Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I Read Books: The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu

I've been reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also published as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and I've written up each chapter as I came to it. Now though it's time for considering the novel as a whole.

With over 100 years of covers I was able to get a different image for each chapter
What Can Be Done With Fu-Manchu?

A chapter-by-chapter daily reading is, as it turns out, a bad way to read the novel. Published in sections originally, although they build on each other to add up to something more, you can and should read each individual section which detail one of (mostly) Petrie and Smith's attempts to stop Fu-Manchu from killing someone, or (towards the end) a raid on one of his bases and the fallout. The chapter end cliffhangers draw you in, maintaining the pace and disguising the fact that they don't actually get much done.

The style is almost always overwrought by modern standards. Every appearance or event caused by Dr Fu-Manchu is THE MOST TERRIFYING AND OVERWHELMING EVER, which makes it feel as though Petrie is a teen girl writing a diary in a poor quality horror movie. In fact I like that so much I'm keeping that idea.

Fu-Manchu's technology is mostly biological, and two of his plots revolve around stealing plans for an "aero-torpedo*" and faking the death and kidnapping an engineer. This is of course one of the oppositions the novel sets forth; mechanical vs medical, forthright vs cunning, honourable vs cruel, western vs oriental. As might be expected, the methods Rohmer explains are slightly implausible, although perhaps not totally out of the question, given the state of knowledge at the time it was written. Era-appropriate advanced technology.

Which leads me to anachronistically place it in a genre that it exemplifies; an obsession with accurate locations, technologies, and techniques at the expense of character; a gloss of political and international realities with good terminologies but fanciful detail; a somewhat jingoistic view of country vs country, so that Fu-Manchu operating in England is horrific, but Smith acting as commissioner in Burma is just, you know, the British Empire** doing it's business. Transplant it into the Cold War, replacing the Evil Empire with the Yellow Peril, and it would be immediately obvious that the book is a techno-thriller

Things That Haven't Aged Well

Is it racist? Yes, yes it is. Fu-Manchu is cruel because he is a member of a cruel race and he is the cruelest of them and his cruelty proves how cruel the Chinese are. I'm not going to go too much into this as you know, 1912, people got judged on their nationality and ancestry all the time. You're part of you race/nation/gender/class first and any individual details come in later. There's little characterisation of either the policemen led by Smith or the dacoits who serve Fu-Manchu. The majority of Fu-Manchu's victims are mature men, often single, slightly eccentric and mostly of interest for either travelling to Asia or inventing something. Prominent professionals and upper-class men, the backbone of the Empire. Of course Fu-Manchu might have been murdering lower class enemies - sailors, clerks, soldiers who had served in China - by the boat load and Smith would never know because they never came to his attention or were recorded in the papers.

What is interesting is how complex Fu-Manchu becomes by the end. He doesn't regret the crimes he committed out of "conviction" but he does those of "necessity", self-defence etc. He respects Smith and Petrie and undoes one of his cruelest injuries. At the same time he uses the of curing Weymouth to cover his escape. He's cunning like that, like all Chinese, and he's the most cunning etc.

Talking of complex there's Karamaneh, the only female character who really does anything. She is a slave who rebels against Fu-Manchu - but only to look for a new master in Petrie. This, according to Smith is the way of women in the Orient, who desire to be controlled. Yet by the end she walks away from both Fu-Manchu and Petrie*** with her brother.

Perhaps notably Petrie and Smith would have not only got nowhere without the aid of Karamaneh, they would almost certainly have been killed by Fu-Manchu before they became interesting enough for him to decide to capture them. Yes, I'm calling it here. Dr Fu-Manchu's greatest enemy is not Nayland Smith as most people believe; it is Karamaneh, his own slave girl. As such we might rightly say that he has sown the seeds of his own destruction.

To Sum Up

We can read this as a Technothriller-Invasion-Spy novel straightforwardly, accepting the frame that Fu-Manchu has reached out halfway around the world as the fore-funner of the Yellow Peril**** to assault the innocent people of England. Yet one does not have to be very revisionary to note that many of Dr Fu-Manchu's targets are Europeans deeply embedded in Asian countries. Smith was part of the colonial government in Burma; how shocking that China might have ambitions in that part of the world while Britain's rule is obviously the natural order of things. Both Smith and Fu-Manchu use deception and disguise, both use violence in pursuit of their (national) goals. If we see Nayland Smith and Dr Fu-Manchu as dark mirrors of each other then it becomes clear why Smith does not think Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac. And also why, despite his ruthlessness, he has scruples and tries to put right a wrong or two he has done along the way. Both agents of globe-spanning Imperial powers.

Now that's an interesting concept for a series.

Read This: For a fast paced and entertaining hundred year old thriller with one of the all time great villains.
Don't Read This: If hundred year old over wrought prose aggravates you, or you aren't interested in people falling into death traps. Also if you aren't on board for racism, sexism, classism, and possibly some other bigotry of sorts.
Will The World hear From You Again?: Dr Fu-Manchu returns in, um, The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu. Which I will read eventually.

* This may in fact have been an aeroplane.

** Fu-Manchu comes to Europe and is a SPY and a TERRORIST. Smith goes to Asia and is an agent of His Majesties Government.

*** Who promptly stalks her. Reading romantic cues across cultural boundaries is difficult, and the method used in (fictional) early 20th Century England is to stoically say nothing for several chapters then express you feelings in flowery prose for about a page and a half, so maybe Petrie needs to be a bit more straightforward. Anyway, enough of this; let's just say that Rohmer seems determined to keep the romantic tension taut.

**** "People of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions," a somewhat mixed allegorical lithograph used by Kaiser Wilhelm II to promote his colonial response to what he called the Yellow Peril.
From the left we have (possibly) Athena for Greece but it's not clear; Britannia, Italia, Mother Russia, Germania who has her arm around Austria, Marianne representing France, St Michael with a flaming sword and in the distance the threatening figure of the Buddha.

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