to probe this notion of Bond turning 45, a hallmark in the agent’s life that Boyd apparently is unaware. From Fleming’s MOONRAKER: “it was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five” (9). This is the fatalist who Fleming had sketched: once again, for Bond, the only fate is death and it needs to be accepted. This reinforces the character’s carpe diem proclamation, giving it a twist as he sets a limit to his time on the planet, convinced he would be dead before turning 45. But in SOLO, what would he think of his mortality, now that he’s gone beyond this existential boundary? We never learn. The Bond we encounter seems to be sleep-walking through the motions of attempting to be that original brooding secret agent. I can’t see Fleming’s Bond celebrating his 45th birthday by getting drunk at the Dorchester Hotel. Moreover, the encounter with the woman Bryce Fitzjohn (by sheer coincidence, as Bond notes) and his subsequent bizarre antics of breaking into her home, committing voyeurism while she undresses, and then leaving a note, just doesn't smack of Bond’s persona as Fleming had defined. The morose individual in the original adventures would have it otherwise: for his 45th birthday, I imagine him visiting the grave of Vesper Lynd or Tracy di Vincenzo. The occasion would be poignant and atmospheric. He would be thinking of the brevity of things, just as he does on a flight to Jamaica during a violent tropical storm in LIVE AND LET DIE:
The great plane staggered and plunged. . . . Bond gripped the arms of his chair so that his left hand hurt, and cursed softly to himself. . . . There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. (150-151)
Of course, in the face of death, the individual feels that all time has been exhausted. In the few remaining moments, life’s brevity becomes the haunting realization. The tick of the death clock has always been in the background, each of us dying, as Bond notes, from “the moment you are born.” Put another away, everything ultimately occurs in a limited number of times in what amounts to a small number in the grand scheme of things. How many times, in one’s life, will you stare at the ocean from the shore of your favorite coastal town? How many more times will you remember a beautiful woman you saw in a vineyard in the south of France, a moment that somehow touched you deeply? Maybe another ten or twelve times. How many more times will you see the moon in the winter horizon? Could it be another 40 times? The great illusion: moments in life seem inexhaustible when the precise hour of death is uncertain. The finiteness of life recedes into forgetting when we move through the world without knowing when death will occur. It’s only somewhere, shaped vaguely in the future. Bond, on the other hand, stands in the threshold: for him, death is already here, before him, and there’s “nothing to do about it,” as he reminds himself. Surrender, then, Fleming seems to say. Surrender to the moment. Embrace the silence and take repose. It’s a pity we don’t encounter this fatalist in SOLO. Such a character would be more in line for a James Bond at age 45.
Through it all, the novel has a curious lack of suspense. Boyd is too self-conscious to display lyrical passages of prose, all in an effort to ensure us of his literary nobility. The African wild, for example, requires a brief meditation on the wonders of nature as Bond relieves himself in the jungle. Ah, the poetic moment to wax philosophy on the ecosystem, on man’s arrogant presence as master and proprietor of nature! Lulled and entranced by the verdant tress, by nature in its pure state, Bond is wistful as he does his business:
The air was filled with noises—frogs, bird, insects—and he suddenly felt a sense of immense solitariness overwhelm him, yet everywhere he looked there were signs of non-human life: columns of ants at his feet, a trio of magenta butterflies exploring a sunbeam, some angry screeching bird on a high branch, a lizard doing press-ups on a boulder. This specimen of Homo sapiens emptying its bladder was just another organism in the teeming primeval forest. He was glad to walk back to the road and the car—feeble symbols of his species’ purported domination of the planet. (76)
Unfortunately, this approach doesn't work in context to a thriller. The result is a slow-paced narrative, lacking suspense. There doesn't seem to be a deep sense of threat in the villain’s caper. The ticking clock we usually find in Fleming’s works (THUNDERBALL, for example, has the race against time to recover the stolen bombs) is curiously missing. Moreover, the novel has the glaring flaw of introducing the main angle—Bond’s revenge—far too late in the novel. At this stage, Bond’s original mission to end the civil war in Zanzarim has ended; but the sudden extra finale with the revenge angle eclipses the significance of the mission. Likewise, the faint critiques of colonialism, which are never examined deeply, are lost but nevertheless taint the novel with a bitter tone. Bond reads a briefing document entitled “The Origins of the Zanzarim Civil War,” which indicates that “Her Majesty’s Government supported Zanzarim (as well as providing military materiel for the Zanzarim army) and urged Dahum to sue for peace and return to the ‘status quo ante’” (37). Boyd seems to suggest that the colonizing power (Britain), which created the centralized government in Zanzarim in the first place, is desperate to keep in tact the state of affairs that existed previously. Later in the novel, when Bond visits AfriKIN, a London-based charity that sends aid to Dahumni children, he receives a lecture from Gabriel Adeka, the man in charge of the charity, on the absurdity of territorial conquest, as set forth by colonial powers:
