Saturday, March 18, 2006
WHO is the black Fu Manchu?
WHY does James Bond hate old people?
WAS Ian Fleming a racist?
Allegedly Ian Fleming wrote Live and Let Die – the second James Bond novel – before the first one was published. A friend had suggested he write a follow-up before the reviews of Casino Royale came out because if the reviews of his first novel were bad, he might be discouraged from writing another book.
Fleming did not have anything to worry about. Casino Royale did very well, and Live and Let Die was published in 1954 and also sold very well.
In general, Live and Let Die is a much better book than its predecessor. Whereas Casino Royale has one action scene that could be transformed into a Bond-film action extravaganza, Live and Let Die has a Harlem-based villain with a secret hideout under a nightclub, an exciting train sequence, sharks and an island base in Jamaica where an 18th-century pirate hid a mountain of treasure.
Don't get me wrong, I love Casino Royale. Le Chiffre is one of my favorite Bond villains and the baccarat-playing scene is pretty cool. But it is very much lacking in action, and the last fifty or sixty pages are kinda dull. Live and Let Die is much-faster-paced and packed with a lot more junk that is bloody and exciting, fistfights and gun battles and chases and an octopus and stuff like that.
AND it has Solitaire, very much an improvement over Vesper Lynd for a Bond girl. Solitaire has some kind of psychic powers. She comes from an old French family, in the Caribbean for many generations, that had come across some hard times, and she is sort of in thrall to the villain of the piece. Jane Seymour portrayed Solitaire in the movie, a fine bit of casting. (I haven't seen the movie for a very long time so I won't be comparing the book and the movie. Except to say that the scene where Roger Moore runs across the pond by jumping from one alligator to the next is pretty AWESOME but it's NOT in the book.)
AND you have to love Live and Let Die for this little Brokeback Mountain moment in the text:
Leiter examined the Englishman affectionately.
Briefly, the plot is this: Bond is working with the FBI and the CIA to uncover a hoard of pirate treasure that has been discovered by Soviet agents who are using it to fund covert activities. Or something. (In this way, the books are much like the movies in that the plot makes less sense the more you think about it. SO DON'T THINK ABOUT IT! Be like a Republican voter.) Felix Leiter from the first book is back. (Apparently, the whole "Card Sense Jimmy Bond" incident has been forgotten.) They get into trouble in Harlem, Solitaire runs away from the main bad guy, Bond and Solitaire escape to Florida, a train gets blowed up, Felix is eaten by a shark (he survives, a little worse for wear), Solitaire is recaptured by the bad guys, everybody goes to Jamaica to the treasure island (except for Felix, still recovering from being eaten by a shark), and Bond eventually saves the day despite an octopus attack, various beatings and a climatic sinister death trap!
The last half of the book is unimpeachably good poplit. The first half, despite many ripping good moments, reveals some, shall we say, insensitive attitudes that could be rather summarily dismissed as an unfortunate sign of the times – if the book had been written in the 1870s. But Live and Let Die was published in 1954, and Ian Fleming comes off as – well, let’s discuss it, and look at a few quotes, and the reader can decide for him or herself.
The villain is known as Mr. Big. He is very big, very intelligent and very mean. Born in Haiti, he worked for American intelligence in the Caribbean during World War II, but he disappeared later in the 1940s and probably received extensive training with the Russians. By the time of the novel, he has set himself up as the boss of Harlem, owner of a string of night clubs, with reputed links to drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc. He also has a secret source of wealth, laundered through a Florida-based company that deals in exotic sea life.
He is also a member of SMERSH, the Soviet spy-hunting agency. Bond is seeking revenge on SMERSH for the death of Vesper Lynd in the first novel.
Mr. Big has been a voodoo practitioner since childhood, and he understands how to use his knowledge of voodoo rites to frighten and manipulate the superstitious Negroes of Harlem and the Caribbean. (It's similar to the effect that the conservative leadership has over all the Americans that voted for Bush.) They believe him to be the earthly avatar of Baron Samedi, and he enforces this fear through a network of operators who threaten or kill all who dare to oppose his will.
