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While Ernest Bramah wrote many books in many fields, our focus is on but a half dozen, all more or less concerned with a gentleman named Kai Lung, an itinerant teller of tales in “a China that never was.” The Kai Lung books are an exercise in pure style: there are no messages, deep or otherwise. For them to rank five stars—Grand-Master level—implies, correctly, that they must offer wondrous pleasures.
The books are drollery. Their foremost attraction is the wonderfully dry and ironic wit expressed as the Western exaggerated concept of the modesty, indirection, and courtesy of expression in Chinese. Here, for example, Kai Lung is waylaid by a gun-toting highwayman (gun-toting? I did say “that never was”):
“O illustrious person,” said Kai Lung very earnestly, “this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east.”
“However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House,” replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. “Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon.”
The language itself is so superlatively delightful that it alone would make these books a perennial delight. While I do not here ordinarily quote others about works, Hillaire Belloc, himself a master of light English prose and droll verse, in his Preface to the second book, Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, said the needful things so admirably that it would be foolish not to quote him:
The time in which we live affords very few such moments of relief: here and there a good piece of verse, in the New Age or the now defunct Westminster: here and there a lapidary phrase such as a score or more of Blatchford’s which remain fixed in my memory. Here and there a letter written to the newspapers in a moment of indignation when the writer, not trained to the craft, strikes out the metal justly at white heat. But, I say, the thing is extremely rare, and in the shape of a complete book rarest of all.
The Wallet of Kai Lung was a thing made deliberately, in hard material and completely successful. It was meant to produce a particular effect of humour by the use of a foreign convention, the Chinese convention, in the English tongue. It was meant to produce a certain effect of philosophy and at the same time it was meant to produce a certain completed interest of fiction, of relation, of a short epic. It did all these things.
It is one of the tests of excellent work that such work is economic, that is, that there is nothing redundant in order or in vocabulary, and at the same time nothing elliptic—in the full sense of that word: that is, no sentence in which so much is omitted that the reader is left puzzled…. The Wallet of Kai Lung satisfied all these conditions.
Indeed and indeed. Bramah’s drollery, however, was not limited to the language. He also used that artificial circumambulatory prose to make gentle mock of various social conditions and manners of his time. Distill this down to plainer language if you will:
“Suitable greetings, employer of our worthless services,” remarked their leader, seating himself upon the floor unbidden. “Those who speak through the mouth of the cringing mendicant before you are the Bound-together Brotherhood of Colour-mixers and Putters-on of Thought-out Designs, bent upon a just cause.”
“May their Ancestral Tablets never fall into disrepair,” replied Wong Ts’in courteously. “For the rest—let the mouth referred to shape itself into the likeness of a narrow funnel, for the lengthening gong-strokes press round my unfinished labours.”
“That which in justice requires the amplitude of a full-sized cask shall be pressed down into the confines of an inadequate vessel,” assented Fang. “Know then, O battener upon our ill-requited skill, how it has come to our knowledge that one who is not of our Brotherhood moves among us and performs an equal task for a less reward. This is our spoken word in consequence: in place of one tael every man among us shall now take two, and he who has before laboured eight gongs to receive it shall henceforth labour four. Furthermore, he who is speaking shall, as their recognised head and authority, always be addressed by the honourable title of ‘Polished,’ and the dog who is not one of us shall be cast forth.”
“My hand itches to reward you in accordance with the inner prompting of a full heart,” replied the merchant, after a well-sustained pause.
Well, one can produce that sort of thing endlessly from the Kai Lung books. In fact, if just the really worthy bits were strung together, they’d make, um, a full half dozen books’ worth.
One of the six, the first three are much more commonly known (and available) than the last three. Indeed, the fourth, The Return of Kai Lung was originally published as The Moon of Much Gladness, and no where in it—either in the tale proper or, as sometimes happened, as a framing device for the tale—do we find any least hint of the honorable storyteller; but the book is so very definitely of the same sort and flavor that the publisher—and we, its readers—can (and do) simply take it for granted that it is being recounted by that venerable teller of tales, hence the re-titling (which, however, doubtless augmented sales). It is a novel, and while utterly sidesplitting, is so in a way like but significantly different from the others, with a truly delightful premise—but I can say no more about it without badly spoiling the reader’s fun. The fifth, Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, is once again definitely Kai Lung, but differs somewhat in flavor from the earlier ones, containing some less-comic tales; Bramah here appears to be working at creating what once flowed easily from his pen, but the result is still a fine book. The last book, Kai Lung Raises His Voice, is some Kai Lung tales that had previously appeared at various times in magazines but had not before been collected; it is scarce (and correspondingly expensive), but is more or less up to the masterly standards of the rest.
I should be done here, but I can’t resist. Here are not even quotations—just a few representative chapter titles from some of the books:
Just go get the books and read them.
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The Ernest Bramah News website [archived copy] is a good starting-place to look for Bramah information on the web. There is a nice little Bramah appreciation by David Langford (“Crime and Chinoiserie”), and another fine appreciation [archived page] by Cosma Shalizi. Also, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a helpful Bramah evaluation. And there are useful bibliographies of Bramah available on line at Oxford and at the Ernest Bramah Bibliography site.
Those with an interest in Bramah’s non-fantasy Max Carrados detective books (which may be better-known than his Kai Lung works) will find this essay on the plausibility of a blind detective [archived page] by Jessica Amanda Salmonson of interest.
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Aubrey Wilson [archived page] has penned a biography, The Search for Ernest Bramah; it is said to be well-written and interesting.
There is also a good list of books and articles about Bramah at, again, the Ernest Bramah Bibliography site.
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