Ernest Bramah

07 Apr 1998 16:06

When I was sixteen, a senior in high school, and generally a bit of a nebbish, I made a shocking discovery in my parents' basement: the novels of Dorothy Sayers. I was shocked because I thought I'd found all the worthwhile books down there. I devoured them, naturally --- what I did to paperbacks in those days wasn't pretty --- and noticed that a fair number of the quotes heading chapters were from books with Kai Lung in the title; furthermore, Wimsey himself liked them.

A few months later, in the bookstore of the Sackler Museum of Asian Art, I happened to see a paperback of The Wallet of Kai Lung, by one Ernest Bramah. Naturally I pounced. By the time I'd gotten home I was already hooked. Within a week I was indignant, because I knew there were five more books in the series, and I couldn't find any of them. One of the great joys of my freshman year at Berkeley --- better than recreational neurochemistry, but not so good as finding I could write a thousand pages of tripe in a year if I tried --- was the library, and especially a dark, dusty shelf in the basement where there lurked no less than eight Kai Lung books, including a limited edition of The Transmutation of Ling, with wonderful art noveau plates by Ilberry Lynch. (My fellow bibliophiles alone will understand my frustration at discovering this was not a complete set.) For a time my thoughts turned to larceny, and the precise mechanism of the library's magnetic security system. (At the time I thought a Faraday cage would suffice, and could be put inside a backpack, but that's wrong. Obviously I'm not about to say what would work.) Moe's Books and the Other Change of Hobbitt saved me from a life of crime.

What follows is an attempt to explain why I find the books charming; it is probably a plagarism of the introduction to the House of Fire Press edition of The Wallet, but I haven't read that introduction in years, so this may actually contain original phrases.

The Kai Lung books follow their epynomous hero through a chimerical China which is a parody of turn-of-the-century stereotypes about the Mysterious East --- that is, those of the chinoiserie and Madame Butterfly variety, rather than the Fu Manchu. This parody begins with the language, a convoluted, circumulatory, euphemistic, ``orientalized'' sort of English, inching its way forwarded under a heavy load of figures, proverbs and allusions, the latter for the most part made up out of whole cloth. (Bramah never went to China, or learned Chinese, and probably never studied Chinese culture in any detail. This is fine; the books aren't about China.) Some of us (such as your humble narrator) adore it, find it endlessly quotable --- I nearly made all my home-page quotes Brahmanical, rather than from the Talking Heads --- and even (when the folly moves us) try to imitate it. It nauseates others. Caveat lector.

In this medium we follow the adventures of Kai Lung, wandering across the Flowery Middle Kingdom with a thin cloak, an empty wallet, a positive knack for getting in trouble with authority, and saving himself with his inexhaustible fund of stories (always, he claims, drawn from the Classics). This allows for stories-within-stories, which is not (so far as I know) important in Chinese literature, but is of course the frame of the Thousand and One Nights; the recursion goes to the greatest depth in The Return of Kai Lung, in which Kai Lung is not a character, but the over-all narrator.

The stories are out-and-out satiricial, or sentimental, or sometimes both (and I'm a sucker for well-done sentiment); the frame-tale is usually sentimental. The characters are stereotypes --- decadent scheming Mandarins, ravishing (but never ravished) maidens, poor-but-diligent students of the classics, cracked alchemists, detestable publishers, divers corrupt officials and officers, dragons, merchants nagged by the thought of inadequate ancestral sacrifices, deities alternately indolent and wrathful, quack accupuncturists, bandits, hereditary ape-worshippers, goat-herds, professional apologists, sinister heads of secret societies, poor fishermen, hen-pecked emperors, professional chess-players --- and he plays them to the hilt, piling absurdity upon absurdity with the flowery language which flows from the mouths of all his characters impartially. (The goat-herd's speech in ``The Vengeance of Tung Fel'', for instance.) Very clearly Bramah is poking fun at European ideas about ``the mysterious East'', and not at the Chinese themselves. (I say this because this point has been lost on some people, who asked what I was doing reading such ``orientalist trash''.) Some stories are also satires on specific European institutions --- Shakespeare (though The Moon of Much Gladness uses no less Shakespearean a device than lovers in drag), boy-scouts, trade unions (we all have our flaws), and Wedgewood china.

I suspect Bramah of having influenced Jack Vance --- though Vance is a much better prose stylist --- and refuse to believe he hasn't been read by Barry Hughart. (After all, there's a Li Kao in ``The Vision of Yin, Son of Yat Huang''.)