Apologies for dragging this topic back, however I am currently writing some stuff on COLONEL SUN and felt motivated to post a review I wrote a while back. I never ceased to be amazed at how divisive COLONEL SUN seems to be for readers, with people tending to either think it transcends the limitations of continuation writing or that it is a pretty dense novel with a dull plot. There are some, however, who suspect that the reason COLONEL SUN is often lauded as somehow above the continuations that followed or up there with the Flemings is the sense of discovery readers enjoy. Having tracked down a Bond novel written by one of Britain's most renowned post-war authors are those who consider Kingsley Amis' single Bond novel as one of the best mistaken, having approached it with a preconceived notion of its worth? Are those who view it as a competent but ultimately disappointing novel correct that the middle chapters sag, it takes itself too seriously and can be at times dull?
Well, of course, these are only opinions. But it is an interesting proposition. It is probably true that the 'novelty factor' does positively affect the esteem in which COLONEL SUN is held by Bond aficionados. It was published shortly after Ian Fleming's death in the 1960s by a well-known and widely respected author, as well as an author who was a devotee of the James Bond novels himself. For some, perhaps the fact that Mr Amis only wrote one Bond novel does encourage the reader to extrapolate from the text all that is good, and to naively ignore all that is bad. However, while it is an interesting proposition and one which may be borne out to a limited extent from the experience of a few, surely the same case could made about many other aspects of the Bond series. Having read all of the opinions there are to be read about THE MAN FROM BARBAROSSA or COLD (opinions which are almost uniformly negative) do some fans not approach those novels having already decided that they will not be up to much? Or consider the negativity surrounding the movie version of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, described matter-of-factly by Pfeiffer and Worrall in their reference manual as the 'weakest of the Bond films made to date'*. While some may undoubtedly go into those works having already been convinced of their direness, does that mean that all who have formed that opinion have done so?
That said, COLONEL SUN is not perfect. The middle section is slow, albeit to a much lesser degree than the book's critics attest. There are some (limited) parts that could have been tidied up to ensure a more efficient flow of the book, such as chapter sixteen 'The Temporary Captain'. Due to the descriptive style the book does move at a relatively slow pace, but not sluggishly so. The reader's interest is retained right through, and these more descriptive sections add to the atmosphere and the characterisation. Nevertheless, at times the reader may find themselves wishing the plot to move forward more briskly. The opening is explosive and gripping, but this is not maintained all the way. A second reading is also eminently worthwhile; perhaps I am just slow, however at times things get quite convoluted and require re-reading. Then again, that might be said about any number of thriller novels.
Where Mr Amis does succeed he does so with gusto. He successfully drenched the novel with darkly rich atmosphere. Greece emerges almost as a character on its own so vividly does the author illustrate its scenery and the feeling of being there. The reader is never left with the illusion that it is a pleasant country, at best it is portrayed as a second-rate backward-looking nation of xenophobic proles. Instead, one gains the impression that this is a once great country that has fallen into its state by the fault of its own people. 'There is something to be said for the view that the Parthenon is best seen from a distance,' Amis writes, for the simple fact that the shoddy restoration work (in comparison, the author details, with the Germans or the Americans) is masked. But inside those magnificently tall columns exists a dead world, mcuh more than 'rows of antique marble'. The best thrillers embody a sense of place, which COLONEL SUN undoubtedly does.
In Adriane Alexandrou the Bond series has one of its most interesting heroines. Here is a Bond girl who is fiercely independent, crafty and a fighter, but not to the point where she becomes an irritating 'equal'. She possesses different qualities and faults than Bond, and exhibits many feminine characteristics. Could she, though, be the first Bond girl to utter the word 'bitch'? Throughout it is clear why Bond falls for her, why he is captivated by her sense of loyalty and her bravery. Truthfully, she is not really heroic in any meaningful sense of the word, but she is a most memorable companion of OO7. Colonel Sun Liang-tan is a fascinating foe, an outstanding character about whom the reader is left wanting to know more. An absolute believer in pure torture, he inflicts upon Bond perhaps the most violent scene in any Bond novel (moreso, even, than in CASINO ROYALE). Sun most specifically tortures Bond through his skull, to the point where the latter is barely in control of his own senses. The pain endured, we learn, is almost indescribable. However, as a mark of the Amis' literary erudition, Sun regrets his actions. He tortured Bond in order to feel like god but pleads for forgiveness, feeling sick and guilty and having realised the despicability of his behaviour. Deep for this genre, but a development that recommends COLONEL SUN highly.
The ending is bitter-sweet, and far more profound than it first seems. 'People think it must be wonderful and free and everything,' Ariadne says, 'But we're not free, ae we?' Bond replies, 'No ... We're prisoners. But let's enjoy our captivity when we can.' Succinctly we gain a deep insight into the lives these characters lead; their lack of freedom, their constrictions. We are left in no doubt that Bond and Ariadne's time together will be limited (her decision), nicely setting up the next 'Robert Markham' adventure which, sadly, was not to materialise.
It is easy and tempting to contrast Amis with Fleming. There is little point, so divergent are they. There is a connection in that Amis' Bond is Fleming's, while the former takes account of what is canon providing an interpretation that is undeniably post-YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. And yet, no matter how hard one tries to avoid doing so, one inevitably compares Amis with Fleming. The differences between the two illuminate the fact that, as a scribe of thrillers, Fleming was undoubtedly the superior. And while Amis was an accomplished and highly versatile author COLONEL SUN is simply not as good as Fleming at his best. In comparing the two, moreover, it is discernable just how different Amis was. The element of the bizarre, so evident in much of Fleming's novels, is nowhere to be seen. This is deliberate, as is the striking difference in he respective authors' prose. Gone is the brilliantly florid and flowery prose of Fleming, in is something altogether more blunt and straightforward. Both work in literary terms, but are really quiteradically different. Stylistically and tonally COLONEL SUN is darker and grittier and bleaker than anything Fleming wrote. Fleming may have been criticised for his sadism, however Amis pushed that to a different level.
In that sense, then, COLONEL SUN is a more modern novel and Amis a more modern thriller writer. In style and plot it is far less extravagant than Fleming's books, with a far greater emphasis on realism. While this works in other contemporary thrillers (some of which are more similar to COLONEL SUN than Fleming's novels) does it work in a Bond novel, where the pulp was part of the attraction? This depends on what one is expecting and what one wants. COLONEL SUN is decidedly not 'larger-than-life' or Flemingesque, if you are looking for that look elsewhere. It is another author's interpretation of the literary Bond, a story about Ian Fleming's James Bond written in a very different style than Ian Fleming. And for some that is the novel's largest downfall.
On the back of the 1970 reprinting the DAILY MIRROR is quoted as desribing the novel as 'an exciting, violent, sadistic and sexy piece of reading matter.' This is largely accurate. Instead of embodying a sense of fun it embodies a sense of seriousness. Does it register as deep an impact as, say, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE? No. Yet it is violent, sadistic and sexy, as well as being exciting and entertaining throughout. And whatever one's opinions on it, for the simple divergence from Fleming, COLONEL SUN is a thoroughly rewarding, and above all interesting, read. In fact, I would contend the novel is up there with the best of them, if not quite reaching the lofty heights of Fleming at his best.
* Pfeiffer, L. and Worrall, D. (2003) The Essential James Bond London: Boxtree p. 97
Last edited by Lazenby880 (14th Jul 2006 01:07)