You Only Live Twice, the 11th James Bond novel, opens 8 months after the tragic ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Tracy Bond is dead.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld has vanished.
And James Bond is no longer the man who readers thought they knew.
Over the course of the previous ten novels, one thing that remained consistent about Bond was his ruthless and unsentimental approach to his job. For the first 9 books, Bond was the man who reacted to Vesper Lynd’s suicide by coldly announcing, “The bitch is dead.” Then, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond finally fell in love and married, just to have Tracy murdered an hour later. The first few chapters of You Only Live Twice introduces us to a Bond who has become a shell of his previous self. The man who used to always be in control of every situation is now drinking so heavily that it’s causing him to screw up at his job. The once committed professional is now rarely in his office and, when he’s summoned to a meeting with M, he actually shows up late.
M has decided that he only has one option. It’s time to demand Bond’s resignation. The scene where M says that he has no choice but to fire his best agent is a shocking one. For 10 books, Bond has been M’s best agent. M is almost a paternal figure to Bond. To read M casually talking about dismissing Bond not only shows us how far Bond has fallen but also reminds us that there’s no room for sentiment in intelligence work.
Fortunately, before going through with his plan to fire Bond, M speaks to a psychologist who explains that Bond is suffering from shock and that, in order to become the man that he once was, he needs to be given a task that will restore his confidence, an “impossible” mission. If Bond succeeds, it’ll be the first step to dealing with his grief. If Bond fails, his career will be over.
That’s how Bond eventually ends up in Japan, trying to convince the head of Japan’s secret service, Tiger Tanaka, to share intelligence with the British. Tanaka says that he’s willing to do so if Bond does him a favor. The mysterious Dr. Guntram Shatterhand has moved into an ancient castle and has set up his own “suicide garden.” Tanaka wants Bond to kill Shatterhand. Once Bond realizes that Shatterhand is actually Blofeld, he’s more than happy to do the favor.
Of course, it won’t be easy to penetrate Shatterhand’s castle. However, with the help of actress Kissy Suzuki, Bond disguises himself as a mute Japanese miner named Taro Todoroki and heads out to get his revenge.
You Only Live Twice is one of the stranger Bond novels. Far more than any of the other Fleming books, You Only Live Twice deals with Bond’s psychology. In fact, the story is often so twisted that it’s tempting to wonder if perhaps the entire thing is some sort of fever dream. Much like a German silent film, it sometimes seems as if the book’s bizarre and outlandish plot is actually a reflection of Bond’s twisted mind. We’ve never seen Bond as self-destructive as he is at the start of this book and it’s probably not a coincidence that his mission leads him to a literal suicide garden. When Bond transforms himself into Taro Todoroki, it allows him to leave behind the baggage of being Bond and only by denying his identity can he finally defeat Blofeld. As for Blofeld, he’s such a bigger-than-life villain in this book that it sometimes tempting to think that he may have leapt fully formed out of Bond’s damaged psyche. Blofeld is the opponent that both Bond and Fleming needed.
And just as Bond found freedom in his new identity, it seems that it did the same thing for Ian Fleming as a writer. There’s a liveliness to Fleming’s prose that suggests that he actually enjoyed writing this odd chapter of Bond’s life.
And then there’s that ending! Despite the fact that I already gave a spoiler warning, I’m not going to reveal the ending because it’s one of the most shocking and unexpected endings in the history of the Bond novels.
Tomorrow, we finish up our look at Ian Fleming’s Bond novels with The Man With The Golden Gun.