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The 80th anniversary of its publication and the 140th of its author's birth provide a suitable occasion to post this review.
"After enduring many hardships and suffering occasional inconvenience through the really flattering but too excessively persistent attentions of brigands, outlaws, underling officials, wild beasts of various kinds, snakes and scorpions, swollen rivers, broken paths and thunder-stones, Kai Lung came on the seventh day at evening to the outskirt of a trackless morass that barred his further progress."
It took me some time to select an opening quotation with which to introduce this piece, one that would convey the flavour of Kai Lung quickly and succinctly to the reader. I'm not sure I've succeeded. As Ernest Bramah, the author, has Kai Lung express it in a similar situation: "Let it be freely admitted that a really capable narrator of events would have led up to this badly arranged crisis more judiciously and in a manner less likely to distress the harmonious balance of his hearers' feelings."
The difficulty is not in finding succinct quotations. There are many. Bramah's style is not always convoluted and prolix, although it is often intentionally so. Much of the humour of the Kai Lung books lies in the elliptical stylistic flourishes. The difficulty is rather that the shorter snappier aphorisms often depend for their full effect on the context that the author has cunningly contrived before deploying them.
If, for example, I were to quote "He who would feast with vampires must expect to provide the meat," you might find it no more than mildly amusing. The full force is only felt when you have read the preceding page or two - something for which there is no space here - and appreciated the subtleties of the situation on which it comments.
In any case, the humour of the Kai Lung books is not belly-laugh humour. It is, in Bramah's own inimitable language, "gravity-removing" rather than guffaw-inducing. But even without being tempted to anything as gross as a guffaw, one does find oneself smiling continuously and suppressing giggles of the kind that might, if released, betray an unrefined levity of outlook. Being a person of an unrefined levity of outlook, I giggle most of the time while reading them.
* Setting and style *
The Kai Lung books are set in an unspecified but anarchic period of imperial Chinese history. The Emperor's Court is a long way away and the rule of law still further. Kai Lung's world is peopled by corrupt and self-seeking Mandarins, crooked merchants, bandits and renegades, with a supporting cast of downtrodden peasants and artisans, a few of whom are even honest.
Kai Lung himself is one of the rare upright citizens, albeit an undistinguished one. He earns his rice as an itinerant story-teller, or rather "relater of imagined tales," passing his bowl around the audiences that gather to hear him as he sits on his mat in the market-place.
"It was Kai Lung's practice, as he approached any spot where it seemed as though his mat might be profitably unrolled, to beat upon a small wooden drum and even to discharge an occasional firework, so that the leisurely and indulgent should have no excuse for avoiding his entertainment. 'It is well said,' he remarked with becoming humility, 'that the more insignificant the flower the handsomer the bees that are attracted to it, and the truth of the observation is borne out by this distinguished gathering of influential noblemen all condescending to listen to the second-rate elocution of so ill-endowed a person as the one who is now speaking.'"
This flowery habit of speech is a convention maintained throughout and by all characters, although few use it as felicitously as Kai Lung himself, as is the overblown politeness. Even the coarsest of villains affect a self-effacing modesty when referring to themselves, whilst addressing others with exaggerated deference. Points are often illustrated with proverbs or sayings, most of which seem to have been concocted for the purpose, for example: "it is proverbial that from a hungry tiger and an affectionate woman there is no escape," or "none but a nightingale should part his lips merely to emit sound."
Others are elaborate reworkings of Western proverbs or literature. Those familiar with Hamlet, for example, will have no difficulty in recognising the source of: "...the clay-souled outlaw was seen to rub his offensive hands pleasurably together and heard to remark that there is undoubtedly a celestial influence that moulds our ultimate destinies even though we ourselves may appear to trim the edges somewhat."
This circuitous, allusive style does not make for an easy read. Concentration is needed to unravel the meaning and recognise the references, but attentive readers will find their effort repaid many times over in amusement and the sheer pleasure to be found in Bramah's use of words. Indeed, the more one becomes acclimatised to his method, the more one is struck by its effectiveness: by the mirth he wrings from the contrast between the high-flown delicacy of the dialogue and low skulduggery to which it alludes. For example, at the outset of Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat the eponymous storyteller returns to his home village to find that it has been laid waste by villains seeking revenge on him for thwarting them in an earlier episode.
" 'Alas,' exclaimed Kai Lung to his neighbour. 'It would have been more in keeping with the classical tradition that they should have taken me, rather than that others must suffer in my stead.'
" 'There can be no two opinions on that score,' replied the scrupulous Shen Hing, 'but a literary aphorism makes a poor defence against a suddenly propelled battle-axe, and before mutual politeness was restored a score of our tribe had succumbed to the opposing argument. Then on a plea that a sincere reconciliation demanded the interchange of gifts they took whatever we possessed, beat us heavily about the head and body with clubs in return and departed, after cutting down your orchard and setting fire to your very inflammably constructed hut, in order, as their leader courteously expressed it, to lighten the path of your return.' "
* The Kai Lung opus *
Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat, the third of the Kai Lung books, first appeared in 1928. The first book, The Wallet of Kai Lung, was published in 1900. There was then a long gap until after the First World War before the appearance its successor, Kai Lung's Golden Hours, and Unrolls his Mat. Kai Lung also appears in another of Bramah's early works The Mirror of Kong Ho, and in the later The Moon of Much Gladness. There is also a posthumous collection of Kai Lung stories entitled Beneath the Mulberry Tree.
