This week, courtesy of the paintbrush of Gerald Wadsworth is the lesser know Ian Fleming short story “Risico”, from Ian Fleming’s short story collection For Your Eyes Only. An escape to Venice sounds ideal right now!
In creating imagery for this painting, it seemed logical that a Venice canal scene should dominate the painting. A search in my photo archives from a Venice trip I made in 2012 produced a combination of images that I turned into a single visual, forcing the perspective to draw the eye toward the distant church that was nearby where I stayed – the Madonna della Orto.
Buildings in Venice can be painted the most vibrant of colours, so I tried to capture that in the buildings lining the sides of the canal. Because architecture is so important in Venice, I saw in my minds’ eye, a stone arch and window that would act as the foreground tableau for some of the food Bond was served by Colombo and Kristatos, as well as his venture into Café Florian for an Americano. Whilst there he would no doubt enjoy the ubiquitous cornetto – the Italian croissant – while listening to “French culture-snobs” discuss the faults of the facade of St. Mark’s Square…”
Bond also impulsively buys a postcard for his secretary – who at the time of the writing would have been Loelia Ponsonby – so the postcard shows up on the table.
The Dove and the King’s Medal represent Enrico Colombo: the good guy.
The stone lintel at the top with the grotesque face and pair of switchblade knives (flick knives, in the story) represent Kristatos and the “dark side” of the smuggling operation.
The poppy flowers and pods are obvious: they are the source for the Russian-supplied opium that Kristatos would convert to heroin.
As Fleming wrote and summed up the participants of the operation, Colombo’s men
“all had lugers, carried under the jersey inside the trouser-band, and flick knives in the pocket. It struck Bond that Colombo had made a good life for himself – a life of adventure and thrill and risk, It was a criminal life – a running fight with the currency laws, the State tobacco monopoly, the Customs, the police – but there was a whiff of adolescent rascality in the air which somehow changed the colour of the crime from black to white – or at least to grey.”
A whiff of adolescent rascality, indeed! We should all take a whiff of that on occasion.
A sentence like the above is one of the real pleasures of Ian Fleming’s writing. We are constantly finding those not-infrequent poetic turns of phrase that give the reader a real insight into Fleming’s predilections and preferences, and how he wove them into the adventures of his most famous character, James Bond. Because of the descriptive nature of the writing and the secondary relevance to the “action” plot that most readers focus on, these evocative outliers in the story are frequently overlooked or ignored completely.
Such is the case generally between the movies and the books. “Risico” is one of those short stories that apparently doesn’t “make it” as an action movie. As a short story, however, it is brilliantly written, conceived and executed. It’s tight narrative, frequent use of the local patois of the Italian characters, exotic locales, and Fleming’s excellent prose and ability to write gives the reader – and artist – those detailed visuals that we all love.
The Hollywood writers and production houses must have thought differently – they borrowed bits from the story, mostly characters and their unique names, to add as filler to whatever was their current film. Because of the brevity of the short-story plot, they combined those “bits” with other elements whenever it suited their fancy.
In 1981 when EON productions made For Your Eyes Only they vivisected the novel of the same name and added “color” from Live and Let Die, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and “Risico”. They adopted the names of the smugglers from “Risico” who were Italians, and turned them into Greeks: Enrico Colombo became Milos; Kristatos the Drug kingpin became Aris Kristatos; and Lisl Braun, the “luxus whore” of Colombo, became a Countess by the name of Lisl von Schaff. Beyond that, nothing from the short story Risico makes its way into the film.
The basis for FYEO the movie – discovering secret Missile Command Systems – had nothing to do with the original For Your Eyes Only either, nor the other novels, and it had nothing at all to do with the plot of “Risico”. “Risico” was about Bond stopping by any means the smuggling of heroin into the UK via Italy and Russia. Perhaps it was to do with the times – technology and space were much more interesting than the mundane and ordinary world of the narcotics smuggler.
As interesting as the names of the characters were, even more so to me, were the places Bond travelled to, the cafés and restaurants in which he ate, the humorous depiction of train travel in Italy, and the mesmerizing and magical verbal visualization of what it was like to arrive in Venice for the first time – from outside the city – to the Grand Canal and train depot.
As readers of Literary007 will know, the plot of “Risico” has Bond meet up with double agent Kristatos at a restaurant in Rome owned by Enrico “The Dove” Colombo, the ruthless drug kingpin who reputedly smuggled heroin into England…there Bond engages in his second favorite past time – eating and drinking. On the menu are fresh figs, melon with prosciutto, Tagliatelli Verdi, Chianti and coffee – while armed with two hundred thousand pounds to pay Kristatos for information leading to the whereabouts of Colombo.
In Venice, Bond pretends to be a wealthy writer, to try and influence anyone whom he met…
But first, let us read what Fleming wrote about travelling to Venice by train:
“The Laguna is a smart, streamlined affair that looks and sounds more luxurious than it is. The seats were made for small Italians and the restaurant car staff suffer from the disease that that afflicts their brethren in the great trains all over the world – a genuine loathing for the modern traveller and particularly for the foreigner…”
Bond had a gangway seat over the axles, and “he kept his eyes inside the train, reading a jerking book, spilt Chianti over the tablecloth and shifted his long, aching legs and cursed the Ferrovie Italiane dello Stato.”
But when Bond arrives in Venice, this sentence hypnotized me as a reader and artist:
“But at last there was Mestre and the dead straight finger of rail across the eighteenth-century aquatint into Venice. Then came the unfailing shock of the beauty that never betrays and the soft swaying progress down the Grand Canal into a blood-red sunset, and the extreme pleasure – so it seemed – of the Gritti Palace…”
The “Risico” text continues with Bond throwing 1000 lira notes around the city – “like leaves in Vallombrosa” and seeking out food and drink at places like Harry’s Bar and Café Florian. Bond – as he resumes his search for the whereabouts of the smuggler, Colombo – strolls through the “backstreets” of Venice, visits churches to try to “uncover a tail,” and then goes to Café Florian for an Americano coffee.
The real action in the story begins with a prearranged meeting in Venice with Lisl Baum, the result of a not-so-chance meeting in Rome set up by Kristatos. The rendezvous is disrupted by Colombo’s henchmen. Bond is captured, knocked out and later on board Colombo’s ship, questioned about his motives. Colombo shares food with Bond as a peace offering; on the menu are whisky, smoked Provolone, sausage from Bologna, olives, and fresh figs. Bond is convinced Colombo is the “good guy”- who worked for the English and Italian Resistance in the war and received the King’s Medal for his efforts.
He realizes that it was, in fact, Kristatos – playing “the biggest double game” – to keep the protection of the US and to throw the British an innocent victim. Colombo convinces Bond to help sabotage Kristatos’ shipment of Russian-supplied raw opium, fresh from the poppy fields of Albania and the Caucasus. In the process, Bond kills Kristatos, saves Colombo’s life, and thus ends the smuggling operation. As a reward, Colombo “gives” Lisl to Bond…to indulge in his “favorite past time…”
And last but not least, is my “tip of the hat” to Richard Chopping with his trademark fly. (A big thanks to ALR for the suggestion of placement). See if you can spot it…
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