Friday, 22 February 2008

Avakoum Zahov Versus 07

Written by Andrei Gulyaski
Published by Scripts Publishing 1967

I generally lounge around in a dinner suit, seated in a candy coloured bean bag, nursing a vodka martini while watching spy films from the sixties. But today, with your indulgence, I am going to slip into a burgundy crushed velvet smoking jacket, light my pipe, pour myself a balloon of brandy and make my way to the library. I have a strange little story to tell. It’s the story of a book called Avakoum Zarhov vs 07

Now after scouring the internet (and there isn’t that much information out there – most use Wikipedia), I have worked this much out. How much of this is true, is open to debate...and I am sure there are people out there who have a far greater knowledge of this project than I (if you are one of them – I’d love to hear from you). Firstly, we are talking mid sixties. Ian Fleming is dead and Kinglsey Amis hasn’t yet written his Bond continuation novel Colonel Sun. So there is a gap to fill. Apparently Bulgarian author Andrei Gulyashki approached Glidrose (the Bond book publishers) and told them that he had written a NEW James Bond novel. Glidrose weren’t interested. Gulyashki decided to publish his book anyway. Gulyashki was quite vocal in his quest to publish his Bond novel. So much so, that the press dubbed him ‘The Vulgar Bulgar’.

In the Titan comic strip edition of Goldfinger, there is an article by Vladislav Pavlov entitled Behind Enemy Lines: The Russian Perspective. This is what he briefly has to say about Avakoum Zarhov vs 07.
'...Bulgarian writer Andrei Gulyashki (known for his series about the Bulgarian secret agent Avakoum Zakhov) announced his intention to write a novel in which his hero would be fighting the notorious 007. (Behind the Iron Curtain, the notion of copyright was always been a bit vague, to put it mildly). When it became known to the proprietors of the literary Bond franchise (Glidrose) they naturally banned Gulyaski from using either the number 007 or the name James Bond. As a result, the name of the villain disappeared and the number 007 was shortened to 07, the British agent acting in Bulgaria under the control of the NATO intelligence division.

In his book Gulyashki did all he could to defame the character, picturing him as mean and stupid, substituting, in a way, the role of 07 for the Russian SMERSH leaders described by Fleming in From Russia With Love. There was, however, one notable exception: whilst Fleming, describing the villains in such a grotesque way, was only pulling the reader's leg, Gulyashki's villain, created for the benefit of Soviet propaganda, looks infinitely dull and serious. The book has been rumoured to have been published in English, and is even considered a kind of Holy Grail amongst some Bond collectors for it's extreme rarity. However, few people realise that the carpenter's cup can't be made of gold.'
The rumours that Pavlov mentioned are true. Avakoum Zarhov vs 07 was published in English, but only in Australia by a company called Scripts. Firstly as you would have gathered from the information above, this is not an official James Bond novel, but still it's a Bond story and one that not many people will have a chance to read about, so I will be fairly detailed in my description. Without further ado, here is a review of the Holy Grail of Bond books - the one, the only, the infamous Avakoum Zarhov vs 07.

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FROM THE INSIDE COVER:
07 had been given his assignment. He must kidnap a Soviet scientist who had just perfected the deadliest laser yet devised...

A thrilling adventure of intrigue and fast paced action unfolds as Avakoum Zahov pursues the wily western spy through Bulgaria to Paris, then Tangiers and finally confronts him in the ice-locked vastness of the Antarctic...

“Zahov was slipping over the edge of the bottomless crevasse. 07 towered above him. Zahov tried to hold on but he couldn’t. His feet dangled into emptiness. 07 aimed a kick at his face.”
The novel opens in London. 07 has just returned from a mission in the Philippines and is now meeting The Chief (‘M’ is referred to as ‘The Chief’ of Department A) in an exclusive club on St. James Street. 07 isn’t given another mission, but told he has seven months to learn how to speak Russian like a native Muscovite.

