The International Writers Magazine: Book Reviews
Eastern Approaches: Shaken, Not Stirred
Penquin Paperback (2009)
John M Edwards
Was Scottish Adventurer Sir Fitzroy Maclean the real-life prototype of James Bond?
Somewhere in the wilds of Central Asia:
After we had been sitting for several hours I noticed a troop of cavalry (Soviet NKVD) riding across country at full gallup. . . . Suddenly a broad circling movement brought them face to face with me. Then before I had taken in what was happening, I found myself staring down the barrels of a pistol and a half dozen rifles. “Hands up!” said the officer, and up went my hands.”
With typical sang-froid in the face of danger (plus a dram of understatement), thus writes Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Scottish adventurer, diplomat, soldier, secret agent, and possible real-life prototype of James Bond. Brothers Ian Fleming and Peter Fleming were most certainly familiar with Fitzroy’s exotic forays into international intrigue. (Peter Fleming in fact wrote his own travels in Central Asia in the 1930s called News from Tartary and A Forgotten Adventure.) Strangely, Maclean’s book Eastern Approaches (1949), one of the best adventure travel books ever written, even now is relatively unknown in literary writing circles.
I first discovered this lost neglected classic at a library sale in Westfield, New Jersey, about twenty years ago. It was a Time Inc. edition with minimal cover art. The spine was cracked; there were no cover blurbs or reviews. I might not have read it all had it not been so cheap (one dollar for a bagful of books). After I read Eastern Approaches in a flurry of feverish nights, growing more and more excited about this new find—that is, the T.E. Lawrence-like Maclean—the book fell apart in my hands. Gone for good. But now in the Information Age, with the help of Google and Amazon, I recently was able to locate a Penguin reissue of this nearly lost work of literary adventure, comic genius, and historical pathos.
I wanted to learn more about the larger-than-life Fitzroy Hew Royle Maclean, whose interest in “gels”—particularly pretty “American gels”—drew him from Britain to the fleshpots of Paris, the diplomatic circles of Russia, and the warfronts of World War II. In the case of Maclean, history and writing collide in an awesome case of British literary traveling. Whether he is discussing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s or the routing of the Wehrhmacht in Yugoslavia, Maclean’s acerbic eye lets no telling details escape. To call Maclean a master of understatement would be an understatement. He takes no prisoners in his prose. He dares to dream with his eyes wide open.
Originally, Maclean asked to be transferred from his diplomatic duties in Paris to Moscow in 1937 because “It seemed of vital importance to know what the Soviet Union stood for, what her aims were and what part she would play in the international conflagration which already seemed inevitable.” Yet the six-foot-four, reddish-brown-haired, mustachioed giant, sporting a stylish monocle and at times a kilt, had a more personal and pressing mission than his diplomatic duties in the Soviet Union: to see firsthand the fabled cities of Central Asia, the legendary arenas of the Great Game, which included the “modern-day Babylon” of Tashkent and the “golden journey to Samarkand. (This was the area that had so deeply attracted the British travel writer Robert Byron only a few years earlier in The Road to Oxiana , a book happily resurrected by family friend Paul Fussell in Abroad: British Literary Travel Between the Wars.)
The only problem: the region was forbidden to foreigners.
During his clandestine departures, or “eastern approaches,” into a land where Marx meets Mohammed and Genghis Khan citadels clashingly coexist with Communist Parks of Rest and Culture, Maclean describes meetings with Tatars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Mongols as well as European Russians. He describes the peasants, deportees from Stalinist Russia, riding in a “hard” carriage: “gnarled beings whose drab, ragged, sweat-soaked clothes exhaled a sour odour of corruption, and who . . . had a strange troglodyte appearance.” Everywhere he travels, surreptitiously and surreally trailed by NKVD agents (as James Bond was trailed by SMERSH), he turns the local populace into comedic gold.
Finally reaching Samarkand, the architectural wonderland of the conqueror Tamerlane, Maclean dryly comments, “I wandered in and out of the mosques until I was enventually turned away by an angry Uzbek woman, ably seconded by an idiot boy. Sightseeing, it seemed, was not encouraged in Samarkand.”
Aside from the area it covers, unfamiliar even now to most Americans, what really makes the book move are some of its descriptive passages, such as this evocative remembrance, an olfactory ode, of the smell of train travel in Russia (certainly one of the most accurate depictions in literary history.)
There was always, so travelers in Imperial Russia tell me, an old Russian smell made from the scent of black bread and sheepskin and vodka and unwashed humanity. Now to these were added the more modern smells of petrol and disinfectant and the clinging, cloying odour of Soviet soap. The resulting, slightly musty flavour pervades the whole country, penetrating every nook and cranny, from the Kremlin to the remotest hotel in Siberia.
The general atmosphere is evocative of a James Bond movie, like From Russia With Love, wherein the reader expects Maclean to be attacked at any moment by a blonde femme fatale Aeroflot stewardess in spiked stiletto heels.
But was Maclean the real-life original 007? A quick rereading of the Bond oeuvre, with their ludicrously unbelievable (but entertaining) plots—Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, and Moonraker—suggests there is no connection literarily between the made-up Bond and the real-life Maclean. (I read Moonraker, for example, without finding any literary correlations.) However, while rereading Eastern Approaches, time and again one imagines the the suave, sophisticated Maclean being played by Sean Connery, outwitting nefarious hooligans in foreign climes, smiling in the face of danger, grimacing over each romantic conquest, ready to punctuate a suspenseful moment with an understated jest. In other words, the character of Bond is the ulterior image of Maclean. Interestingly enough, though they were both asked about it, neither Ian Fleming noir Fitzroy Maclean ever confirmed or denied that the book series was loosely based upon Maclean’s life maneuvers.