Let's see, what else. He has some sort of heart condition that has turned his skin gray, giving him a somewhat ghoulish appearance which helps to propagate the idea that he is the earthbound zombie of Baron Samedi. And, he is half French, a detail probably added by Fleming to explain how a black man could be smart enough to be such a menace.
Mr. Big is the black Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu is, of course, the archetypal sinister Oriental, a mysterious figure, rumored to be hundreds of years old, educated at Oxford with a scientific genius that enables him to threaten the Western world with all sorts of fanciful schemes. His power generates a worshipful devotion among the teaming millions of the heathen Chinee, and they are all ready, at the drop of a hat, to gather at the tomb of Genghis Khan to prepare for the invasion of the West under the leadership of Fu Manchu.
Fu Manchu's main opposition is, like Bond, another plucky Britisher, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, who always manages to put a stop to the latest evil plan. Instead of Smith, Mr. Big has to contend with James Bond.
Fleming probably thought he was being very progressive with an intelligent and formidable black man as a major character. And I would be perfectly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if Live and Let Die was not overflowing with questionable passages.
Take this example, the first segment that made me start to wonder a little bit about Mr. Fleming. On page 5, a black sedan pulls right in front of Bond's cab, the cab brakes hard, and the sedan disappears up Fifth Avenue …
It was a smart, decisive bit of driving, but what startled Bond was that it had been a negress at the wheel, a fine-looking negress in a black chauffer's uniform
Hardly anywhere in the world will you find a negress driving a car. A negress acting as a chauffer is still more extraordinary. Barely conceivable even in Harlem, but that was certainly where the car was from.
By itself, this would hardly be noteworthy. But this is just the beginning. In Chapter 4, James and Felix head to Harlem on a reconnaissance mission, and Felix philosophizes on how Harlem's being ruined because the Negroes won't dance and grin cheerfully for Massa anymore. (Not in those words):
"We'll have to keep on our toes, where we’re going," said Felix Leiter, echoing his thoughts. "Harlem's a bit of a jungle these days. People don't go up there any more like they used to. Before the war, at the end of the evening, one used to go to Harlem just as one goes to Montmartre in Paris. They were glad to take one's money. One used to go to the Savoy Ballroom and watch the dancing. Perhaps pick up a high-yaller and risk the doctor's bills afterwards. Now that's all changed. Harlem doesn't like being stared at any more. Most of the places have closed and you go to the others strictly on sufferance. Often you get tossed out on your ear, simply because you're white. And you don't get any sympathy from the police either."
"Fortunately," continued Leiter, "I like the negroes and they know it somehow. I used to be a bit of an aficionado of Harlem. Wrote a few pieces on Dixieland Jazz for the Amsterdam News, one of the local newspapers. Did a series for the North American Newspaper Alliance on the negro theatre about the time Orson Welles put on his Macbeth with an all-negro cast at the Lafayette. So I know my way about up there. And I admire the way they're getting on in the world, though God knows I can't see the end of it."
"Of course there are some bad ones," he said. "Some of the worst anywhere. Harlem's the capital of the negro world. In any half a million people of any race you'll get plenty of stinkers. The trouble with our friend Mr. Big is that he's the hell of a good technician, thanks to OSS and Moscow training. And he must be pretty well organized up there."
Later, at Mr. Big's club, Felix and James are taken prisoner and manage to escape. Leiter says that they'll have to hide Bond's involvement because " … we shall have the British Ambassador being hauled out of bed and parades by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and God knows what all."
Because we all know about the NAACP. Since they don’t have any real discrimination or prejudice or Klan violence to criticize, those busybodies in the NAACP will have to involve itself in defending a Harlem crime boss who is also a Russian agent. Yup. No real reason for the NAACP to be around in 1955. They should have disbanded in 1865 because after the slaves were freed, there was just no reason for them to continue.
Except for Mr. Big, the blacks are all fearful comic darkies (even the "good" blacks, like the porter who warns Bond that they someone is going to kill him. All black dialogue is written phonetically and is nearly incomprehensible. Take this nugget from Chapter 5, sensitively titled "NIGGER HEAVEN":
"Aw, honey," pleaded the girl. "Don' ack mad at me, honey. Ah was fixin' tuh treat yuh tonight. Tek yuh tuh Smalls Par'dise, mebbe. See dem high-yallers shakin' 'n truckin'. Dat Birdie Johnson, da maitre d', he permis me a ringside whenebber Ah come nex'."