Seven months later, 07 speaks fluent Russian and is called into another meeting with The Chief. Again he is not given a mission. Well, not officially anyway. In fact he is sent on leave. Paid leave. But all is not as it seems, because an officer from NATO is to call on 07 tomorrow. He will make a proposition which 07 can either choose to accept or reject.

The next day a NATO officer named Richard visits 07’s apartment. It seems the Soviets are in the process of inventing a new weapon.
“Some kind of H-bomb?”
“I wish it were as simple as that. No, in comparison to this new weapon, the H-bomb will be about as effective as one of those slings in the Bible they used to put bumps on the heads of the chosen of Israel! No, this is a highly developed laser beam which can disable electro-magnetic waves. Have you any idea what this means?”
I must confess that I don’t know what it means, but it sounds nasty. 07 thinks so too, and chooses to go ahead with the ‘unofficial’ mission.

07 moves onto Istanbul for the next section of the story. He meets a contact who provides a new passport and makes preparations to send 07 on his way to Bulgaria. The Soviets in this part of the world are not fools though and have a whole surveillance system dedicated to tracking 07’s whereabouts.

Avakoum Zahov enters the picture. His passion is archaeology and he is described as a ‘hunter of spies; and ancient monuments buried in the earth.’ But his mission is not to watch Agent 07. He is assigned to protect Professor Konstantin Troffimov. Troffimov is to attend a symposium on Quantum Electronics in Varna. He made world headlines when ‘he discovered a laser ray which could not be refracted by any mirror surface and which could penetrate all matter and totally paralyse all kinds of eletro magnetic waves...’

The arrangement is that Professor Stanilov, one of Bulgaria’s top scientist, will play host to Troffimov at a small villa set beside the sea. Zahov arranges security at the villa, hand selecting a team of men to keep watch twenty four hours a day. Meanwhile, another Department B officer, Colonel Vassilev is assigned to watch 07’s movement. The Soviets know he is in the area, and that he is posing as a Swiss reporter, named Rene Lefevre.

Making preparation for Troffimov’s arrival at the villa, Zahov does his rounds, then heads to the beach side to check that out too. As he stares out to sea, he sees 07 swimming past. Elsewhare in Varna Professor Troffimov flies in from Moscow on a special military aircraft, and then is transported to the small villa. Zahov has agents everywhere to protect the Professor. There are two gardeners, and a valet who have been specifically chosen to protect Troffimov, as well as the usual detail of security staff.

Over the next few days, Troffimov attends the symposium. Everybody is expecting 07 to make a move to kidnap the Professor, but he has other things on his mind. It appears that Gulyashki thinks that Fleming's Bond is a lecherous swine. So he paints 07 in such a light.
"...when the chambermaid came in to pour some fresh water into the vase, he put his arm round the girl's waist and drew her to him. The girl did not seem particularly surprised, she only went on holding the pitcher. Then his hand slipped down the curve of her knee, lingering a second or two on the cool skin before travelling upwards. Who said that marble was the smoothest thing under the sun?

This piece of living marble had muscles and his hand felt them go rigid, then wake with life. So this white-aproned girl had the hips of a sportswoman! Lying on the chaise-lounge, he could not see her face, but that didn't matter. He drew her closer to him. The cluster of amber grapes hanging so near him made him giddy.

Then the empty ice-cold pitcher struck him on the chest. He was aware of the sensation because his chest was bare and his skin hot with the sun. Ice! The girl pulled herself away and burst out of the room."
For those who didn't 'get it', the 'cluster of amber grapes' that Gulyashki describes are in fact the girls breasts. He really makes 07 seem like a smutty schoolboy.

Anyway back to the plot. Colonel Vassilev's men are watching 07 closely. For the last few days during the symposium, 07 and a female companion spend time on a boat out to sea. Each day they row out, and frolic about. Sometimes 07 fishes, sometimes the couple just hold each other. Or so it seems. In fact it isn't always 07. He has an inflatable version of himself made up. He inflates it on the boat, dresses it in his clothes, and has his female accomplice hold the effigy in a loving embrace. Meanwhile he slips over the side of the boat in a wetsuit and sets in motion his kidnap operation.

