Licence to live forever

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 1993, 12:00am

HE SHOULD have been killed long ago. Not by the criminal organisations he fought, or by the 60 Morland Specials he smoked a day, but by a fickle public fed up with his chauvinism, offended by his snobbery and bored with his adventures.

But James Bond is not dead. Somehow the public, brow beaten by the politically correct movement and safe sex campaigns, has continued to glorify 007. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Bond's first appearance in Ian Fleming's thriller Casino Royale and Britain's greatest spy is still foiling criminals in John Gardner's latest book, Death is Forever.

Commissioned by Glidrose Publications Ltd, which owns the copyright to Fleming's stories, Gardner has written a dozen novels featuring James Bond. Author of the acclaimed Herbie Kruger trilogy and The Quiet Dogs, Gardner has updated Bond for the '90s, with a new Bentley Mulsanne Turbo and replacing the Walter PPK with a 9 mm ASP automatic.

But the new books retain Fleming's trademark ingredients: sex and death. Bond still keeps his cool under cover and under the covers. His old enemies Smersh and Spectre, transmogrified from heavy Russians into swarthy Arabs, consistently send beautiful killers to sleep with and then attempt to assassinate Bond.

And M still presides over the service, warning his surrogate son the new EEC is ''a hotbed of villainy''.

In the latest Bond instalment, Gardner pays homage to his mentor's penchant for camp names by pairing 007 with CIA operative Elizabeth Zara, known in espionage circles as ''Easy''. It is a Bondism that Gardner has preserved in his 11 books. The favouriteweapons master Q was replaced in Licence Renewed by a beautiful woman dubbed with gleeful chauvinism as Q'te.

But if Bond has become a kitsch self parody on screen, the same cannot be said of the books. Fleming was a skilled suspense writer, his characters made human by small defects like Dr No's misplaced heart, Goldfinger's diastema, or Solitaire's abusive childhood.

While Gardner lacks Fleming's subtlety, his books rival Fleming's for suspense and originality. Gardner is able to pinpoint and exploit popular fears in order to lend his adventures a sense of credibility.

In the latest instalment, Bond and Easy race across the newly built Channel tunnel in an effort to stop hardliners from destroying President Boris Yeltsin's Russian reforms.

Gardner's Bond is the ageless espionage veteran, as well known to his enemies as he is to his fans. In Nobody Lives Forever, Tamil Rahani, the latest chief of Spectre, offers 10 million Swiss francs to any criminal who can kill Bond. But 007 eludes death, as he always will. Bond has successfully passed through a literary time warp, and this success is the best measure of Gardner's skill.

On the most basic level, Bond is the supremely effective killing machine. With his gadgets, his cunning and ruthlessness he is the triumph of technological reason.

In an essay on Bond, Umberto Eco suggests Bond's name is meant to evoke ''the luxuries of Bond Street or Treasury bonds,'' and he is right. Bond is as reliable and as inhuman as gold bullion.

But he is much more than a good trigger man. He is the white knight, the cruelly handsome seducer and the elegant gentleman.

If Bond has remained healthy in literature because he was never commercialised, why have his films, in their 31st year, not lost out to the more sophisticated killer movies? Certainly Q's arsenal of laser watches and exploding pens are no match for The Terminator. But crowds are still flocking to the theatres. The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton, bagged US$135 million (about HK$1.04 billion) at the box office.

What keeps audiences coming back to the films and the books is Bond the symbol. In the forward to the Ian Fleming books, Anthony Burgess writes Bond ''has the stuff of immortality'' because he is ''not lacking in contradictions''.

Will Bond survive the '90s? Indeed, both in the films and the books he has already adjusted. In the Living Daylights, Bond has only one sexual encounter, rather than the usual 10. He has stopped smoking.

The image of the man with the best gadgets that worked so well under Roger Moore has been abandoned in favour of the old style, more cerebral Bond. He is aware of AIDS and lung cancer and he is versed in the political realities of glasnost.

If Bond seems shaken by modern times, he is by no means stirred. There is nothing more secure than a good investment in the Bond market.