Adeka looked a little contemptuous. ‘Zanzarim, and before that, Upper Zanza State, and before that Neu Zanza Staat was a construct of European colonialists. They only arrived a few decades ago, at the end of the last century. They drew the country’s boundaries on a whim one afternoon when they had nothing better to do. To the Fakassa people the Zanza River Delta, our tribal homeland, is our birthright. It has no connection with twentieth-century neocolonial politics or the vernal ambitions of European adventurers.’ (45-46)
Thus, the sin of the colonizers: they created political borders that served their own needs without taking into account the historical territorial divisions of the people who lived there. As Boyd implies, colonialism created ethnically splintered regions prone to civil wars. Unfortunately, he leafs through this interesting theme haphazardly, and nothing truly is ever made of it. Instead, his approach comes across as moments of social criticism because Boyd can’t resist inserting his political views into the novel.
The best scene occurs when bond stumbles upon a small village: some huts had been burned from a battle, and bodies lay in the mud with a “shifting miasma of flies humming above them.” He sees a small boy, as “skeletal as an ancient wizened man” (104), sitting in a doorway of a hut, naked, with flies clouding his eyes. Bond peers into the mud hut where another skull-faced child appears. The stench of corpses of children makes Bond recoil and spit. The death imagery of skeletal figures is striking. Boyd takes us to a mythic moment, enhanced by a character in the vein of Baron Samedi: an old man appears in the village square, clutching a staff, and stares at Bond:
He was incredibly thin, his arms and legs like vanilla pods, wearing a tatter of rags. Bond approached slowly as the old man berated him with hoarse incomprehensible curses. He had a small head with a powdering of grey hair, a collapsed face with white corpse-stubble. He was like something from a myth—or a symbol of death, Bond thought—and his red eyes blazed at Bond with a weary venom. (105)
This village of death, this pestilence of suffering, is the apex of a culture that has devoured itself through the chaos of warring passions. Toss in the striking image of the mystical old creature, staring with “weary venom” at Bond, and we realize his anger is aimed at human atrocity as he castigates the suicide of the species. The scene also inks to Bond’s personal vendetta: Boyd suggests that passions such as revenge and aggression are the same as those that fuel war and anarchic impulses. The outcome is death and darkness, thrusting the individual into solitude, a solo being encountering adversaries everywhere, living in constant conflict and dying with sword in hand. Here is Bond caught up in his thoughts, unable to put aside any retribution for those who attempted to kill him:
You couldn't, you shouldn't, just write that down to experience, walk away with a shrug and congratulate yourself on your luck. . . . M had told him to relax, get well, cosset himself—but at the forefront of his mind he wanted retribution, he wanted to hunt these people down and confront them. He wanted to be their grim nemesis and revel in that moment. (187)
Why is it important for Bond to “revel in that moment”? As Dostoyevsky had taught us, the only joy is the feeling of increasing power in one’s life. Put another away, when people feel powerless—insignificant—they'll go to any lengths to assert their individuality. Boyd obviously lacks the insights of a Dostoyevsky, and the weakness of the prose is apparent in the way Bond’s motive for revenge is summarized without any deep exploration of his antics. To say something nice, the blandness of the passage forces us to look elsewhere for an answer. Bond, in a Dostoyevskian way, feels downtrodden by his enemies. But such a character point needs to be dramatized rather than whipped up in a quick summary. Ironically, in this scene, Bond also forgets one of his meditative moments about Africa, which would have encouraged him to drop all plans for revenge. One night in a rest-house, during his drive to Dahum, Bond lies in bed, listening to the night noises, and feels his own insignificance in the natural world:
As his surroundings had grown more primitive and elemental so, it seemed, whatever strength, capability and powers he possessed appeared insubstantial and weak. What was it about Africa that unmanned you so? he wondered, turning over and punching the hard kapok pillow into a more amenable shape for his head—why did the continent so effortlessly remind you of your human frailties?