After the last day of the symposium, 07 succeeds in kidnapping Professor Troffimov and his secretary, Natalia Nikolaevna. His infiltration of the small villa seems to be quite brutal. He kills one of the gardeners and a garage attendant, and severely injures the valet. Once again, Gulyashki's interpretation of the Bond character is quite different to what we are used to. Sure we know that Bond has a License To Kill and we have read about (or seen on the cinema screen) Bond killing people. But generally, everybody that Bond kills is trying to kill him. But in Gulyashki's novel 07's incursion isn't described (well not initially anyway - see below). Instead we see it through the eyes of Avakoum Zahov who arrives late on the scene. We see the brutal legacy that 07 has brought to bare on the staff of the villa. It's an interesting observation by Gulyaski. and one that has been lampooned in films like Austin Powers or even in a episode of The Simpsons (You Only Move Twice). 07's victims are not faceless or nameless henchmen, whose lives have no value. They are people who are just doing their job, and at the end of the day, go home to their family. 07 is portrayed as a real villain.

To escape the villa with his prisoners, 07 has Professor Stanilov drive out the front gate, with 07, Troffimov, and Nikolaevna hidden under a blanket in the back. How the sentries missed that one, I'll never know. At gunpoint Stanilov drive's them out of the city. Then three hours later, Stanilov's body is found lying beside a road (another example of Bond's brutality).

Avakoum Zahov sets up a command centre at his apartment. All roads, the airport and sea ports are closed off. Later Zahov's superiors gather to hear a report on the kidnapping. Zahov, with almost Holmseian powers of deduction has pieced together 07's movements. He recounts how 07 abducted the Professor:
"He stealthily climbed up the staircase. On the topmost landing he shot the other guard. The guard groaned as he rolled down the steps, his arms flung out, his face down. Dazed with sleep, the 'valet' had jumped up to open the door, but 07 was already on the threshold, striking the man's jaw with gun, and the 'valet' sunk to the floor.

The 'valet' was put out of the way and now the second round began. The Englishman stole out through the living room onto the veranda. The windows of both bedrooms were open. He drew the curtain aside, slipping into the first bedroom. 07 could tell by the breathing that it was occupied by the professor. He brought the cottonwool padding close to the sleeping man's nose. One second, two, three. 07 was patient. The breathing became irregular and lower, it was hardly audible. Then he took the syringe out of his pocket, and gripping the professor's arm at the elbow, plunged the needle into the muscles.

"It was an expert job because he had had a lot of practice at this. Now the professor would be fast asleep for many hours, perhaps for many days and nights.

"He did the same in the other bedroom. Natalia Nikolaevna also went into a death-like sleep.

"07 was thorough. After the job was finished, he left nothing behind, putting everything back in his pockets, even the vials.

"Then, one after the other, he took both Konstantin Troffimov and Natalia Nikolaevna into Stanilov's car. His muscles were well trained and carrying them, 60 to 65 kilograms each, was a mere detail. He went back for their luggage, leaving nothing behind. He placed the two drugged persons on the back seat, covering them with a sheet he had snatched off Natalia Nikolaevna's bed.

"That done, he tiptoed into Stanilov's room and roughly kicked him out of bed. Two slaps across the face brought him back to consciousness. They fought like two tigers. Why, we don't know. But the thieves had fallen out. Perhap's Stanilov was beginning to crack and 07 was ensuring that his tracks were completely covered. Anyway, in his jacket and trousers, with no shoes on his feet, Stanilov sat behind the wheel of the Citroen – that was the final act. maybe he felt the barrel of a gun at his back?"
After the kidnapping and killing Stanilov, 07 leaves Varna in a boat and sails to a pre-designated spot, where he is met by a freighter. 07, the Professor and his secretary are taken on board, and move on towards their next destination.

