Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Casino Royale (James Bond, #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold."

In the olden days, when my wife and I were still interested in watching movies, seeing every Bond movie was a compulsion. For many people born and raised in Soviet-dominated Poland Bond films were associated with the anti-Soviet resistance and illustrated the "real freedom" to be experienced only in the West. So we saw all Bond movies continuing the tradition even after we had settled in the U.S. I felt it was high time to actually read at least one of the books on which the movies were - loosely - based. I chose the first installment, Casino Royale (1953), also notable because its movie adaptation was the only comedy among the series.

James Bond, the British intelligence agent, has the double O clearance, which entitles him to kill in the service. This time his task, while equally difficult, seems to be less bloody. He is supposed to bankrupt Mr. Le Chiffre - a Soviet agent and a gambler who defrauded money from French labor unions where he was employed as a treasurer - in a high stake baccarat game at the casino in Royale, France. The long scene of the crucial game, with stakes rising to 70 million francs (only about $200,000 in current money, how unexciting!), is well written and keeps the reader's attention. Of course the whole concept is utterly preposterous but the internal consistency of the plot is retained, and the story makes sense in the fantasy world of 1950s intelligence game.

We meet Vesper Lynd, a stunningly beautiful woman, the chronologically first "Bond girl", and we read about the somewhat unconventional love affair between her and Mr. Bond. The characters of M (Bond's boss), Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary, and Q are introduced. Felix Leiter, an FBI operative, makes his appearance as well. As do agents of SMERSH, the most "efficient organ of Soviet vengeance." So, in addition to high-stake games and love scenes, we also have a street bombing, a car chase, and extended passages of Mr. Bond being tortured. Most of these scenes are unexpectedly well written.

In general, I have been surprised by competent prose, and despite the fact that the novel is almost exactly as old as I am it does not feel that dated. Well, everybody smokes and what's more, cigarettes are not only good for you but also cool and chic, but then today we drink sweetened sodas and eat sweet snacks - activities that 65 years from now will be considered suicidal. What I like the most is probably the fact that Mr. Bond seems to be more human than in the movie adaptations: for instance he cries a little and he can "feel his armpits still wet with the fear [...]"

To sum it up, Casino Royale is a better novel than I had expected, and let me just finish with a quote in which I will omit the last word - read the book if you want to know how the quote ends:
"Bond awoke in his own room at dawn and for a time he lay and stroked his [...]"
Three stars.

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