Following the controversy around the patchy rewriting of the James Bond novels announced last month, see here, and this coming so soon after the furore concerning a similar ‘sensitivity driven rewrite’ of the Roald Dahl stories; which resulted in Penguin Books announcing they would issue the original texts in parallel so that people could chose which version they wished, I decided to have a look to see what the fuss was about. I was never a fan of Dahl as a child but I did buy two or three Bond books whilst at school and they have languished unread on my shelves for almost fifty years as it rapidly became clear that I wasn’t a fan of these either. So it is Ian Fleming that I am going to have a look at as at least I have examples. My Pan paperback of You Only Live Twice is the fifth printing from 1974 which I bought new. The book was first published in 1964.
Almost the entire book is set in Japan and straight away I hit some stereotypes of Japanese women as submissive and largely there to be decorative or as sexual playthings but these initial impressions were offset near the end of this book with the introduction of Kissy Suzuki who is definitely not submissive, or just there to be decorative, and whilst she does end up in bed with Bond it is largely at her initiative not his. There are other stereotypes presented regarding Japanese men, the high work ethic, obedience to their superiors and pertinent to the plot of the book the high suicide rate. Now I don’t know what the suicide rate was in the early 1960’s when this book was written but according to World Population Review the suicide rate is still a significant concern to the Japanese government and suicide is the leading cause of death in men between the ages of 20-44 and women between the ages of 15-34.
My main problem with the book however is that for what I expected to be an action adventure tale there is surprising little of either. That is probably due to Bond’s mission in the book which is not as a 00 agent but rather in a more diplomatic role given him as an attempt to get him back to work after the murder of his wife, of just one day, at the end of the previous novel ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. At the start of this novel Bond is a wreck, unable to concentrate on his job, drinking far too much and convinced that he is about to be fired but has no idea what he would do next. His boss ‘M’ is indeed thinking Bond is washed up but is persuaded to give him this final job to see if it can shake him back into usefulness. This means that the plot is largely Bond and Tiger Tanaka, a senior member of the Japanese secret service, having endless meetings usually involving the consumption of lots of sake whilst Bond tries to negotiate British access to a high level source of intelligence from Moscow. It is only when it becomes clear that Britain has nothing of suitable significance to offer that the main story is revealed and that is not until page 109 of what in this edition is a 190 page book and even then Bond doesn’t really do anything until page 141 when he starts to swim over to the castle and by page 171 we are reading Bond’s obituary in The Times.
But I am getting ahead of myself, Tiger comes up with a job that would do as payment and that is to eliminate Dr. Guntram Shatterhand who has established a politically embarrassing ‘Garden of Death’ filled with poisonous plants and deadly animals which has become a major draw for suicide attempts. The Japanese cannot move against him as he has presented the garden as a major resource area for biologists so has gained much honour in Japan for his apparent generosity but the sheer number of bodies returned from the grounds is worrying to the government. When Bond is shown a photo of Shatterhand he recognises that he is in reality Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s major enemy and the person who killed his wife so he is very keen to finally exact revenge however he can. I’m not about to spoil any potential readers enjoyment of the little action that takes place but suffice to say that the obituary is somewhat premature, after all Fleming wrote two more Bond books after this one.
But getting back to the language used, which was after all the reason I read this again after so many decades. Yes there are outdated stereotypes in the book, but it is a product of its time. I didn’t see anything grossly offensive in the text although a Japanese reader may find more than I spotted. ‘Sensitivity Readers’ are almost by definition overly sensitive in looking for terminology to justify their position and are determined to heap modern norms on a book which is after all almost sixty years old and which simply betrays the attitudes of its period. Quite what they would make of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or other classics I dread to think, let’s just hope they never pick up a copy.