Have you ever read something on the recommendation of a character in a book you were reading? No, wait, of course you have: Jenny at Jenny’s Books has a whole category of “Heard about in a book,” so there must also therefore be more of you. I have done it quite often. I once made a project of reading all the books Tom Lynn gave to Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and that was a pretty fantastic project if I do say so myself. So this was something similar: in Gaudy Night, in the thrice-blessèd punting scene, Lord Peter Wimsey has Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici in his pocket. After he awakens from his unintended sleep, Harriet asks him about it, and Lord Peter responds, “My tastes are fairly catholic. It might easily have been Kai Lung or Alice in Wonderland or Machiavelli –” And since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland and Machiavelli, I thought I would try Kai Lung.
What a peculiar little book! It was written in 1900 by Ernest Bramah, who also wrote detective stories, supernatural stories, and politico-science fiction along the lines of George Orwell. It takes the form of tales told by an itinerant storyteller in ancient China, and it’s written in an exaggerated, elaborate, “oriental” prose, full of adages and wise fake-Chinese proverbs. You’d think that this, for today’s audience, might be merely offensive or dull, and certainly there’s no getting over that aspect of it. This book would never be written today, and there’s no question why it doesn’t have much of an audience. Compare it to something like Three Men in a Boat, which was written around the same time, and you see the difference: Jerome K. Jerome has a freshness and timelessness to his wit that this book doesn’t have.
That’s not to say, though, that Kai Lung has nothing going for it. Bramah is satirizing British society in his faraway Chinese tales, and his proverbs are often hilarious. The advertisement in one of the stories for Ti Hung’s idols reminded me of the copy-writing in Murder Must Advertise, and made me laugh:
Good-morning! Have you worshipped one of Ti Hung’s refined ninety-nine cash idols? … Our ninety-nine cash idols are worth a tael a set. We do not, however, claim that they will do everything. The ninety-nine cash idols of Ti Hung will not, for example, purify linen, but even the most contented and frozen-brained person cannot be happy until he possesses one. What is happiness? The exceedingly well-educated Philosopher defines it as the accomplishment of all our desires. Everyone desires one of the Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash idols, therefore get one; but be sure it is Ti Hung’s.
Have you a bad idol? If so, dismiss it, and get one of Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash specimens. Why does your idol look old sooner than your neighbour’s? Because yours is not one of Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash marvels.
They bring all delights to the old and the young,
The elegant idols supplied by Ti Hung.
In the end, this was worth reading, more as a delicately witty fossil of its time and place than as anything that I think will really endure. Though who can say? It’s in Lord Peter’s list with Alice and Machiavelli and Boccaccio and Donne and the Bible; I bow my head to his mocking and superior judgment.