Of course it can't be left like that. Avakoum Zarhov must rescue Professor, and regain the ray. After a bit of investigation; scouring radio signals and breaking codes etc. the Soviets believe they have 07 located on a freighter in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately they do not know where he intends to make port. But the case must progress, so Zahov flies briefly to Paris. From intercepted radio signals, next he learns that one of the likely locations where 07 will put to port is Tangier. And furthermore, he is to be met by a man codenamed 'Hans'.

Zahov flies to Morrocco, and pretending to be a French Interpol Agent, makes his way to the German Embassy. There he enquires about German citizens who have arrived in Tangier over the last week. There had been five men, but four had moved on to other parts of the world. Only one had stayed. His name is Professor Paul Schellenberg. Zahov guesses that this is 'Hans'.

Schellenberg is a very paranoid man. He believes that people are trying to kill him. Maybe they are? He was a scientist during the War and now he is a wanted War Criminal, for work he carried out at Auschwitz.

Zahov has an interesting method for meeting Schellenberg. He arranges for a local taxi driver to attempt to side-swipe Schellenberg as he crosses the street. Zahov's plan is, at the last moment, to snatch him back from the 'jaws of death'. Zahov's plan goes like clockwork. He save's Schellenberg's life and in return is invited for a drink.

At a bar in a back alley, Schellenberg tells Zahov that he knows who he is. Schellenberg believes that Zahov is a body guard who has been sent to protect him (It is never really mentioned who Schellenberg believes would send a body guard, but it is heavily intimated that it is NATO). Zahov assumes the role, that Schellenberg has assigned to him. As a 'protective measure', Zahov suggests that Schellenberg sleeps at his hotel that evening, and he will sleep at Schellenberg's. This gives Zahov time to go through Schellenberg's belongings, then find and doctor his passport to suit himself.

The next day, after drugging Schellenberg, Zahov learns the details of Schellenberg's rendezvous and impersonates him at the meeting. Zahov is taken to be Schellenberg, and is brought on board a ship docked at the harbour.

I must admit that I found this middle section of the book to be the best. As 07 is virtually absent, and the story concentrates on Avakoum Zahov's investigation and manipulation of Schellenberg, rather than maligning the James Bond character, the story becomes a simple but entertaining spy adventure. This is the way it should be – but alas, there's still a third on the novel to come, and 07 is back in Gulyashki's sights.

Indeed Zahov's hunch is right, and he ends up on the ship as it sets sail for whereabouts unknown with 07, Troffimov and Natalia Nikolaevna. But strangely, Troffimov and Nikolaevna do not truly realise that they have been kidnapped. You see, the ship has a high-tech radio device on board. When somebody sends out a message, it can come back to a smaller hidden radio device, also on the boat. This 'secret' radio can then return a message, pretending to be another radio contact. I know that's hard to make sense of, but here's how it worked. When Troffimov and Nikolaevna first awoke on the ship, they believed they had been kidnapped. 07 convinces them otherwise by allowing them to contact Moscow on the radio. They send their message but it doesn't really go to Moscow. It circles around to the small radio, where it is decoded. Now, pretending to be Moscow, the small radio then sends back a message saying that all is well and 07 can be trusted.

During the ocean voyage, there is a strange passage where Zahov writes the events of the day (in invisible ink, no less) into his diary. And instead of reading the story, we are now reading Zahov's diary. This results in the story switching from being told in third person to first person.

Later Zahov uses the hidden radio to trick 07. 07 is supposed to order the ship to sail to Capetown, but Zahov sneaks into the hidden radio room, and pretends to be passing on new orders from NATO. He has 07 order the ship to the Antarctic.

Gulyashki continues to present 07 as stupid and cruel. Obviously he is stupid for falling for the radio ruse, a ploy that he in fact instigated. 07 is also presented as a cruel brute when he has his valet tortured (cigarettes stubbed out on his neck), and then hung from the mast for eveybody to see.

As the ship moves further south, it gets caught in the ice and eventually the hull is pierced. The ship sinks, but not before 07 has dragged Troffimov and Nikolaevna onto the ice pack.