Even if tenuous, silence is often affirmation.
Whether he was the proto-Bond or not, there have been few writers as adventurous (with the possible exception of another understatement artist, Peter Fleming, author of the travel classic Brazilian Adventure ). Maclean helped to shape some of the most significant events of our era. In the eight years covered in Eastern Approaches, he traveled all over the Soviet Union, with or without permission of the authorities, and he was an official observer at Stalin’s deadly Kafkaesque show trials, which Maclean called a spectacle much like a “medieval morality play and modern gangster film.” He concludes from the Stalinist purges—including the execution of Nikolai Bukharin, the Bolshevik theoretician, for counterrevolutionary treason—that “The Socialist World and the Capitalist World were deadly enemies, irreconcilably opposed to each other.”
Throughout the book, Maclean’s comic brushups against bureaucracy and officialdom throughout Eurasia, with its unexplored valleys and unexpected hazards, steal the show. At the Chinese Embassy, for example, an official translates Maclean’s name: “Ma-ke-ling,” which he explained meant “the horse that corrupts the morals.”
“I hope,” the official added gleefully, “that they will not think you have anything to do with General Ma, the notorious Mohammedan rebel leader!”
“I said that I, too, hoped they would not,” Maclean dead-panned.
Transferred back to London in 1939, while trouble brews worldwide, Maclean decided to join the war effort. He escaped from his diplomatic duties by running for Parliament and was elected a Conservative MP for Lancaster (a seat he would hold until 1959). Then, apropos of nothing, he joined the Cameron Highlanders as a private. So a diplomat turned into a “desert rat” specializing in commando raids behind enemy lines. A founding member of the SAS (the British equivalent of the Green Berets), which he joined in 1942, Maclean took part in raids in the Middle East and behind Rommel’s lines in North Africa. Downplaying his suffering, Maclean desribed, in Bond-like fashion, one of his raids 600 miles behind enemy lines as “something of an ordeal.” Other energetic feats featured a day-long stay among the Afrika Corps in Benghazi, straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, and a kidnapping mission of an Iranian general collaborating with the Germans.
Later, in 1943, Maclean was air-dropped into German-occupied Yugoslavia as Winston Churchill’s personal representative and leader of the British Military Mission to the Partisans (a mission that Evelyn Waugh participated in). He avoided capture throughout the entire period of the war. The book recounts this swashbuckling war hero’s life, right in there in the thick of it, during this difficult period in world history. He is not only a spectator of the world scene but a participant in history itself, worthy of repeating.
The historical importance, since Maclean is in effect drafting geopolitical strategies with Marshall Tito, causes the book’s tone to change towards the end, losing some of its lightness and gaining in gravitas. So little was known of Tito that some theorists thought the Yugoslav guerilla was a “woman of startling beauty.” Maclean’s task was to find out, with typical Churchill-like economy, “who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them kill more.” Maclean met with Tito (who turned out to be a man, not an Ursula Andress understudy) every day and couldn’t reconcile the leader he knew with the idea of a Communist puppet. On Yugoslavia, Maclean reports:
“Do you intend,” [Churchill] asked, “to make Yugoslavia your home after the war?”
“No, Sir,” [Maclean] replied.
“Neither do I,” [Churchill] said. “And that being so, the less you and I worry about the form of government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans.”
While interesting to military historians, the second half of Eastern Approaches—which abruptly ends with Tito in power, resplendent in his palace and marshall’s uniform, as Maclean departs from Yugoslavia—is just not as much fun as the first half, although there is, I suppose, more “action.” Eastern Approaches, which was called Escape to Adventure in its American version, nevertheless ranks as a travel classic, not merely a war book or memoir par excellence. Maclean ranks right up there with Eric Newby, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Wilfred Thesiger as an author of a book for the guest-room bedside table.
Maclean’s humor, acute eye for detail, and nervy escapades enhance the story of very serious military and diplomatic undertakings. Whether in Kazakhstan or the Altai Mountains, braving bad food, lice, undependable transport, and bureaucratic foul-ups, Maclean dares to live a life of adventure so many of us dream about and aspire to—a quest for zest. How many of us have drunk the Dalmatian wine known as Grk or swum in the Adriatic after weeks of bathless discomfort in war-torn Europe?
Thankfully, Fitzroy Maclean, master of understatement, an “Englischer Diplomat mit Monokel” (according to a German girlfriend), wearing a kilt, shaken by danger, stirred by adventure, also had canny narrative gifts and a good sense of humor. Plus, a keen eye for the gels.
Move over, Austin Powers!
© John M. Edwards, New York December 2010
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to being stuck in a military coup in Fiji. After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, he worked as an editor at Pocket Books and as a copyeditor at Emerging Markets, covering IMF/World Bank meetings overseas. His writing has appeared in Amazon.com, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel, Pure Travel, Smoking Poet, Eclectica, Essays and Fictions, Artdirect, Glimpse, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Travelmag, TravMonkey, Traveling Stories, Danse Macabre, Smoking Poet, InTravel, Mango, Mabuhay, Big World, Vagabondish, Glimpse, BootsnAll, HackWriters, Road Junky, Richmond Review, Adventure Journey, DVD Express, Borderlines, ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Hell Trips Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, a Trips Millenium Contest Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Award, and three Solas Awards (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales).