A Spy and a Gentleman

William Boyd's James Bond is the most human yet.

Book: Solo

Author: William Boyd, Jonathan Cape

Pages: 322

Price: Rs 599

If James Bond had a real life, he would have turned 90 this year. In his lifetime as a franchised popular culture product, he has suffered the attentions of three literary authors — Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham), Sebastian Faulks and now, William Boyd. Desperate Bond fans, these 'continuation writers' have approached him with motives not unlike certain women who marry men in order to improve them.

So there are no Bond girls in Boyd's Solo. Instead, there are women of flesh and blood to go with the man whom Ian Fleming himself had dismissed as a "silhouette". Not only is William Boyd's depiction of women and sexuality distressingly real, he has the audacity to draw attention, quite incorrigibly, to the physical beauty of a "mature woman". The man is a dangerous iconoclast, defacing the very god he worships.

Or is he a rebel without a choice? Literary Bond writers have generational difficulties with the long, tall shadow of Ian Fleming, who had created 007 for a freshly postcolonial world which is long dead. As dead as the English cold warriors who peopled his pages and even deader than the confused memories of empire that animated them. The misogyny, alcoholism, racism, luxury manias, casual cruelty and Whitehall uber alles ethic of Bond's world seem ridiculous in our times. Like Faulks, Boyd takes the easy way out by locating his story in the past, in 1969. Faulks had chosen 1967 for Devil may Care, following on from The Man with the Golden Gun. The further back you go in time, the more comfortable your Bond is.

Literary Bond writers also have to fight off the visual power of the movie franchise. The face of Bond is Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore or Sean Connery, depending on when you grew up and stopped watching closely. The stories they enact may have tenuous connections with Fleming's text. For instance, Octopussy was written up from scratch by a trio including George MacDonald Fraser, best known for the Flashman series, and appears to retain only the title of the original, which had appeared in Fleming's last, posthumous collection in 1966. Octopussy. Eight of 'em! So bizarrely Bond that it had to be retained.

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