Saturday, September 7, 2019

From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming

On what Bond had seen, could he believe that she was the sort of girl to fall in love with a photograph and a file?  How could one tell? Such a girl would have a deeply romantic nature.  There were dreams in the eyes and in the mouth.  At that age, twenty-four, the Soviet machine would not yet have ground the sentiment out of her.  The Romanov blood might well have given her a yearning for men other than the type of modern Russian officer she would meet--stern, cold, mechanical, basically hysterical and, because of their Party education, infernally dull.
Property of the Baltimore County Public Library
The fifth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming is From Russia, With Love, which may or may not have a comma.  I drove some distance to borrow a library copy of a 2012 printing of the 1957 novel, an edition with a cover that is reminding me of my 2003 hardcover edition of Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way.

One of the issues one might raise about some of the first four 007 novels is that Fleming didn't do much to flesh out the lead villains.  For example, we spend very little time with the Spangs, the twin brothers who head an American crime family in Diamonds Are Forever before Bond sends them to hell with his .25 caliber Beretta or a handy 40mm anti-aircraft gun.  Well, you can't make that complaint about From Russia, With Love because we spend the first 93 pages of the 268-page book  becoming intimately familiar with the villains!

First, we meet Donovan "Red" Grant, Fleming giving us the lowdown on his life, psychology, and, in a scene in which he gets a massage from a topless girl who can sense how evil Grant is, even though Grant has never spoken to her, every inch of his superb body.  Grant is a monster in every sense of the word.  The product of a 15-minute tryst between a German weight-lifter travelling with a circus and an Irishwoman who died in childbirth, Grant never met his parents.  Early on he was distinguished by his superior physique, which he used to bully others and which lead him to a career as an amateur boxer.  At an early age Grant began experiencing a lust to kill, a lust that flares up at the full moon!  At first Grant satisfied his insane desires by killing domestic animals, but as a teen he began bicycling all over Northern Ireland, seeking out women to murder.  Drafted into the British Army in 1945, he turned to drink when he could find no safe outlet for his murderous urges.  While his regiment was in Berlin during the 1948-9 Soviet blockade he decided to defect to the communist side:
He liked all he heard about the Russians, their brutality, their carelessness of human life, and their guile, and he decided to go over to them.  But how?
Fleming describes how Grant got over to the Soviet sector of Berlin, how he convinced the commies to accept him and to give him a job as a killer, his education and his first assassination and execution jobs.  As the novel begins he has been working for the Soviet State for ten years, and is now "Chief Executioner of SMERSH."

We then spend time among the heads of the Soviet intelligence services, who feel that a major terrorist act is needed to cripple the most threatening of the Western intelligence services, that of Great Britain.  They don't want to simply kill some British agent, but to discredit him, as a means of ruining the morale of the British intelligence community and Her Majesty's Government as a whole.  They select as their target James Bond, the man who eliminated Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, and Hugo Drax, and give the job of destroying Bond's reputation and ending his life to two of the USSR's top operators: Rosa Klebb, an ugly little woman who is the head of SMERSH Operations, reputed to be a sadistic torturer, and apparently a lesbian, and Kronsteen, the "Wizard of Ice," a chess master and head of SMERSH's planning department, an inhuman genius and master of manipulation and prediction:
Kronsteen was not interested in human beings--not even in his own children.  Nor did the categories of 'good' and 'bad' have a place in his vocabulary.  To him all people were chess pieces.  He was only interested in their reactions to the movements of other pieces.  To foretell their reactions, which was the greater part of his job, one had to understand their individual characteristics.          
Kronsteen and Klebb select for their Bond-destroying mission Grant, and, to serve as bait, a beautiful young translator fluent in English and French, Tatiana Romanova, whom everybody says looks like Greta Garbo.  Romanova isn't told Bond will be destroyed, only that she is to seduce him and go to England with him, so she provide false information to the British and in turn can observe and report back on conditions in the UK. 

This section of the book is not only a catalog of sinister creepos and the people they hold in the grip of fear, but a chilling portrait of Soviet society.  SF fans often talk about "world-building," how some science fiction and fantasy writers create a strange but believable fictional world.  World-building, of course, is not limited to SF--among the virtues of Moby Dick and In Search of Lost Time is how Melville and Proust vividly portray life aboard a whaling ship and among the cultured French bourgeoisie and aristocracy.  Here in From Russia, With Love, Fleming succeeds in constructing a compelling world beyond the Iron Curtain, a world of suspense, fear, and cruelty.

Part One: The Plan ends on page 93 and Part Two: The Execution starts on page 97 with Bond in London, bored because he has been doing desk work for a year and Tiffany Case, after being his girlfriend for some months, left him for a major of the United States Marines in London on a diplomatic mission.  M tells Bond an incredible story: a beautiful Russian intelligence officer, Tatiana Romanova, currently working in the cipher department of the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, has approached the head of British intelligence there and told him she fell in love with Bond while she was working as a file clerk in Moscow and saw their file on 007!  She wants to defect, and will bring with her the top secret Soviet code machine known as "the Spektor."  But only if it is Bond who will meet her and carry her to the Free World!

This seems like an obvious trap, but Bond and M's attitude is that women are always acting crazy so maybe this whole thing is legit--anyway, they can hardly pass up an opportunity, no matter how far-fetched, to get a working Spektor machine.  To make taking this insane risk seem more believable, Fleming reminds us several times that Bond and M are gamblers, and that English people love games.

