March 8, 2010


by Ernest Bramah
240 pages, Dover Publications

Review by Maria Bustillos

Literature as Ornament

Ernest Bramah Smith is the nom de guerre of a mysterious Englishman who wrote detective stories in the early part of the 20th century. Being a slavish admirer of Kai Lung (whom I will get to, eventually), I once tried out one of these detective stories, and found it mildly disappointing; in the story, Bramah's blind detective, whose name is Max Carrados, was able to read the newspaper using his fingertips. Now anyone who has ever held a newspaper, even an English one from the 'teens, knows that the ink wicks right into the paper and thus the characters thereupon couldn't possibly be so descried, not even by the most sensitive fingertips.

Improbabilities such as these, however, cannot disturb the enchanted reader of this master's greatest works, the Kai Lung books (there are several, of which I would recommend Kai Lung's Golden Hours as an introduction). The eponymous hero, an itinerant Chinese storyteller whose ready wit and noble heart have more power to charm even than his bizarre, deliciously wrought rococo speech, inhabits a world where the impossible is merely fated. I hesitate to call these stories fairy tales, although some might be so tempted; rather, I would say that Kai Lung is the literary equivalent of the Brighton Pavilion, with all its fantastic spires and domes, its luminous enameled dragons and forests of egregiously fake bamboo. Just as the Brighton Pavilion transcends all its absurdity and elevates the visitor to new and dizzying heights of aesthetic and historical conjecture, so Kai Lung can waft one instantly from the ridiculous to the sublime, in his own inimitable, gravity-removing manner.

The chapter titles alone should be enough to sway the doubtful reader in Kai Lung's favor: 'The Degraded Persistence of the Effete Ming-shu' (Chap. III); 'The High-Minded Strategy of the Amiable Hwa-Mei' (Chap. VI); 'The Incredible Obtuseness of Those who had Opposed the Virtuous Kai Lung' (Chap. X). Bramah weaves his plots with Wodeousian intricacy; jokes abound, many of them capable of reducing the reader to helpless fits of laughter months later, on the freeway or in the supermarket; and the author's gentleness, his sense of justice and fair play, his lovely manners and his irresistible sense of humor, will remain long in the reader's mind, like a faint fragrance of jasmine.

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