Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tedium With A Satisfactory Payoff. Remembering James Bond: The Man From Barbarossa

Spoilers though again the book is 20 years old.

DS: Fleming attempted to break the format of his novels with the experimental THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which was written in first person from a woman’s point-of-view. You attempted to break the formula by writing THE MAN FROM BARBAROSSA. Most fans did not like this departure, but you did. Why?

JG: One of the main objects of the exercise, as it was explained to me, was to bring Bond into the 1980s. I also wanted him to grow up. He was, until then, a teenager's delight, and Fleming acknowledged that, saying that he had the mind of a teenager. When I got to THE MAN FROM BARBAROSSA I had quite a long meeting with Glidrose to tell them what I proposed to do, and they were certainly behind me. In fact when the manuscript was delivered I was told this was just what they wanted. I was amazed and amused when I heard a broadcast during the run-up to Benson's first book when Peter Janson-Smith said that the readers just were not ready for such a change. I think it would have been accepted if I had been allowed to follow through and go on writing the books in that way ­ getting away from the formula. As it was, when we delivered the book the British publishers said how good it was and the Americans went berserk and said, "This is no good. This isn't the mixture as before," which was the object of the thing. I tried to deepen the character and make it work on different levels. I understand that when Fleming delivered THE SPY WHO LOVED ME everyone tried to stop him from publishing it.

The following quote is from an interview conducted by Bond fan "Dr. Shatterhand" with the late John Gardner and can be found on his outstanding website here The quote is telling on why The Man From Barbarossa and really the entire Gardner era of Bond novels is still controversial in Bond fan circles. Though of course since his passing in 2007 his books have become more popular. Isn't that of course how it always works?

Gardner is not wrong in his observation that Fleming's Bond was a teenager's delight where he did make his miscalculation however is assuming that we the fanboy community didn't know this and weren't just fine with it thank you. Of course the folks at Gildrose are to blame as well. Knowing that they were asking an author who's most famous work at that point had been a parody of James Bond to take over the franchise. So Gardner wanted give us a James Bond who lived a real life, had a real job complete with real problems. Hell we can live our own lives for that. Give us the sinister megalomaniac who finances his operation with bird shit, Illegal French brothels or stolen pirate coins. A decent dose of action and beautiful woman preferably with some physical defect like a broken nose. Hell she can even be Lesbian as long as she goes straight at the end and sleep with our hero. Yes Fleming books were a teenagers delight and we loved them for that very reason.

Gardner's views on what he felt would make a better James Bond series also seem to lend some credence to my belief that in his last Bond novel Cold fall He made Bond such a womanizing prick to point out what he felt was the silliness of what the Franchise was and what the powers that be still still wanted. But before we got to that somewhat sad end of the Gardner era he got to write one Bond novel his way The Man From Barbarossa.

The first thing that struck me reading the book is that this was Gardner's favorite Bond novel and Brokenclaw which came the year before was his least favorite and yet structurally they seem to be pretty much the same sans Brokenclaw's violence. However to say there isn't a different structure here than the norm would be absolutely false. The Book starts different than any other James Bond novel with a short history lesson of Russian violence against Jews in world war 2. This would play a huge part of the plot in the first half of the book and then seemingly disappear as the villain Yevgeny Yuskovich's real plan is returning the Soviet Union to communism, helping Iraq win Desert Storm and then bombing Washington D.C. In other words he's pretty much the same megalomaniac we get from Fleming's teenaged delights. The main thrust of the book has Yevgeny Yuskovich's group the chushi pravosudia (Scales Of Justice) staging the fake war crimes trial of an elderly Russian accused of atrocities towards Jews in WW2. Even the man on trial is not the real war criminal but a doppelganger. The set up for the trial, the kidnappings and the back story were more interesting than the actual fake trial. Bond on loan to the Russians and also working with Mossad has infiltrated the group and is working as a camera man. It's all a ruse of course as The Scales of Justice have bigger fish to fry. The Man From Barbarossa is not the escapism novel that so many of Fleming's were. In exchange for exotic locales, shoot-em-ups and broads you get... well politics. The villian's main motivation is political. The Scales Of Justice, Yevgeny Yuskovich's group, isn't SPECTRE who looks upon political ideology as folly one side just as worthless and the other, this is a leftist group pure and simple. If your politics are similar to mine you won't be offended. The villain's are leftest but almost comically so.