Many of these reminders come in the dialogue of Darko Kerim, head of British intelligence in Istanbul, whom Bond meets when he arrives in the Turkish capital.  (The trip to and stay in Istanbul give Fleming a chance to do the thing he does in all these Bond novels, give us a lot of travelogue stuff detailing what aircraft and automobiles Bond rides in, what food he eats, what booze and coffee he drinks, what cigarettes he smokes.)  Kerim, who is half-English and half-Turkish, grew up in Turkey, the son of a tough fisherman who had a lot of women, talks a lot about the Turkish national character as well as the English character--today much of this, particularly his discourse on how women are treated by Turkish men, including him, would be considered very racist or xenophobic or whatever and/or very sexist.  Bond immediately takes a strong liking to Kerim, an exuberant man full of life and a sense of adventure, and remembering how many people Bond made friends with in the last four books ended up getting shot, blown up, or thrown to the sharks, I hoped Kerim's health insurance and life insurance policies were all paid up.

In the 17th chapter of this 28 chapter book Bond gets his first glimpse of Tatiana Romanova, as he and Kerim are spying on the Soviet office through an elaborate peephole--Kerim has had a tunnel built under the building the Soviet government is renting.

Istanbul is wracked by a sort of gang war between gypsies (keep in mind if you are talking to your friends at university about From Russia With Love that nowadays you're supposed to call them the  Roma) and Bulgars (I guess you can still call them Bulgars); the Bulgars are working for the USSR and Darko Kerim has allied with the gypsies against them.  (The Bulgars all ride Lambrettas; using them to shadow Darko Kerim's car and transport themselves from one crime to another, an odd little detail that brought to mind The Who's masterpiece Quadrophenia.)

There is a wild chapter in which Kerim takes Bond to a gypsy restaurant on the edge of town (where there are no cops) and Bond witnesses a formalized fight to the death between two beautiful young women who claw and bite kick each other; they are in love with the same man and this fight is how the gypsy leadership has decided to resolve the issue--otherwise a long feud will result that will weaken the tribe for a long time.  This gruesome contest is interrupted by a sneak attack from the Bulgars, who turn off the engines of their Lambrettas and coast down the hill unheard.  After the attack is repelled, torture of a prisoner reveals that the Bulgars were supposed to kill Kerim and the leader of the gypsies, but be careful not to kill Bond.

Later that night, in the next chapter, Bond accompanies Kerim when he snipes the leader of the Bulgars.  Whereas the gypsy camp scenes aren't that great--the over-the-top girl fight is a naked appeal to readers' lust and sadism, and the attack by the Bulgars is sort of underrealized and uninteresting--the assassination of the Bulgar, after a long walk through deserted and filthy Istanbul streets, is quite good.  Fleming brings the Istanbul setting to life, here and in the tunnel scene--like his portrait of Soviet Russia, it is a portrait of an oppressively tense place, a place characterized by fear, but whereas the USSR is a monolithic top-down society bound in chains, Istanbul is a swirl of chaos where anything goes.

Unfortunately, Fleming seems to make a mistake in the assassination scene.  Bond regrets being involved in a killing in cold blood, which is fine in and of itself (Bond expressed regret over having to kill so many people in the last 007 novel, Diamonds Are Forever), but it is suggested that Bond himself had never killed a man in cold blood.  However, in Casino Royale, we are told Bond's first kill was sniping from a fortieth-floor window in a nearby skyscraper a Japanese cipher expert who was working on the thirty-sixth floor of Rockefeller Center.  Oh, well.

Tatiana Romanova sneaks into Bond's hotel room to seduce him--she finds herself falling in love with him, for real, at once.  And the feeling is mutual--this chick is gorgeous!  Romanova has been instructed to insist Bond take her to Britain not an some stodgy aeroplane, but the romantic Orient Express--a trip of over four days!  (James Bond stories are full of trains, which is OK by me--I like trains.)  Bond, Kerim, and the Russian-bred knockout ride the train west.  Bond is in suspense--on the train he and Tatiana live as lovers, and she has brought the Spektor with her as promised, but this surely must be a trap, mustn't it?  There are three Soviet agents on the train, with whom Kerim deals, though he pays for his friendship with Bond and allegiance to Great Britain with his life.  (Who could have seen that coming?)  Tatiana didn't seem to know about the Red agents, or what they were up to, so maybe she herself is on the level?  Maybe they are home free now that those three are eliminated?

The muscleman Red Grant, disguised as a British agent sent to help Bond, gets on the train.  The scenes of Bond dealing with him, certain that he is an ally but disquieted by oddities in his behavior, are quite good--Bond doesn't realize this guy is to be his nemesis until he and Tatiana are in Grant's sadistic clutches.  Grant gloats to Bond about how he and Tatiana will be killed, and about the elaborate measures SMERSH will take that will make it look like Bond himself murdered Tatiana because she was blackmailing him and then committed suicide--this will discredit Bond and the entire British intelligence community!  Bond overcomes Grant, of course, and in Paris keeps the appointment Grant had with Rosa Klebb for a final showdown!

Of the five James Bond novels I have read over the last month or so, From Russia, With Love is my favorite.   And that is not just because I think it is more fun for Bond to be grappling with communists than American crooks (though yeah, I definitely think that.)  As I have been suggesting throughout this blog post, Donovan Grant, Rosa Klebb, Kronsteen, and Darko Kerim are interesting characters, and Fleming's sinister depictions of the USSR and Istanbul are quite effective--the characters and settings in this book are markedly superior to those in the earlier 007 books.  If we except the gypsy scene, the sex and violence aspects of From Russia, With Love are about as good as those in the earlier books--the assassination of the Bulgar and Bond's fight with Rosa Klebb are particularly good.

It's good bye to 007 for a little while, but I'll definitely read Dr. No, the sixth James Bond novel, when a copy finds its way into my hands.

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