Naturally Zahov also escapes from the ship, just before it disappears beneath the sea. On the ice, the weather is deadly. Somehow, Zahov manages to find 07 and the others, and he uses his skills to save them (even 07). He builds an igloo, and kills a seal for food and heat. But before the ship sank, 07 had radioed for an Icebreaker to meet them. Equally Zahov had radioed for an aeroplane to meet them. With rescue from both sides, 07 and Zahov face off to take control. This results in a wrestling match on the ice.

Some other reviews suggest that Zahov doesn't kill 07 in the end. I beg to differ. Zahov forces 07 over the edge of a hundred foot crevasse. I guess Gulyashki doesn't describe 07's death, and there is a miniscule chance that he survives, but really, the intention is to KILL 07.

The Soviet plane reaches Zahov, Troffimov and Nikolaevna first. They climb on board and fly to safety. World peace is restored.

FROM THE BACK COVER
Avakoum Zahov
His name was whispered with dread in the spy centres of the West.
Zahov?
Who was he?

The daring exploits of Agent 07 are well known to readers in the Western countries.

BUT WHO KNOWS THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY?

How do the Communists view the renowned British agent and his anti-espionage adventures?

We find out in this exciting story by Bulgaria's bestselling author, Andrei Gulyashki, the creator of Avakoum Zahov, top agent for Department B, a gentle, perceptive, educated man of good taste and great charm who has a passion for archaeology and Mozart and who sees 07 as a sinister threat to world security.

In the final struggle between the world's greatest Secret Agents-one must lose. And the loser must pay the penalty for defeat!

AVAKOUM ZAHOV – BULGARIA'S TOP AGENT MATCHES WITS WITH HIS WESTERN COUNTERPART – THE INFAMOUS 07.

ANDREI GULYASHKI was born in Bulgarska Rakovitsa village, district of Koula, in 1914. He participated actively in the resistance movement. Took up writing in 1931. He worked as editor for the newspapers "Rabotnichesko Delo" and "Otechestven Front," the magazines "Septemvri" and "Plamuk" and is Director of the National Theatre in Sofia at present. Twice awarded Dimitrov Prize, the highest honor for works of literature and science in his country.

The writing in Avakoum Zarhov Versus 07 is very clunky and sometimes I had to read a paragraph again to work out it’s meaning. I am sure that this is due primarily to the translation from the original Slavic language. Some translations appear to be quite literal. Mr. Gulyashki could not possibly be such a poor writer. In some sentences it even appears that words have been omitted. Hardly the worst transgression, but to give you an idea, here’s a passage from the book.
“The man in the white overalls ordered from the dais and now his voice was unusually excited...”
Now I am hardly an expert on language, but surely replacing ‘ordered’ with ‘shouted his orders’ or even ‘commanded’ would read much more smoothly.

Avakoum Zarhov Versus 07 also features a lot of purple prose. A few highlights from the first few pages include:

‘The black asphalt flowed furiously against him, ...”

‘...the rye moved like a swishing sea of gold.’

‘...along the yellow flagstones glittering like a golden river...’

‘Fresh and alive with green leaves, the morning sun streamed into his room...’
I have nothing against good descriptive writing. But in this novel almost every page is littered with clumsy coloured descriptions. Maybe they’d be okay if they flowed with the story, but they are really incongruous. This criticism may be due to the translation, and then again it may be a case of trying too hard to be swinging ‘sixties’. The kaleidoscope of colours is off the chart.

So there it is. Avakoum Zarhov Versus 07 may be one of the rarest books in the Bond canon, but it certainly isn't one of the best. Apart from the clumsiness of the writing, the book is as Vladislav Pavlov stated above, a Soviet propaganda piece. The Bond character is not presented in a positive light. He is a brutish, sleazy thug, without an ounce of style or class.

The book is a curio at best. For Bond fans I can understand the curiosity and the fascination with it; hey, I am right there with you. But hopefully this review will have dispelled some of the myths surrounding the book. It isn't that good.