March 28, 2004

Unknown Pleasures

I think I badly need a vacation. We all do, but one's not in the offing any time soon, so I'm taking my pleasure where I can. Diving back into Anthony Burgess' novels was one, although it's depressing to find that one I really wanted to reread -- A Tremor of Intent -- won't be back in print until July.

I remember that Burgess wrote a slim little volume, 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, in which he offered capsule reviews of (as the title suggested) the 99 best novels, in his opinion, in a roughly 45 year span (the book came out in the early to mid-1980s, if I recall correctly; I have a copy of it lying around somewhere -- probably still buried in the basement). One of the things I noted when I read it all those years ago (I haven't looked at it since) is that Burgess seemed to have a propensity for picking books like books he had written. He had a few dystopias there to match his own dystopia (The Wanting Seed), and one spy novel as well: Ian Fleming's work Goldfinger.

Now, ever since I was all of six years old, I've been a huge fan of the James Bond films. I've seen them all, without fail, and my favorite, From Russia With Love, I've probably seen twenty times. Sean Connery, of course, is my favorite Bond; I thought Piercce Brosnan was a serviceable Bond, but let's face it -- Connery created a cultural icon, imitated but never surpassed. I've always felt a little bit of pity for poor Roger Moore, by the way, who had the bad fortune to play Bond in the '70s, and stuck with the role far too long.

Oddly enough, despite (or perhaps because of) my love for the cinematic Bond, I never bothered to read much of Ian Fleming. My one experience with Fleming was disappointing; I read The Spy Who Loved Me, and didn't particularly care for it. Yesterday, I decided to take Burgess' advice, and picked up Goldfinger. It doesn't disappoint..

One of the 99 best English novels? Even with the time restrictions, I'm not sure I'd say so, but it's taut and economical and a gripping read. I'm already 150 pages into it, and am enjoying it immensely. In Fleming's novel, Goldfinger is suspected of being the paymaster of Smersh -- Smiert Spionen, death to all spies, the Soviet counterintelligence operation that in reality assassinated quite a few people who fought against communist tyranny, whether openly or covertly. There's a level of desperation about the character of James Bond that makes the novel enjoyable -- he's far more human in the book than he is on the screen. In its own small way, the book is a reminder of what's at stake when freedom and tyranny clash -- the Cold War, the War on Terror -- as this piece makes relatively clear:

Terrorism is driven by ideology and fueled by a poisonous interpretation of religion. It's much more important to recognize that radical Islam -- terrorist Islam -- is being spread by a propaganda line we should well remember.

Those who preach it -- whether it's the Saudi Wahabbism, the Iranian edition, or one of the others -- insist that terrorist Islam will succeed inevitably, and its seizure of power in any nation is irreversible. It is, they say, the will of God. More than thirty years ago, a guy named Leonid Brezhnev said the same thing about communism, and the Clarkes of that era bought it. At least until Lech Walesa and some very brave Poles proved the Brezhnev Doctrine, as it became known, to be utterly false. By overthrowing communism and establishing democracy, Walesa and his people drove a stake through the heart of communism. If there is a central strategy in our war against terror, it must be this: those who propagandize the inevitability and irreversibility of radical Islam must be proven wrong just as the Brezhnevites of the 1970s were, and in the same way.

If we are to succeed in the long-term war against Islamic terror, we must succeed in the same way, and to the same degree that the Poles did.

Not as glamorous as an Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat, but proving the Islamists wrong seems a worthwhile project -- intellectually as well as militarily.

Posted by Ideofact at March 28, 2004 11:53 PM

Interesting that I was (and still am) a big fan of Bond movies, but the first and only Bond book I read was "The spy who loved me" and it disappointed me. Of course that was about 2 decades ago. But I have watched most (all?) Bond movies. I would rate Brosnan as 2nd (though distant) after Connery.

Posted by: Zack at March 29, 2004 03:09 AM

It was an odd novel. Someone (I think it was Mark Steyn) pointed out that Fleming dropped James Bond into all sorts of non-Bond fiction, and if he could have worked 007 into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he would have. I'm not sure if this was in an effort to increase sales, or if Fleming got bored on occasion writing conventional spy novels, but figured he could drop Bond in to something that wasn't a spy novel and thus fulfill his latest contract.

For those who don't know, the Spy Who Loved Me is mostly about a woman living at an isolated resort (I think she's the only employee during the off season, or some such) who's brutally abused by a couple of thugs. Bond shows up in the last chapter or two by chance, beats up the bad guys, and then, if I recall correctly, sleeps with the grateful woman. (Nothing like several days of torture and sexual assault to get one in the mood...)

By the way, I've been thinking about the quotation in the passage above -- I should probably say that I'm not endorsing the author's point of view entirely, and that I think the parallels between Soviet Communism and Islamist terror and terror supporting states can only be drawn in the broadest sense (but still can be drawn, because the bottom line is that tyranny is tyranny).

Maybe that's the subject for a later post...

One other oddity though -- I wonder why Fleming eventually dropped the Cold War theme and had Bond square off against SPECTRE instead, and why the movies dropped the Smersh angle altogether (it briefly appeared in one of the Timothy Dalton installments in the Bond series, "The Living Daylights").

Posted by: Bill at March 29, 2004 05:28 PM

Oh, and by the way, I think Brosnan did a fine job reenergizing the series, and I thought it was shabby that he was dumped -- he should have been given one last film (he doesn't look that old!).

Posted by: Bill at March 29, 2004 05:33 PM