I have chosen Unrolls his Mat to represent the whole series because it seems to me to be the most complete of them. All the books consist of a series of stories related by Kai Lung, connected by a thread of narrative concerning the adventures of the story-teller himself. The narrative in Unrolls his Mat is nearest thing to a cohesive plot in any of them.
* The plot *
The narrative of Unrolls his Mat follows Kai Lung as he pursues the villain Ming-shu and his band who have laid waste to his home and kidnapped his wife, the "golden mouse" Hwa-Mei.
In the best traditions of such adventures, the odds look daunting. A more cautious man might argue against pursuit, and does. "How are you," enquires Kai Lung's neighbour, "who have neither gold to purchase justice nor force by which to compel it, to outdo the truculent Ming-shu, armed at every point? It is very easy on an unknown road to put your foot into a trap or your head into a noose, but by patient industry one can safely earn enough to replace a wife by a few successful harvests."
Others along the way are slightly less discouraging, but not necessarily much more helpful. A wizard encountered en route offers a plethora of obscure advice, culminating in the following: " 'Finally, should you encounter two hyenas and an infirm tiger disputing the possession of a sick cow's bones, do not hesitate.'
" 'It is well expressed,' replied Kai Lung gratefully. 'Yet in what precise direction should the recommended lack of indecision tend?'
"The gifted necromancer raised his inspired eyebrows somewhat, as though this stress of detail did not altogether merit his approval. 'It is one thing to forecast contingencies,' was his reply; 'it is quite another branch of the occupation to explain what takes place thereafter.'
In order not to spoil the plot, I shall refrain from explaining what takes place thereafter.
* The author *
Ernest Bramah (full name Ernest Bramah Smith) was an intensely private man who never made any statements about himself except what may be deduced from his writing, which is very little. Like his creation, he was a most unassuming relater of imagined tales.
Born in 1868, it is known that he had an early, failed career as a farmer, after which he went into journalism with a provincial newspaper. He was later secretary to the publisher and humourist Jerome K Jerome (of "Three Men in a Boat" fame), but as soon as the success of Kai Lung permitted it, he turned to lone fiction-writing as a full-time occupation, and became something of a recluse. Apart from the Kai Lung series, he also wrote a number of detective stories featuring a blind detective Max Carados that enjoyed a certain popularity at the time, and a variety of other stories and plays.
He was clearly a keen amateur numismatist, since he wrote a book and several articles on rare coins, but his other interests are uncertain. How much he knew about the real China as opposed to his own imaginary version is also unclear. There is no record of whether he ever visited the country.
It is known that he was married, but not the name of his wife, nor where he lived during his later life, nor even, although it is generally agreed that the year was 1942, the exact date, place and cause of his death.
* Popularity, past and present *
That he managed to draw such a veil of obscurity over his personal life is remarkable, given the popularity of his work at the time. The early Kai Lung books were greeted with acclaim in literary circles, and attracted a distinguished cult following, including such contemporary luminaries as Hillaire Belloc.
The cult grew to encompass a wide popularity. The books were best-sellers for a while, and The Wallet of Kai Lung and Unrolls his Mat were among the first books to appear in paperback when Penguin pioneered the format in the 1930s.
Now they are not so well-known, although being a Kai Lung aficionado can be a little like being a member of a secret society if one happens to meet a fellow fan. I have several times spent hours reminiscing about the stories and attempting (unsuccessfully) to converse in KaiLungese when this has happened.
With its stylistic idiosyncrasies, you would imagine the language of Kai Lung could be easily mimicked. In fact, whilst it is easy to imitate badly, it is practically impossible to imitate convincingly, a fact that reveals the art that underlies it, the care with which Bramah chooses his words and regulates the cadences of his prose.
* Availability *
Although no long in print with a conventional publisher, the Kai Lung books are far from unobtainable. Apart from numerous used copies to be found in second-hand bookshops and on the net (Amazon has Unrolls his Mat from £1.99 upwards), several "print-on-demand" publishers have from time to time made them available.
ebookmall.com produces some of them in a variety of downloadable formats at prices ranging from $2.95 upwards, although Unrolls his Mat doesn't currently appear on their current list. But The Wallet and Golden Hours do, and either would be as good an entry point into the world of Kai Lung, one of the few worlds that can be truly described as weird and wonderful.
* Recommendation *
If you enjoy fine writing and appreciate gentle, subtle humour, Kai Lung cannot be recommended to you too highly. In any case, how could you resist an invitation couched thus:
"Ho, illustrious passer-by!" said Kai Lung as he spread out his embroidered mat under the mulberry tree. "It is indeed unlikely that you could condescend to stop and listen to the foolish words of such an insignificant and altogether deformed person as myself. Nevertheless, if you will but retard your elegant footsteps for a few moments, this exceedingly unprepossessing individual will endeavour to entertain you."
And, I promise you, he will succeed.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, October 20th 2003