Nov 15

revisiting spectreville

FT1 comment • 212 views

A READER REPORT on Diamonds Are Forever:
(this rereading follows up on this post)
orok1: Sentence on sentence DaF is indeed well written, though weirdly paced. In fact, there’s no significant action — violent or indeed sexy — until you’re a lot more than halfway in, and it’s almost over by the time it arrives. The lair-destruction is concentrated into just three consecutive chapters (though there’s a certain of aftermath threat — plus a tidy-up coda after the aftermath). Intriguing that the name Spectre turns up so soon (Spectreville is the name of Seraffimo Spang’s pasteboard Old West hobby-set).

2: anyway the strange pacing is because primarily VERY LARGE CHUNKS of the book are given over to description and/or exposition (= felix leiter’s primary role): mini-studies of the diamond trade, of how US horse races are fixed, of how casinos are fixed, of the history of gangsterism in the US. A somewhat deracinated history, to be sure — Bond arrives in the US with a dismissive contempt for US gangster, who are just (in his opinion) “greaseball” hoodlums. He learns different of course — the Spang brothers have a smart, sophisticated, effective set-up. “Saraffimo” notwithstanding, the surname “Spang” is of German origin rather than Sicilian. Smart, sophisticated, effective gang leaders have to be Northern European? Hmmm.

(No great surprise that I had forgotten so much since I read it aged 12/13: I generally just skipped over descriptive or explanatory passages back then.)

3: much of the book actually feels like a buried comparative essay on modern (i.e mid 50s) modes of travel — helicopter, tranatlantic and local airlines, fast US cars, trains, ocean liners — with occasional gunplay. It’s not uninteresting as social history to be reminded that in the early 50s you flew from london airport to idlewild, and stopped off for a fancy meal in dublin — bond has streak and champagne). And i imagine the knowledge of what it was like to fly in a helicopter was totally new and therefore intriguing to 50s readers, but it’s a real trudge as a book-opener 60 years later…

4: … tho the actual book opener is a scene where a scorpion kills a beetle and is in turn killed by a do-you-see-racist afrikaans diamond smuggler (he loathes all things black). I have a theory that fleming is trying quite hard to write himself as better than the worst of his times — full-on apartheid was less than a decade established in 1956, and the Malan and Verwoerd regimes seen as a distasteful anomaly in Brit empire circles. This Afrikaner is possibly intended to illustrate bond’s (if not fleming’s) belief in the more generous and capable nature of Brit Empire method, viz that it managed racial hierarchies so much more humanely than South Africa. And ditto ditto the racial situation in the US — Brown vs Board of Education was only decided in 1954. “Bond had a natural affection for coloured people, but…” is the giveaway here (see also extended contentious note on theory below)…

5: My actual favourite phrase in the book describes the flight into Vegas: “skirting on their right the Calico mountains, once the borax centre of the world.” ONCE THE BORAX CENTRE OF THE WORLD!! This is a throwaway fact Fleming drops in to no obvious purpose except showing off — borax has nearly nothing to do with diamonds, though it was used a little in small-scale gold mining (this is me showing off, discovered via the magic of googling). It’s also vital in the manufacture of SILLY PUTTY!@!@ (which already existed, but didn’t become globally popular until 1961) (more googling there)

6: Throughout you’re always wondering about the actual level of Fleming’s respect for Bond: which of the characteristics dwelt on shd be listed in the praise or the damnation columns. Bond is certainly at his clunkingly dimmest when philosophising — about women, about American commercialism, about the unearthly beauty of diamonds and the roots of all religion (!!!) — but are these the sides of him that Flaming is chuckling at, or are they Fleming’s own thoughts on these matters? You certainly learn a lot more from the meticulous descriptions than when Bond is furrowing his brow at such mysteries…

7: the first villain we meet in New York — Michael “Shady” Tree — is a hunchback dwarf, which very much confirms Rosie’s point about ableism (I don’t think I’d ever really picked this up before, though it’s VERY obvious once you start to think about it). In fact there’s even a little digression about how hook-for-hand-and-foot HAVEN’T pushed his old pal towards the dark side: “there was none of the bitterness of a cripple in Leiter’s face”. And of course, the nastiest crims in DaF are the gay couple Wint and Kidd, paid killers who take perverted pleasure in pain and maiming. (They’re also the best-sketched of the villains, most of whom — including Tree and cowboy Seraffimo — are utterly unmemorable.)

