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‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.’

He laughed. ‘But don’t let me down and become human, yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.’

I asked my dad about Ian Fleming’s novels when I was a kid. He raised his eyebrows as if to communicate a world of adult themes and dodginess far beyond my childlike understanding. Bear in mind this is the man who gave me The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to read when I was young, from which I don’t think I ever really recovered. I put aside any ambition to read the James Bond series until today.

I think I see dad’s point now.

The book opens with Bond singing the praises of casinos, the sights and smells that add to the sense of adrenaline when huge amounts of money are at stake. He has been assigned to embarrass and humiliate an enemy agent known as Le Chiffre in a game of baccarat. His opponent is known to have lost most of his money in a failed chain of brothels throughout France and this game, held at the Royale-les-Eaux casino, is his last desperate attempt to recover some of his lost capital. As the finest baccarat player in the British secret service Bond has been given the job of making sure that does not happen, in the hopes that Le Chiffre’s Soviet spy-masters will eliminate him once it is made clear he has squandered their funding.

Bond’s French contact Mathis is helping him maintain his cover as a Jamaican millionaire visiting the casino to play. A second British agent, Vesper Lynd, is also assigned to the case. As Mathis explains, how could a successful business man explain not having a beautiful woman on his arm at the casino? Finally, Bond is introduced to a CIA undercover operative named Felix Leitner, who assists him with the provision of additional monies when Le Chiffre has an unexpected run of good luck.

The majority of the book is occupied with the duelling games of chance between the two men. Aside from the scenes within the casino, Bond discovers that somehow his cover has been quickly blown. There is an attempt on his life by a team of Bulgarian bombers and a hidden gun is secreted onto the floor of the game itself when he becomes too much of a threat to Le Chiffre. A battle of wits ensues, with Bond attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy both within and outside the casino.

Fleming’s prose oscillates rapidly between purplish excess and a dry, notational style more appropriate to an official document. Then there’s the waspish contempt for women that’s much in evidence, with Bond resenting Lynd’s assignment: On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. When she is kidnapped at one point by Le Chiffre’s goons he snarls that she is a ‘silly bitch’. Bond justifies himself by describing the life of a spy as an extravagant existence for the bachelor, hence his ornate drink’s orders and refined taste in food. He has spent a lot of time thinking about pleasure for himself. It is widely regarded that this was Fleming’s fantasy for the life he had left behind, as he wrote Casino Royale when he was soon to be married.

As a product of personal fantasy, the book is remarkably unusual. It depicts a Cold War being fought almost like a game in a gentleman’s club. The setting underlines this theme appropriately. Bond does not hate the men he kills. They simply lost to him. He dismisses the significance of his ‘00’, status by remarking it only required for him to kill two men. Even M admits to a peculiar admiration of Le Chiffre – a communist, embezzler and pornographer, lest we forget. Fleming’s villain is described as a concentration camp detainee – due to, it is implied, Jewish ancestry – who has taken his unusual moniker as he is only a number on a passport. The quote I chose above comes from an extended sequence when Bond and Mathis debate the morality of spy-work. He questions whether Le Chiffre is actually a villain (and this after having survived prolonged torture at his hands).

Casino Royale is almost neurotic in Fleming’s second guessing of his fantasy and an attempt at relativistic realism. It is a curious, unfathomable and perverse novel.

What did I hear that Emma didn’t, when Larry did his material for her, sang his political arias, excited her, drew her out, shamed her and forgave her, drew her out a little more? I was listening to Larry the great seducer, I decided, replying to my own question. I was thinking that my prejudices were leading me astray, that Larry was far smarter than I had ever been at stealing hearts. And that for twenty years I had harboured a very one-sided delusion about who, in the great Cranmer-Pettifer stand-off, was running whom.

Once again this blog affords me an opportunity to read an author I have not yet tried. Le Carré’s novels occupy large swathes of shelf space in bookshops all around the English-speaking world. I once found myself cornered at a Christmas party by the father of a friend who swore to me that the British spy-lit author was one of the great masters of the English language.

Tim Cranmer is many things. He is a well-thought of figure within his small village community, as well as a politely tolerated vintner of very poor wine. He also claims to be a civil servant operating out of the British government’s Treasury Department. All of this, however, is a front. Cranmer has been working as a spy-master for British intelligence for years and the double-agent he trained, Larry Pettifer, has gone missing.

His former handlers are denying all knowledge of the affair and have made sure Tim knows they don’t want him spilling government secrets to anyone. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police have decided he is a person of interest in the case. So used to lying professionally Tim sets about trying to resolve the mystery himself. After all he has managed to keep something from both the police and the intelligence officers. His lover Emma has been involved in an affair with Larry. And maybe he knows exactly where his former student in espionage can be found.

Le Carré proves that the end of the Cold War was no barrier to his fiction. If anything the raising of the Iron Curtain allows the author to cast his eye over the plight of former Soviet nations such as Ingushetia. Cranmer’s easy complicity with the consequences of the vacuum left after years of aggression between East and West is contrasted with Larry’s effusive idealism and passion for the native Ingush. Where he offers security and a mansion home to Emma, Larry appeals to her sense of romance, both intimately and politically. For Cranmer romance means clearing his prospective lovers with London central and not taking a peek at their file.

This is not only a tautly plotted spy thriller; it also introduces a startling degree of psychological detail in its descriptions of Cranmer’s growing paranoia. His jealousy of Larry is twinned with a sense that maybe the younger man has a greater understanding of how the world works. Le Carré ruefully apologises for his descriptions of moribund academic life, the career chosen by Larry’s masters for his retirement from active spying.

Part Cold War-commentary, part dissection of one man’s descent into jealous obsession, this is a well-told spy-tale that does not shy away from political realities.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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