Wednesday, August 24, 2005

James Bond Went To The Mid-East Once

As this site absorped the hits from the female-romance post, I couldn't help thinking that another interesting data-set would be the more masculine form of romance. Heroes in that genre would include spies, special-forces agents, and private citizens suddenly called upon to use their brains and muscles in the cause of righteousness and sexiness. This sort of book tends to be read by both men and women, and unlike the female-romance novel (as the Sheiks and Desert Love map so vividly presents), it is expected to describe real countries, at least somewhat plausibly.

So to start the scheming, a data-point. After the jump, I explain the title of this post.

In Ian Fleming's fifth novel, From Russia With Love (1957), the USSR launches a strange attempt to embarass the British MI5 by entrapping and ignominiously destroying its sexiest agent, James Bond. The bait is an important cryptographic machine, the Spektor, to be delivered by a gorgeous female defector. The handover is to take place in Istanbul, so Bond liases with the very colorful Darko Kerim, whose mother was an English governess and father was a Turkish circus-strongman, who brings Bond to a gypsy camp where two women fight almost to the death over a man. The Enemies in Turkey are the Russian KGB, of course, but also their mindless goons, the Bulgarians. Despite Bond's almost total lack of demonstrative affection towards men, Kerim conceives an affection for him that sanctifies Kerim's being killed and justifies Kerim's sons in blowing up ancient reservoirs for vengence.

Perhaps, in spite of all these Orientalizing tropes, Turkey shouldn't really be considered part of the Mid-East. If so, then the master-spy of intelligence-fiction never got to the region. He gets to mobbed-up France, Italy, and Greece, he gets to the Caribbean, the USSR, America, and South Africa, and he gets to Japan, Hong Kong, and some careful, coastal bits of China.

Ian Fleming did actually work in intelligence, but it was in the Naval Office during WW2 and its immediate aftermath. According to the most recent (and most objective) biography of Fleming, Andrew Lycet's Ian Fleming (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995), the most important intelligence mission he ran was a scheme to get around the Mediterrean blockade to pick up guns or refugees in Catalonia or the Riviera (my memory's a little scanty on details here, obviously): this big important plan went hideously awry.

Anyway, the point is that Fleming had no pressing reason to pay attention to trends in the Mideast, and so his novels, when they didn't ignore the region entirely, tend to portray it as a colorful battlefield for the USSR and the US to duke it out. At this point, in espionage-lit/male-ego-porn, the tropes of the Great Game still cover the Mid-East.

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More data-points?

I have a few 1970s novels that treat the Mideast in an only barely updated version of the Great Game. Sam Durell specialized in this sort of Eastern spy romance. I've got his Assignment Afghan Dragon right here: written in 1976, it is based in Iran, and despite all the local color, it gives no signs, at all, of the turmoil that was about to erupt in that country. One would even suspect that the author hadn't been to the country recently, as so many plot details turn around archeology?

An in-between point might be the enormously popular political romances of Robert Ludlam, which, if my memory serves me rightly, become increasingly focused on the Mideast over the course of his writing. (Obviously, this remains highly speculative.)

Then there's the oeuvre of Daniel Silva: the hero of this more recent series is an artist and Mossad assassin. Lots of descriptions of Mediterrean culture for the (presumably US) reader; lots of backstory to explain/justify the decisions made by the Israelis. He's up to seven novels, by 2004's Prince of Fire. In this latest effort by the husband of NBC's correspondant Jamie Gangel, there is almost no character introduced who does not turn out to be a militant on either the Israeli or Palestinian side, and the world is their battlefield. The artistic and guilt-ridden assassin, Gabriel Allon, is our guide through these novels.

I've been reading spy thrillers for many years now, and rather longer than I've read female-romance novels. If we're really looking to data-mine fiction, I'm afraid that we should really be reading espionage/mercenary fantasies. After all, it's much more likely that these authors would actually interview primary sources than would, say, Susan Mallery.

2 Comments:

Blogger Gary Farber:

I recommend David Ignatius's Agents of Influence as a fairly realistic, and based upon reality, novel of the CIA in the Mideast (Beirut, specifically), although I read it in manuscript before it came out, so it's been nearly twenty years.

8/30/2005 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Ha, I read that during my shut-in-a-library year in Germany, just last year! (Here is an Amazon link.) I did learn something from that novel, and it was similar to what I learned from The Quiet American: good intentions and idealistic principles do little when the surrounding society is operating according to an entirely different cultural logic.

What I think is interesting about the Western Romances, both male and female, is that they can track our ideas about ourselves in relation to those Others. The romances never even really aspire to realism, but they do reflect our Imaginaries.

Put more crudely, your average American voter in 2004 hadn't read the PNAC, but Nora Roberts was a household name...

9/01/2005 03:03:00 AM  

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