(Parenthetically, there’s an aside in one of the recounted-from-memory titles listed in my previous post — possibly golden gun? — which associates homosexuality with not being able to whistle, in a document M is reading. When he stops reading, he purses his lips and demonstates to us, and himself, that he CAN whistle. This is good character observation — and again, it’s hard to tell whether or not Fleming is mocking him, or onside with such nonsense.)

Extended contentious note and theory:
[caveat: i’m riffing off a very small section of the book here, trying to reconstruct how it might have impacted on 50s readers in the UK]
Bond is a essentially hired security goon, pimped out by MI6 to firm up legal diamond trading for the ‘Diamond Corporation’, which M implies — tho doesn’t quite say — runs 90% of the world’s mines and trade routes. In fact, the 20th centry monopolist was South African firm De Beers (briefly mentioned top distinguish them from the ‘Diamond Corporation’, perhaps for legal reasons). My theory is that the Diamond Corparation is Fleming’s fanfic confection of a better ordered world than the one which actually then existed, where the Brit Emp’s successors have mastery of the diamond industry, and not the vulgar and racist Boers, and where the monetary benefits accrue mainly to the UK. (Implicit in the simplicity of this invented name is its overarching imperial status: like EMI, a vast UK-based firm spannig many nations, simply called Electrical and Musical Industries — no need for an explanatory term of location here.)

(To be fair, it’s possible DCorp is a fictional counterpart to Anglo American: nevertheless, here too, M’s encomium to them as a key prop primarily to the post-war Brit economy is Fleming flimflam).

Bond exhibits semi-patrician distaste for the violent and cynical methods of the Spangs (and their on-site Afrikaaner representative) as they try and horn in DCorp. But we only learn how DCorp treats the local (ie African) miners by implication, when the details of that part of the smuggling operation is explained — it isn’t dwelt on, bcz the more you think about it, the harder it wd be to tell DCorp and the Spangled Mob apart. DCorp’s right to these resources, its ownership, so-called, was after all established by ruthless extractive violence exactly as ferocious as US mob law, just a few decades before the Cosa Nostra first stirred in the US.

In fact, protest at the colonial settlement was already stirring at this date all across Africa — further east, since 1952, Kenya was convulsed with the Mau-Mau uprising, and Ghana (the Gold Coast in colonial language) would win political independence from the British Empire in 1957 (economic independence is to this day a thornier issue).

Basically in this book, Bond is shutting out the competition, some jumped-up new (German American?) rivals. And affirming the belief that the British Empire treats its subject peoples far more humanely than any imperial or piratical rivals will (including the US, otherwise held in much affection). But of course these “subjects” were very much kicking back against this line, at this very moment. The African sections of this book are set in the borderlands between French Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — so no directly jarring reminders disturb this particular narrative, though they will be whispering in the dreams of some readers. But (as Dr No says), Bond is a “stupid policeman” for the pre-war economic order, based in an earlier era of robbery with menaces.

As ever, it’s hard to be certain how ironical Fleming’s smile was as he penned such passages. He’s accurately depicting the view of the state of things in the 50s of the steak-and-champagne white uberclasses as they flew high above the oceans. And Fleming is never quite Bond, after all: he admires some things about him, is authorially amused by others. But some of the things you learn from his books he never knew he was telling you.


  1. 1
    DietMondrian on 23 Nov 2015 #

    The ableism is still there in Sebastian Faulks’s Bond novel, Devil May Care – the bad guy has a “monkey paw”, a hairy, monkey-like left hand with no opposable thumb.

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