A Smoother Pebble


Kai Lung

I woke up at 3am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning I gave up the struggle, turned the light on and reached for an old favourite, Kai Lung’s Golden Hours.

Since The Wallet of Kai Lung was first published in 1900 the six Kai Lung books have maintained a small but devoted following. The series, written by an Englishman, Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), is a Chinese version of the Arabian nights. It consists of the picaresque wanderings of Kai Lung, an itinerant professional story-teller, his beloved Hwa-Mei, the depraved mandarin Shan Tien, the malignant secretary Ming Shu and the tales (said to be from the classics) that Kai Lung tells, generally to get himself out of some scrape. Kai Lung is the equivalent of Scheherazade, and his wanderings connect the chapters together. The books are a delightful pastiche, an hilarious fantasy of a China that never was (even if it ought to have been), one populated by devious, corrupt courtiers, elegant concubines, venerable magicians, poverty-stricken scholars, dragons, wily bureaucrats and benevolent deities. I was very young when I started on Bramah, and it was subsequently a disappointment when I found that this China was only the figment of the imagination of a suburban Englishman.

The books are the literary equivalent of the Brighton Pavilion, or the Chinoiserie style of furnishing in the 18th century, neither oriental nor occidental, but an amalgam of both. Just as Voltaire took the Arabian Nights and refined and burnished them before instilling his own genius, Bramah takes the old Chinese fairy tales and makes them art. Kai Lung will prove a delight for all those who enjoy Zadig, Babouc, Le Taureau Blanc or La Princesse de Babylone.

Edward Said would have condemned the stories as ‘orientalist’, but Bramah (who never visited China or even studied Chinese) parodies modern society and the European image of China rather than mocking the Chinese themselves, just as the contes of Voltaire and the Asterix strips were really about the France of the writers' time. The stories are perpetually amusing and neatly plotted, but Bramah’s special gift, like P.G. Wodehouse’s, was for language, and it is the language of Kai Lung that gives the books their unique charm and has won them their fanatic admirers.

Everyone from the Emperor to the meanest peasant speaks in a weird and wonderful parody of a European’s idea of formal Chinese speech, impossibly convoluted, self-deprecatory, mendacious, and euphuistic. When I read certain favourite passages, even after half a lifetime of repetitions, I want to claw myself with pleasure. Here is Kai Lung, held up by a bandit:

O illustrious person," said Kai Lung very earnestly, "this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east." "However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House," replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. "Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon."

Or:

“It has been said,” he began at length, withdrawing his eyes from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and addressing himself to the maiden, “that there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice on a dark night.”

Or:

But, about this time, the chief wife of Wang Ho having been greeted with amiable condescension by the chief wife of a high official of the Province, and therefrom in an almost equal manner by the wives of even higher officials, the one in question began to abandon herself to a more rapidly outlined manner of existence than formerly, and to involve Wang Ho in a like attitude, so that presently this ill-considering merchant, who but a short time before would have unhesitatingly cast himself bodily to earth on the approach of a city magistrate, now acquired the habit of alluding to mandarins in casual conversation by names of affectionate abbreviation.

Or:

After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants.

Bramah, with an endless flow of wit and an eye as sharp as Voltaire's, can keep this up for page after page without his invention flagging or his style becoming tiresome to the reader; the lofty and flowery sayings of the characters a contrast to their ruthlessly pragmatic actions. As with all the best fairy tales, good triumphs over evil, and the poor but virtuous hero overcomes mercenary father, wealthy rivals, and malignant demons to win the heroine.

Apart from the Kai Lung stories Bramah is best known for his contributions to crime fiction with his tales of Max Carrados, the blind detective, and his butler Parkinson. Carrados has the mind of Sherlock Holmes, while Parkinson has the observation. Bramah, an eccentric and recluse, also published a number of now forgotten novels and a work on numismatics, a subject which turns up in the Max Carrados story The Coin of Dionysus.

Three of the Kai Lung books are available online from Project Gutenberg (find ‘Bramah’), and four Max Carrados stories.

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