There are 2 women (mercifully not 5 or 6) in The Man From Barbarossa. Stephanie Adore is from French intelligence Bond at first doesn't trust here but does try to get it on with her. She's turn him down. (good for her!) Well until the end of the book but hey everything was done by then right? And Nina Bibikova who is good at first but alas turns out to be evil. Bond does get it on with her. In fact Nina is busy in the novel. She gives both Bond and the villain a Blow Job and incredibly Gardner uses the same line about things most wives wouldn't allow in the bedroom to describe both BJ's. Thankfully though the acts are described only in those throw away lines and we are not given a blow by blow account of the action nor does Gardner use a really bad pun like...well the one I just used. Also thankfully once Bibokova does a violent death Bond isn't "emotionally scared" so at least when he get's Stephanie at the end of the book he doesn't look like such a dick. Neither woman is a great character to say the least. Adore is just a good girl add on that every Bond book must have. She's hardly a factor in the book. Bibikova is the eye candy and again little more than a sex toy and the usual added on bad girl. Until Brokenclaw most of the Gardner novels had good female characters after Brokenclaw not so much. The blessing here is not much time is really wasted on either woman. There isn't really a Bond woman in the novel.

To say there is a lack of action in Man From Barbarossa is an understatement. Again much like the lack of a true Bond girl this isn't of itself a bad thing. The set up, political maneuvering and once again long committee meetings take the place of action. Sometimes it works just fine and it makes for entertaining reading and other times it has you seriously wanting to skip ahead a chapter. The famous Fleming sweep (something at the end of the chapter that makes you want to not stop reading) is nowhere to be found here consequently Once you start reading the book eventually it picks up and entertains. However once you stop it takes awhile to get interested again. The middle chapters a chore. No Bond books qualifies as hard reading but TMFB takes patience. It ranks with Colonel Sun in the density department though it's never really what one would call deep. In fact it's the middle of both books that take the most patience of the reader. Gardner never takes the easy way and tacks on an action scene's to jar the reader awake and this again is probably more of a good thing than a bad thing. Action scene's in books like characters usually don't fair well when they are only there to be there.

Centering a book around real events like the end of the cold war and Desert Storm is always a risky proposition. Readers like me who remember these events know exactly of the time and place and what was going on in the world that Gardner places this novel. Younger readers may happen on this book and and wonder just WTF is he talking about? This is another of Fleming's gifts. Most of his books were timeless. dated? yes! but timeless. This allows for a movie to be made in 2006 taken from a book written in 1953 that of course had been updated but the basic story was exactly the same. Unless you were a live in 1991 or are a student of history much of the plot of TMFB would mean nothing to you today. In that respect TMFB is no teenagers delight.

So there is almost no action and no Bond girl and the middle of the book drones on about a fake war crimes trial that at times can put the reader to sleep. So obviously the book is a failure right? Wrong. It works at times splendidly well, at other times just barely but almost always it works. And it works because an author always writes best when he/she is comfortable and enjoying what they are writing. That comfort level is obvious here and it's comes across in spades to the reader. It's what makes Man From Barbarossa a better read than Brokenclaw and certainly a better read than Cold Fall even if both of the later mentioned books are more 'fun" reads. Ironically enough Gardner's next Bond novel Death Is Forever would have an overabundance of death destruction and sex and glides the reader along at a much brisker pace. It also is remains a far more popular read then TMFB Which must have been Gardeners' personal white flag on what he envisioned the Bond franchise should be.

For writing The Man From Barbarossa the way he wanted to write it and giving us an entertaining political spy novel that is certainly different than the James Bond norm I am more inclined to give the book the benefit of the doubt and over look it's flaws just a little bit. Call it the George W. low expectations factor.

*** 3/4 *****

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