A Failed Experiment?: 'The Man From Barbarossa'
1991 brought the release of John Gardner’s tenth James Bond novel entitled The Man From Barbarossa. It was one that would prove to be the most controversial Bond novels among fans since The Spy Who Loved Me. Both are what are often referred to as an “experimental” book in that they completely break away from the established, standard Bond formula, The Man From Barbarossa, even more so than Fleming’s experimental novel, to try to do something completely new. This article will explore these experimental elements of The Man From Barbarossa and how it makes for such a unique outing, not only for Gardner’s tenure, but the James Bond series as a whole.
Just from the opening of this story, one senses that this will be a new change of tact. It’s not every Bond novel that begins describing the horrors that Russian Jews faced at the Nazi death camps during the Second World War and the acts of an SS officer. This dark and gloomy prelude continues into the present where we witness the mysterious kidnapping of an elderly man in his New Jersey home. The following excerpt sums up the entire novel fairly well:
Nobody could possibly have foreseen that the abduction of an old man in New Jersey would be the prelude to a drama played out on the world’s stage. Or that it was the first step in a plot, so ingenious and skillful that the stability of nations would rock wildly to its adroit tune. One missing old man, and the fate of the free world would be at stake.
-The Man From Barbarossa, Chapter 1
The key word in the above text is “drama”. The Man From Barbarossa is a drama, not a spy thriller or an action adventure story that everyone expects from Bond, but a more realistic story focusing on character and story development and less so on action. The only real bit of action does not come until the climax, in which Bond and his allies prevent the transport of missiles. Much of the story is compromised with (a. Briefing scenes, either with M, or Boris Stepakov of the KGB, discussing the mission and the possible intents of the villains, The Scales of Justice, and what they might hope on accomplishing with their scheme of launching a mock trial for a war criminal, or (b. court scenes after Bond, with a KGB and Mossad agent, posing as a camera crew, are taken out to the Lost Horizon where the trial is taking place. It is here where elements of a legal thriller mix into the plotline.
Speaking of the story, it is important to note that it is also, aside from the John Grisham elements, much more political than most other Bond stories are. Here, the villain, General Yevgeny Yuskovich, is motivated purely by political reasons. He has no wishes to get rich but to overthrow the Russian government, using the mock trial to embarrass them, and to become head of the Soviet Empire, making Russia powerful again, as well as offering assistance to Iraq during the Gulf War to cripple the American forces, oh, and not to mention detonating a nuclear weapon over Washington D.C.. The result of these political and legal thriller elements is a complex storyline, tying in with the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, and World War II. The story also incorporates realistic espionage, and in some ways can be looked as what someone like Bond would be doing in the real world. M’s description of the Yuskovich and the events that transpired:
The man had a faith. He had served a system in which he had absolute belief. He saw it slipping away and he already had great power.
-The Man From Barbarossa, Chapter 21
So far we have complicated combination of a legal and political thriller, which is less action orientated and thrives on Gardner’s intricately complex plotting. Doesn’t sound quite like a Bond novel, does it? Which is precisely the main problem with it and part why this experiment isn’t usually too well received among Bond fans. If Bond were to be replaced with any other character, focusing mainly on, say, Mossad agent Pete Natkowitz, the story would still work just as good, maybe if not better. This is also attributed to the little focus and development of Bond’s character in the novel.
There are two other elements of the story contributing to its uniqueness, which, as they are also the most interesting, are worth mentioning. The first is that Bond is not taking his orders from M here. This time he is sent to Russia to work under Boris Stepakov and the KGB’s command. This is a most original change of pace and fits in nicely. The reason is that the KGB has asked for the British’s assistance in the matter with the Scales of Justice and M can’t resist the opportunity of having an agent so highly placed at Moscow Center.
The second element is probably Gardner at his fanciest and comes near the end of the book. Bond is supposedly killed during the course of a gunfight, resulting in a different sort of scene with M, and the book suddenly focusing on General Yuskovich and other officers in the Red Army. This is very similar to what Raymond Benson will later do in Doubleshot and is probably the novel’s highlight and classic Bond. In my opinion, its one of Gardner’s best Bond moments.
Many readers often complain that the novel just doesn’t seem like Bond, much in the same as the film Licence To Kill is compared to other Bond movies. Fans generally dislike both, but there remain a few who consider it the best of the Bond movies and of Gardner’s run. Still The Man From Barbarossa contains just as many Bond elements as any other good 007 story: a diabolical villain with a plot to destroy the Western world, beautiful women, the friendly, likeable ally, and a criminal organization, all of which are carried out with the usual amount of class. It’s just that all these elements are used in different ways here. Either way, whether you like it or dislike it, The Man From Barbarossa remains one of John Gardner’s most outspoken Bond novels and, for better or worse, memorable.