Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, by Sax Rohmer

 Well. Where to begin?

Probably with the racism. I mean, this book is really very racist. It's not even subtext, or implied like that time a Bond film appeared to suggest that all black people in America were connected to a kind of Caribbean mafia. It's just right there.

In fact, it's so right there that at first I thought it might just be the characters' point of view, with some authorial distance added by the use of a Dr Watson-style narrator. But really the further you go, the more the novel (titled The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu in its original UK release -- I have the US version, complete with reference to "Cold Harbor Lane") appears to be the work of a complete loon, whose views on race relations map exactly to those of his two protagonists. That both characters differ not one iota on the subject is a strong clue that the Yellow Peril is supposed to be real, although the actual role of Chinese and other Asians in Fu-Manchu's plan -- and whether or not their participation in being a Peril is active or conscious -- is described in inconsistent terms at varying points in the plot.

It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith -- lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.

It is so ridiculous that it becomes vaguely amusing. Consider, for example, replacing "Chinese" with "Dutch", in the following:

No white man, I honestly believe, appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese.

But of course as I am not part of the ethnic group being maligned, it's easy for me to not be upset by this. I can only hope that Chinese readers today are able to view Rohmer's writing as the same kind of bemusing backhanded flattery that I see when Iranian propaganda paints Britain as a malign world power with tendrils of evil operating conspiracies across the globe. Britain may well be malign, but Iran seems to be the only place where it is still the go-to mastermind behind bad things that happen.

To return to Fu-Manchu, it does have good points which go a long way towards explaining its popularity apart from British xenophobia, as powerful a resource as that can be. Rohmer's brand of Yellow Peril lunacy translates into a breathless pace that carries the reader along in its mad energy, beginning the very moment Empire-trotting adventurer Nayland Smith bursts into the office of Dr Petrie (the Watson analogue) like Lord Flashheart and immediately begins expositing on the way to the first crime scene.

Personal drama? Characterisation? Rohmer cares not for such things, except perhaps for Smith's oft-noted tendency to tug at his earlobe when thinking.
Indeed, it's the preposterousness of the action that makes it fun, creating a rising what-on-earth-could-happen-next tension from set piece to set piece, although this does wear a little thin towards the end.

The daftness of the prose, meanwhile, makes it frequently very funny - usually unintentionally, although there are places where I suspect Rohmer was being uncharacteristically dry.

"Therefore science is richer for our first brush with the enemy, and the enemy is poorer -- unless he has any more unclassified centipedes."

Passing round to the lawn, I met Smith fully dressed. He had just dropped from a first-floor window.

It can also be fun to try imagining any real person actually behaving in the manner ascribed to Smith:

[H]e leapt stormily to his feet, shaking his clenched fists towards the window. 
"The villain!" he cried. "The fiendishly clever villain!"

  Nayland Smith paced up and down like a newly caged animal, snapping his teeth together and tugging at his ear. 

 He stood up and began restlessly to pace the room, furiously stuffing tobacco into his briar. 

(These are all from quite separate places in the story, not one sequence.)

By the end of the novel, it remains unclear what Fu-Manchu's plan actually was, but never mind all that. At least by that point it's been made evident that he really does have a plan, and Smith isn't just some Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar figure needlessly hassling a foreign tourist.

Would I recommend The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu to others? Um... not really. Maybe if you like Dan Brown - Rohmer is very much cut from the same cloth.
Otherwise, while it's amusing in places, there are plenty of other pulp adventures that could go higher on your reading list.

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