Africa, then, is a metaphor for the primeval forces of nature—elegant, powerful, eclipsing us and our tiny endeavors. It’s the impersonal backdrop for the stage of human folly, where we’re all caught up in our struggles as we act out of our own neuroses. In Bond’s case, he’s fixated on a revenge ploy without realizing the consequences. In the dangerous world of spying, there is, of course, the ever presence of danger. Boyd underscores this dark reality at the very end of the novel where Bond wakes at dawn from an unsettling noise. He is in bed, in the home of Bryce Fitzjohn (the girl he meets at the Dorchester Hotel at the start of the novel), and a patter of gravel lashes at “the window pane almost like a rain-shower” (318). It provokes him to step outside and check the surroundings for intruders. As he stares at the empty street, he “felt a great sinking of heart as he realised what he had to do. There was no other option” (320). In an ending strongly reminiscent of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, Bond leaves a poignant note for the girl and drives away, disappearing from her life. “He couldn't put her in harm’s way,” he reminds himself, “particularly if the harm was to be administered by a man like Breed” (321). It’s a nice touch to bring in a recurrent theme from Fleming—namely, the lack of divide between the professional calling and the personal life of James Bond. He is estranged from himself, his actions belonging in the line of duty and, ultimately, overriding his personal life. Yet the theme doesn't quite work in Boyd’s framework: wouldn't a Bond at age 45, ingrained for so long in espionage, already be well aware of this aspect of his life? By now, he would be very hardened by his profession, let alone the sheer experience of his life. I imagine a Bond who has built walls around him since his traumatic ordeals of the past (the death of his wife, Tracy, and all his close encounters with death). A Bond at 45 would be ever more grim and determined. Each mission would be the only thing that matters. He would treat romance as something that should just flash through his life like a bright meteor and let that be the end of it. Indeed, a well-weathered secret agent would not have planned a Sunday excursion with Bryce Fitzjohn, as if he is welcoming the start of a harlequin romance. As a ruthless agent, he wouldn't kid himself about any lasting relationship with a woman. He would be, more than ever, the mysterious figure who Vivienne Michel looks upon with awed fascination:
In a few hours, I knew, he would be gone—without protestations of love, without apologies or excuses. And that would be the end of that—gone, finished. (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, 160)
Boyd does toss in some of the usual elements of the 007 formula: exotic women, a villain with the requisite deformity (in this case, a disfigured face accented by a perpetual weeping eye), and the usual gadgets from Q, of which the most amusing is a knockout potion concealed in after-shave. The locales, however, are a bit dry, moving from London to West Africa to Washington DC and its vicinity. Through it all, none of the characters are memorable. As a thriller, the novel is slow-moving, its muddled plot unengaging. Not surprisingly, SOLO wasn't exactly a major hit on the bestsellers chart. It shifted 8,692 copies in its first week, which was “48 per cent down on the equivalent frame for Jeffery Deaver's 2011 Bond thriller, CARTE BLANCHE” (O'Brien). The novel is without its fine points—the West African sequences convey Boyd’s comfort zone, and one gathers he doesn't feel constrained by the Bond formula—but there are just as many weak elements as well. Most of all, SOLO has the flair of a missed opportunity. So much more could have been expounded in the notion of James Bond at age 45 in 1969. As it is, the novel is a routine attempt to enliven a creaking production line that the reading public couldn't care tuppence. Meanwhile, the executors of the Fleming estate have systematically dropped Master Ian’s original concept into a bag shredder till all that remains is a few recognizable fragments. It will take a bold, innovative writer to bring something unique to the series and offer a “damn good thriller,” as the saying goes. But whether there still remains a large reading audience for Mr. Bond is another matter.
|1||Boyd has concocted a ridiculous premise for Bond’s mission. Why is an MI6 agent suddenly tasked with the diplomacy of another country? What is he, a foreign minister for Britain? Bond’s primary role—and the privilege of his Double-O status—is to kill people in the line of duty. As his most essential function, Bond is an executioner for the British government. Hence, throughout the Fleming canon, his missions typically focus exclusively on the elimination of an enemy operative. The closest he comes to the orbit of diplomacy is in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, where he’s promoted to the diplomatic section to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service to share an advanced ciphering technology known as Magic 44. This is still plausible, a mission strongly grounded in espionage. By contrast, SOLO is a cross between geopolitical intrigue and those direct-to-video mercenary-hero action fares specialized by a Van Damme or a Seagal.|