The man's voice suddenly sharpened. "Wha' dat Birdie Johnson he mean tuh yuh, hey?" he asked suspiciously. "Perzackly," he paused to let the big word sink in, "perzackly wha' goes on 'tween yuh 'n dat lowdown ornery wuthless Nigguh? Yuh sleepin' wid him mebbe? Guess Ah gotta study 'bout dat little situayshun 'tween yuh an' Birdie Johnson. Mebbe git mahself a betterer gal. Ah jist don' lak gals which runs off ever' which way when Ah jist happen be busticated temporaneously. Yesmam. Ah gotta study 'bout dat little situayshun." He paused threateningly. "Sure have," he added.
Well, now. I don't have a problem with a little color to liven up the proceedings. But this goes on for two pages with phrases like "honeychile" and "Ah'll jist nachrally whup da hide off'n you sweet ass."
Maybe I'm being a little over-sensitive to the sensibilities of 1954. But there is so much of this kind of writing in Live and Let Die. Perhaps Fleming was just showing off his anthropological ability to REPRODUCE black dialect EXACTLY. He seems to have been very proud of this ability. One wonders why he made no effort to differentiate the speech of Leiter from that of Bond. Casino Royale reveals that Leiter is from Texas but he has apparently shed his Texan accent entirely as his written dialogue never gives any indication of this. Likewise, numerous Europeans are represented in Casino Royale, with no effort made to ridicule their mode of speech. (Fleming seems to think that all Europeans (except Bulgarians) are equal to him. How very progressive of him!)
Ian Fleming also seemed to hate Florida, which is perfectly easy to understand in this era of Jeb Bush and Katharine Harris and the 2000 election that gave us (Ugh!) George W. Bush. But in 1954, Fleming's curious beef with Florida seems to boil down to this: Too many old people.
Bond, Solitaire and Leiter travel to St. Petersburg where Mr. Big has a business that imports exotic sea life. St. Petersburg is a rather sleepy retirement community, and it's a good place for Mr. Big to keep a low profile because they have very little crime and almost no police force.
And for a while, it seems like Bond, Solitaire and Leiter have nothing else to do except bag on old people. Like this section, from page 110, right after Bond has spent most of a paragraph bagging on American cuisine, and Solitaire tells him about St. Petersburg:
"At this time of year, Florida's the biggest sucker-trap on earth. On the East Coast they fleece the millionaires. Where we're going they just take it off the little man. Serves him right, of course. He goes there to die. He can't take it with him."
"For heaven's sake," said Bond, "what sort of place are we going to?"
"Everybody's nearly dead," explained Solitaire. "It's the Great American Graveyard. When the bank clerk or the post-office worker or the railroad conductor reaches sixty he collects his pension or his annuity and goes to St Petersburg to get a years' sunshine before he dies. It's called "The Sunshine City." The weather's so good that the evening paper there, the Independent, is given away free any day the sun hasn't shone by edition time. It only happens three or four times a year and it's a fine advertisement. Everybody goes to bed around nine o'clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them … most of the time they sit squashed together in droves on things called "Sidewalk Davenports," rows of benches up and down the sidewalks of the main streets. They just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It's a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false teeth."
She goes on for a bit after that, and teases Bond, saying ...
"You'll probably want to settle down there and be an "Oldster" too. That's the great word down there … oldster."
Bond is concerned about getting into a gun fight with Mr. Big ...
I hope we don't get into a shooting match with "The Robber" and his friends. We'd probably hurry a few hundred oldsters off to the cemetery with heart-failure."
Later, Bond and Leiter go for a little reconnaissance of the area and they leave Solitaire alone at the house they've rented.
Bond caught a whiff of the atmosphere that makes the town the "Old Folks Home" of America. Everyone on the sidewalks had white hair, white or blue, and the famous "Sidewalk Davenports" that Solitaire had described were thick with oldsters sitting in rows like the starlings in Trafalgar Square.
