As I stepped out of the cinema after watching Skyfall, I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that 007 still works superbly on the silver screen. The movie demonstrates everything that is great about 007 as a character, while avoiding the pitfalls of the less successful instalments in the franchise. The effectiveness of the 007 films is a mystery when compared with the terrible 007 novels that have been produced by a slew of hacks after Ian Fleming’s death. I use the word “produced”, rather than “written”, as they constitute an affront to the tastes of the refined pulp aficionado.
On the other hand, maybe that’s just what can be expected in a world where everything is franchised—the pre-formatted TV shows that shape our thinking, the chain shops where we buy our clothes, the kind of restaurants we eat in are increasingly the same whether we’re in Los Angeles, Mumbai or Shanghai. The industry of giving new life to the creations of dead writers is therefore worth reviewing.
James Bond wasn’t the only flamboyant super-spy with a right to kill, but who didn’t die. Let us consider the freelancing super-assassin Nicholai Hel, originally featured in the 1970s multimillion copy best-seller Shibumi (often compared to the novels of Fleming and John le Carré, and even suspected to have been written by Robert Ludlum under a pen name). Shibumi now has a sequel-prequel, Satori, the first in a new franchise.
The author of the original book, the versatile Trevanian, experimented in multiple genres before he died in 2005. Trevanian was an American academic living in self-imposed exile in Europe, apparently in protest against American materialist culture (of which franchising is such an integral part), and according to his daughter and literary executor, he steadfastly refused to write a sequel to Shibumi. Indeed, in Shibumi the assassin has already retired to the French Basque countryside, and is forced much against his will to undertake one final mission. But then Hel is too cool a cat to be allowed to RIP, so after the author’s death followed, in 2011, Satori, billed as a “novel based on Trevanian’s Shibumi”.
It is easy to understand why Hel should be resurrected from among the other old, forgotten heroes. Hel’s father was a German toy boy, possibly Nazi, and his mother an exiled Russian countess in pre-Communist Shanghai where Hel is born, after which he’s raised in Japan. His cold, rational mentality is shaped by the Japanese strategic board game Go. He can walk into a room and find more than 200 everyday objects that will become lethal weapons in his hands, and is a level-IV sex athlete for whom lovemaking is a sport “in which excitation and climax are relatively trivial terminal gestures in an activity that demands all the mental vigour and reserve of championship Go”. Need I say more?
Cleverly, the California-based thriller writer Don Winslow, commissioned to write Satori, picked a passage of merely two pages from the almost 500-page-original to expand into a prequel, rather than a straight-forward sequel. So it is at the outset of Hel’s career that we find ourselves here, as we’re flung into priceless action scenes in which Hel, for example, uses newspapers and tea cups as murder weapons. Certainly Satori is much faster paced than the original. The action-driven chapters are short, often half a page.
Conversely, in Shibumi Trevanian allowed the story to unfold leisurely; save for the filmic action set piece replayed forward and backward at the outset, and a brief climactic extermination job at the end, there’s scarce depictions of violence. The novel doesn’t even have much of a plot in the conventional sense; instead the thrills are psychological and intellectual.
So no gore, but a lot of brainwork. Trevanian points out, in a tongue-in-cheekish footnote, how simple social responsibility “dictates that he avoid exact descriptions of tactics and events which ... might contribute to the harm done to (and by) the uninitiated. In a similar vein, the author shall keep certain advanced sexual techniques in partial shadow, as they might be dangerous, and would certainly be painful, to the neophyte”.
For despite the advanced hero character, Trevanian was essentially interested in pastiche. Readers seem to have missed that subtle point. Trevanian’s earlier spoof, The Eiger Sanction, was made into a 1975 action flick starring (and directed by) Clint Eastwood. The author himself was unimpressed by the result and made his next novel more obviously a spoof, calling it The Loo Sanction.
The problem with Satori, then, is that it takes itself seriously, while Shibumi doesn’t. The original book lapses into outright satire and crude jokes that would have been, for obvious reasons, completely unacceptable in today’s publishing market. Then again, for Trevanian cultural stereotyping was a literary device and Hel reveals as much: “Generalization is flawed thinking only when applied to individuals. It is the most accurate way to describe the mass.”
All such quirkiness has been weeded out in Satori, which operates more like your average airport thriller and it ends rather abruptly, with a revenge replay set up for another sequel. But if Satori were a film, it might have been even better than Skyfall and it certainly beats 007 franchise novels, because Don Winslow has had more freedom as a writer.
In the end, perhaps there is nothing seriously wrong with flogging the intellectual properties of dead writers, as Satori does help new readers discover the brilliant Shibumi although, if you like one, you might be disappointed by the other. The latter is like an aged robust spirit that may do surprising things to your digestive system, while the franchised book is a light New World rose wine that can be drunk quickly without a hangover.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.