You Only Live Twice

Aside from the presence of major supporting characters Tiger Tanaka and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the Japanese setting, the novel You Only Live Twice, couldn't be much different from the film if you tried. There are no spaceship-eating orbiters, no flying mini-copters, and certainly not one huge base concealed within a volcano. The story is much smaller, much more personal, and better in its own way. Comparing the two formats beyond that, you'd need much more than a blog entry.James Bond is sent on an "impossible mission" to the Japanese secret service as an envoy, in an attempt to convince Tiger to give the British some cryptography information on the Russians. When there, Tiger tells him he'll give up the information if Bond will do them a favor and assassinate a thorn in their side: Blofeld. Blofeld, it seems, has been cultivating a 'death island' where people go to receive exotic deaths via various flowers. The Japanese don't like this new Kevorkian working nearby, and Bond is only too eager to avenge his wife's death.

That's about the plot of the entire story, but Fleming's style and the urgency and intrigue of the two services working on a straightforward tale of revenge and favors intertwined makes for a tight, engaging read. Also notable for the only time Bond attempts to write haiku poetry:
    Finally, after much crossing out and rewriting, Bond said, "Tiger, how's this? It makes as much sense as old Bassho and is much more pity." It said:

    "You only live twice:
    Once when you're born,
    Once when you look death in the face."

    Tiger clapped his hands softly. He said with real delight, "That is excellent, Bondo-san, most sincere." He took the pen and paper and jotted some Japanese characters up the page. He shook his head. "No, it won't do in Japanese. You have the wrong number of syllables. But it is a most honourable attempt." He looked keenly at Bond. "You were perhaps thinking of your mission?"

    "Perhaps," Bond said with indifference.
The novel also has the distinction of its conclusion being one of the most ambiguous and unsettling in the series, and one that, frankly, I was surprised to see, and I consider myself to be well above-average in my Bond lore. Yes, I am going to talk about it, spoil if you will, for several reasons, so skip the rest of the blog if you don't want to know.

First, it merits mentioning that not only does the world presume Bond dead, but that M himself writes an obit to appear in "The Times" about Bond. Within the article, M comments on what appears to be Fleming's books themselves:
    The inevitable publicity, particularly in the foreign press, accorded some of these adventures, made him, much against his will, something of a public figure, with the inevitable result that a series of popular books came to be written around him by a personal friend and former colleague of James Bond. If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. It is a measure of the disdain in which these fictions are held at the ministry that action has not yet -- I emphasize the qualification -- been taken against the author and publisher of these high-flown and romanticized caricatures of episodes in the career of an outstanding public servant.
But, in fact, Bond did survive the explosion of Blofeld's island, only suffering from total amnesia in the process. His rescuer, Kissy Suzuki decides then to tell him he is just a local fisherman in hopes of "keeping him". The plan works well, leading to a single jarring sentence:
    Kissy wondered what moment to choose to tell Bond that she was going to have a baby and whether he would then propose marriage to her.
Huh? Bond, a father? Apparently so, yet this is the only mention of it anywhere. Equally amazing is that Bond finds a crumpled piece of paper with the word "Vladivostok", and Kissy then allows the amnesiac Bond to travel to Russia in hopes of finding out who he is. The book ends there, with the ominous portent of Bond travelling into the lion's den without any idea of the danger. This sets up the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun perfectly, which I'm now keen to read, but, gee, thanks for the heads up, Suzuki!

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