William Boyd is one of my favourite writers. Try “ A Good Man in Africa” – a hilarious book which became an excellent film. Or “ An Ice Cream War,” set in East Africa during World War I . He has now become the latest writer of note to be presented with the potentially poisoned chalice of attempting to write another James Bond novel, following in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver.
It’s important to mention here that there is a James Bond Mark One and a James Bond Mark Two. Bond Mark One is the popular Bond of film, portrayed over half a century by a succession of actors, from Sean Connery to the current Bond, Daniel Craig ( not to forget Bob Simmons, the stuntman who featured in the early Connery 007 movies as the figure in the gun barrel sequence at commencement as the Bond theme played). Most people have their own favourite James Bond ( mine is a mixture of Connery and Craig) while the Bond character has become a modern cinema icon.
James Bond Mark Two is the hero of a dozen books written in the fifties and early sixties by Ian Fleming, a journalist and former naval intelligence officer, from an upper-middle class background (Eton, Sandhurst and two universities) who died in 1964. The books inspired the first films and were classics of their genre for their time. I can recall as a schoolboy the impact they had. They provided technicolour images for a generation of schoolkids growing up in the era of limited choice black and white television. Fleming was a master craftsman, writing for his time. The Bond books, their place in British fiction, their style, have been parsed and analysed at length by writers as distinguished as Anthony Burgess and Umberto Eco. There is a particularly informative and incisive Wikipedia article on James Bond and his creator which is well worth a read.
But, and it’s a big but, the novels were written over half a century ago, pitched at an audience eager for escapism and glamour as Britain and Europe slowly emerged from the devastation and relative poverty of the post war world. Part of the challenge faced by any writer tasked or invited to write “ another Bond” is whether to situate it back in the 60’s – before most of the current reading public were born – or update it to the present or more recent past. The past is very much another country, and, given the speed of technological change, the farther back the more alien that country. An era before the Internet, no mobile phones, no personal computers. And either way, the additional shadow cast by the Cinema Bond will be long and deep.
Boyd has chosen the sixties, and has made a very commendable job of it, but has cautioned readers also to remember it is the book Bond, not the film one, that they should keep in mind. “Solo” is a very good, very well written and entertaining thriller. It has been well received critically with more than one commentator observing that the book is better written than were the original James Bond novels. And it is; it’s by William Boyd rather than Ian Fleming.
It portrays a somewhat softer, more socially aware Bond, now 45, with something of a conscience, shocked at his own savagery when he eventually does snap. That aside, he smokes drinks and womanises like the Bond we know, though he has swopped his Aston Martin for a Jensen Interceptor ( Anyone remember them? An in-law of mine drove one). The novel is set in Africa and the USA in the late Sixties. Boyd knows West Africa well. He was born and grew up there and it is the setting for several of his best novels.
The plot of “Solo” is interwoven with one of the major tragic events of the second half of the 20th Century – the Biafran War in which the oil rich province of Biafra sought to break away from Nigeria. The secession was crushed over several years, and featured a severe economic blockade of the breakaway province, with images of starving and malnourished children pricking the conscience of the world. The Irish Aid agency Concern was born out of the conflict, founded on the initiative of Irish missionaries moved by the Biafrans’ plight.
Without giving too much away, in the book Biafra is thinly disguised as Dahum, Nigeria as Zanzarim. 007’s role is to get close to the secessionist leader of Dahum and kill him ( Britain backs the Federal Government). When he fails and is almost killed himself, he resolves to pursue his assailants, who have surfaced in the USA after the collapse of Dahum. Bond acts alone, without official sanction – hence “Solo.” This is vintage Bond, but interwoven with the usual escapist heroics are thoughtful and disturbing portrayals of the bloody conflict with images of massacres and starving children, as well as the involvement of mercenaries, including East European pilots hired to drop napalm on villages.
Furthermore there is no evil international organisation or master criminal with which Bond must do battle on behalf of the forces of good. His task is more prosaic, the reason clear and not particularly edifying. Bond is to kill “ the African Napoleon” because Britain wants the civil war ended to ensure the future safety of Zanzarim’s oil. So too do the Americans, confirmed to Bond late on by his old CIA friend Felix, who speaks of an apparently limitless subterranean ocean of oil in the country . Felix refers to the West’s need for security of supply and the desirability of steering away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
There are echoes of the present day here though it is unlikely that CIA (and MI6) strategists were all that prescient in 1969. OPEC had yet to flex its muscles, Gaddafi had just come to power and the Middle East, though definitely a powder keg, was nothing like it has become. Realpolitik, however, just as the crushing of Biafra was real. An unsavoury touch, though one that adds spice to the novel and prompts reflection.
A satisfying read and well recommended.