by Ernest Bramah
Like Scheherazade of “The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights”, Kai Lung relies upon his prowess as a storyteller to save his neck when he’s accused of treason. His traditional tales ― laced with thought-provoking aphorisms ― will transport readers to a mandarin’s court in ancient China.
How is it possible to suspend topaz in one cup of the balance and weigh it against amethyst in the other; or who…can compare the tranquillising grace of a maiden with the invigorating pleasure of witnessing a well-contested rat-fight?
Forget the frenetic world of Facebook, the torrent of trivia that is Twitter. This review brings you something different. This review wants you to Relax. This review invites you to kick back, turn off the phone, and enjoy the journey in the company of Ernest Bramah’s wonderful Oriental creation – Kai Lung, itinerant story teller, master of Litotes, Euphemism and Understatement, and Apologist Extraordinary for Slow Reading.
In KLGH, Kai Lung, captured by the Shan Tien and “the secretary of his hand, the contemptible Ming-shu”, is befriended by the maiden Hwa-mei. Between them, Scheherazade-like, they tell Shan Tien story after story to postpone Kai Lung’s execution. But the plot is the merest nothing – it’s all about the sly witty stories, and the delightful confection of a totally illusory world.
Ernest Bramah never visited China – in spite of the mock-Oriental language he uses to such effect –
“The full roundness of your illustrious outline is as a display of coloured lights to gladden my commonplace vision.”
or – “May bats defile his Ancestral Tablets and goats propagate within his neglected tomb!” chanted the band in unison. “May the sinews of his hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement!”
or – “Your insight is clear and unbiased,” said the gracious Sovereign. “But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?”
(A line Dorothy Sayers lifts to use in Busman’s Honeymoon, incidentally.)
But it’s doubtful whether the China Bramah writes about ever really existed anyway. Cunning beggars, wily maidens, power-crazed mandarins, naive youths: they may appear superficially Chinese, but only to the extent that Gilbert’s Gentlemen of Japan in the Mikado are really Japanese. What’s actually going on is a delightful satire of late Victorian England, and universal follies.
“Yet,” protested the story-teller hopefully, “it is wisely written: ‘He who never opens his mouth in strife can always close his eyes in peace.’”
“Doubtless,” assented the other. “He can close his eyes assuredly. Whether he will ever again open them is another matter.”
It is a mark of insincerity of purpose to spend one’s time in looking for the sacred Emperor in the low-class tea-shops.
This is writing that revels in being artificial, in using elaborate politeness and contrived phrases in all circumstances however inappropriate.
“So long as we do not lose sight of the necessity whereby my official position will presently involve me in condemning you to a painful death, and your loyal subjection will necessitate your whole-hearted co-operation in the act, there is no reason why the flower of literary excellence should wither for lack of mutual husbandry,” remarked [Shan Tien] tolerantly.
“Your enlightened patronage is a continual nourishment to the soil of my imagination,” replied the story teller.
This is story telling that demands, and rewards attention. The pay-offs are oblique.
“The person who has performed this slight service is Ting, of the outcast line of Lao,” said the student with an admiring bow.. “Having as yet achieved nothing, the world lies before him.”
“She who speaks is Hoa-mi, her father’s house being Chun,” replied the maiden agreeably. “…[He] possesses a wooden plough, two wheel-barrows, a red bow with threescore arrows, and a rice-field, and is therefore a person of some consequence.”
“True,” agreed Lao Ting, “though perhaps the dignity is less imposing than might be imagined in the eye of one who, by means of successive examinations, may ultimately become the Right hand of the Emperor.”
“Is the contingency an impending one?” inquired Hoa-mi, with polite interest.
“So far,” admitted Lao Ting, “it is more in the nature of a vision. There are, of necessity, many trials, and few can reach the ultimate end. Yet even the Yangtze-kiang has a source.”
I keep KLGH by my bed. It’s my go-to book for ingenious stories where every line is a joy and there is something for everyone.
The prosperous and substantial find contentment in hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives.
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