by Ian Fleming
The world contained in the pages of Ian Fleming's first Bond book (and now the latest Bond movie), written when he was a ripe 43, is not just the escapism we might expect. Certainly this Cold War thriller offers dated sexual adventure and capitalist excess, wrapped up in a muscular, terse narrative and tied together with atmospheric, spy-procedural twaddle. In fact, though, the plots and themes of Casino Royale are surprisingly current.
Gambling debt and casino life, currently undergoing a renaissance in this country, are the modish concerns of both our hero, 007, and our arch-villain, the stateless le Chiffre. Bond has been charged by M with the unlikely secret mission of humiliating the communist-backed le Chiffre by defeating him at the gaming tables. Consequently, the playboy Fleming's own interest in gambling is mined for detail throughout, with industrial loads of card-sharpery and hefty slabs of mathematical analysis of 'playing the tables'. There are poised and leggy ladies too, most of whom can be seduced with the right amount of tough talk, caviar, champagne and, somewhat mysteriously, avocado pear served as a pudding.
The second, rather spookily resonant, feature of the plot is the attempted termination of Russian agents, an exotic activity that once again seems to be flavour of the month. It is hard to look at Fleming's work as a risible period piece when poor old Alexander Litvinenko has just received a dose of thallium on these shores.
The real theme of this book, though, is the search for sophistication. It was a postwar fascination and Fleming's obsession and, somehow, his vision of the lifestyle that was enjoyed by the privileged consumer has been hugely influential. Whenever the author does make an occasional slip, as he does with the avocado pear, it merely demonstrates just how much Britain has changed, not what a fool Fleming may have been. Today, all his reading public know several things they could do with an avocado pear: the public James Bond originally served were still getting used to bananas.
1960 copy of Casino Royale I Came Across.
This is interesting because it’s an example of disinformation, where the actual events – the attempted fifth column assassination of Bond, are spun to be something entirely different – a communist terror attack, reminiscent of Hitler’s false flag with the Reichstag, which he blamed on the communists. It also brings to mind similar situations, like Operation Gladio, although Gladio was actually run by NATO.
Another interesting section is where Bond philosophically ruminates on theodicy after LeChiffre is assassinated by SMERSH. Bond says he respects LeChiffre for being fully evil, instead of operating behind a moral facade. Bond reasons that the devil is given a bad rap, and that good and evil are two sides of the same coin. Here we see, as Umberto Eco has noted in his analysis, a dualistic, Freemasonic, Manichaean philosophy at work that reminds one of the dualistic, Manichaean worldview at work at that time, where the capitalist west is portrayed as “good,” and the “evil empire” of the Soviets as the embodiment of all that is evil.
However, even within the pro-English imperial novel of Fleming himself, good and evil appear to be relativized, and certainly in the subject of espionage and tradecraft, issues are more gray than then they are black and white. Yet LeChiffre isn’t a part of SMERSH – he’s a rogue, a “fifth column,” that operates outside the norms of east versus west, and this Bond seems to respect. At the end of this discourse, Mathis tells Bond whatever moral conclusion he comes to, not to quit the secret service, as he is a “machine.” Bond, as is often thought, is not a fancy-free secret agent lover, as the films have classically portrayed, but is in fact a very internally conflicted individual in the novel. Certainly he has his share of free love, but the older films present only the lackadaisical Bond, not the brooding philosopher. The new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace films do elucidate this side of Bond, which makes them more mature, in my estimation. Yet, I think his (and by extension possibly Fleming’s) Manichaean, gnostic theodicy is incoherent.