You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

YOLT is the 12th of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. It is the final book of the Blofeld trilogy.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond series is available to borrow for free for Kindle owners with Amazon Prime. Since I enjoy free things and the James Bonding podcast, I’ve been slowly reading through the series for a year or so. It is difficult to discuss the Bond books without talking about the movies or the author, Ian Fleming because they are all interrelated. To avoid those discussions, any reviews of Bond books I will post will focus on the books themselves, rather than the movies or Ian Fleming and his…proclivities.

YOLT begins several months after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As mentioned in the review for that book, Bond has always been a character with a fatalistic streak but a lust for life. He has always enjoyed the finer things in life, albeit with a bit of a fatalistic streak. However, the climax of  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service leaves Bond dazed and a bit lost.

Most of these books open with Bond in a Casino or a stranger’s bed; this one opens with him sitting on a park bench, lost in his own thoughts:

The state of your health, the state of the weather, the wonders of nature – these are things that rarely occupy the average man’s mind until he reaches the middle thirties. It is only on the threshold of middle-age that you don’t take them all for granted, just part of an unremarkable background to more urgent, more interesting things.

Bond’s boss, M., fears he has no choice but to fire Bond. His best agent has become an out of shape, non-functioning alcoholic. Ultimately, M. sends 007 on a suicide mission to Japan. His job is to wedge England into the Japanese intelligence community, which is mostly dominated by the U.S. The book spends a significant amount of time discussing the decline of English and British influence on the world, and I suppose this mission is, at least in some part, Fleming fantasizing about England returning to power.

While Fleming is not necessarily known for his cultural competency, he visited Japan in the late 1950s and loved and respected the country and its culture. Bond’s Japanese counterpart, Tiger Tanaka, is based on Japanese writer Torao “Tiger” Saito. Fleming uses the Tiger Tanaka character to discuss problems with Western culture:

The Oriental way of life is particularly attractive to the American who wishes to escape from a culture which, I am sure you will agree, has become, to say the least of it, more and more unattractive except to the lower grades of the human species to whom bad but plentiful food, shiny toys such as the automobile and the television, and the “quick buck”, often dishonestly earned, or earned in exchange for minimal labour or skills, are the summum bonum, if you will allow the sentimental echo from my Oxford education…

Our American residents … enjoy the remaining strict patterns of our life – the symmetry, compared with the chaos that reigns in America. They enjoy our simplicity, with its underlying hint of deep meaning, as expressed for instance in the tea ceremony, flower arrangements, NO plays – none of which of course they understand. They also enjoy, because they have no ancestors and probably no family life worth speaking of, our veneration of the old and our worship of the past. For, in their impermanent world, they recognize these as permanent things just as, in their ignorant and childish way, they admire the fictions of the Wild West and other American myths that have become known to them, not through their education, of which they have none, but through television.

Fleming’s short stories featuring Bond often veered into these more contemplative moods, but YOLT is entirely a moody, surreal, nightmarish book. Bond is usually a jetsetter because jetsetting is cool; in this book he is in a very foreign culture because it undergirds how out of place Bond feels in his own life. He’s a lost pilgrim, inclined to believe what an enemy says about him:

You are a common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places. Having done what you are told to do, out of some mistaken idea of duty or patriotism, you satisfy your brutish instincts with alcohol, nicotine and sex while waiting to be dispatched on the next misbegotten foray.

There are some haunting passages. In reference to the death of a Japanese agent:

He was blinded and in delirium. All the lower half of his body was terribly burned. He could only babble a haiku about dragonflies. I later discovered that, as a youth, he had indulged in the pastime of our youngsters. He had tied a female dragonfly on a thread and let it go. This acts as a lure for the male dragonfly and you can quickly catch many males in this way. They attach themselves to the female and will not let go. The haiku–that is a verse of seventeen syllables – he kept on reciting until his death, which came soon, was “Desolation! Pink dragonflies flitting above the graves.”

I liked this book. It’s weird. It acknowledges the cost of Bond’s lifestyle, both to himself and those around him. It shouldn’t be the first Bond book you read, but if you read the Bond books don’t skip this one.