Bond noted the small grudging mouths of the women, the sun gleaming on their pince-nez; the stringy, collapsed chests and arms of the men displayed to the sunshine in Truman shirts. The fluffy, sparse balls of hair on the women showing the pink scalp. The bony, bald heads of the men. And, everywhere, a prattling camaraderie, a swapping of news and gossip, a making of folksy dates for the shuffle-board and the bridge-table, a handing round of letters from children and grandchildren, a tut-tutting about prices in the shops and the motels.
At this point, Leiter, who seems to feel that he's missing out on the fun to be had in taking cheap shots at the old folks of St. Petersburg, provides some witty bon mots, just to make sure that all of Fleming’s readers know that he finds St. Petersburg a very distressing place:
"It makes you want to climb right into the tomb and pull the lid down," said Leiter at Bond's exclamations of horror. "You wait till we get out and walk. If they see your shadow coming up the sidewalk behind them they jump out of the way as if you were the Chief Cashier coming to look over their shoulders in the bank. It's ghastly. Makes me think of the bank clerk who went home unexpectedly at midday and found the President of the bank sleeping with his wife. He went back and told his pals in the ledger department and said, "Gosh, fellers, he nearly caught me!""
"You can hear all the presentation gold watches ticking in their pockets," said Leiter. "Place is full of undertakers, and pawnshops stuffed with gold watches and Masonic rings and bits of jet and lockets full of hair. Makes you shiver to think of it all. Wait till you go to Aunt Milly's Place and see them all in droves mumbling over their corn-beef hash and cheeseburgers, trying to keep alive till ninety. It'll frighten the life out of you."
Leiter goes on for another half a paragraph, but Bond has the last word.
Bond groaned. "Let's get away from here," he said. "This is really beyond the call of duty."
Then they have a little mini-adventure and when they get back to the rented home, Solitaire has been kidnapped.
At the end of the book, Solitaire is reunited with Bond.
Bond brushed her wet hair from her eyes and saw that she had been crying.
"It's okay, darling," he said.
"Where were you?" she sobbed. "You said you were going to be gone just a short time, but you were gone for hours! When Mr. Big's men came to get me, I was all alone!"
"I'm sorry," said Bond, tenderly. "Felix and I started bagging on old people, and we just lost track of time."
Solitaire smiled. She understood perfectly.
(That last text box didn't really happen in the book.)
What does Ian Fleming have against old people in retirement homes? It's like he kept a notebook of jokes about old people and decided to use them for dialogue for his main characters in Live and Let Die. I'm surprised Mr. Big didn't get into the act after he had captured Bond and explained the death trap ...
"I'm doing you a favor, Mr. Bond." Mr. Big stared at him. "You'll never grow old, you'll never be like those people in St Petersburg. "Oldsters" they call themselves."
"Isn't it awful, Mr. Big?" said Bond gratefully. "You should see them when the weather goes down below seventy, or when there's a sale on Preparation H. They go batty!"
Bond and Mr. Big had a good laugh over that. Bond was playing for time, waiting for the bomb to go off so that he could escape in the confusion. He knew Mr. Big had a weakness for bagging on old people. If he could just keep it for a few more minutes ...
Seriously, the whole anti-old people thing just seemed way out-of-place and out-of-character. They're scouting around, Bond has already narrowly escaped three murder attempts by Mr. Big, and they stop to bag on old people for a few pages. WTF? Isn't there something else to talk about? For Christ's sake, Felix get eaten by a freakin' shark shortly after his little monologue. It just seems kind of like an amazing coincidence that these three adventurers, thrown together by chance, would ALL have a habit of bagging on old people so much.
The last half of the book is thankfully lacking of words like "negress," "oldster," and "perzackly." And it's a pretty good book, with a lot more of the vroom-vroom and the bang-bang and the super-spy stuff we expect from James Bond.
But it's REAL EASY to see why they change the books so much they adapt them into films. I have a hard time seeing Jane Seymour or Maud Adams or Halle Berry stopping in the middle of the action to start going off on how awful retirement must be.
Next: Come with me to a time long ago, before the neocons roamed the earth, when a-ha did the songs for a James Bond film and Timothy Dalton was James Bond.