Book Review by George S: In 1936, fifteen-year old Mary Wilkinson began to keep a record of her reading, and continued it for several years. This month members of the Reading Group have been reading some of the books a young woman read in the late thirties and early forties. The Mask of Fu Manchu is the first title on her list. She read it in May 1936, and in the following few weeks read five more by the same author. Then he doesn’t appear on the list again, so obviously she had something of a Sax Rohmer craze. The book is absolute tosh, but I can see why she enjoyed it, because I did, too.
The author was born Arthur Henry Sarsfield (born 1883). He was a civil servant before becoming a writer, at first for the music hall and then for magazines. Fu Manchu made his first appearance in serialised stories in 1912, and there were three Fu Manchu books published between 1913 and 1917. Then, like Arthur Conan Doyle before him, he tried to give up his most famous character and concentrate on other writing. In the late twenties, though, there were very successful Fu Manchu serials on American radio, so he brought the character back by popular demand. This is the second in this renewed series of Fu Manchu books.
Rohmer is good at creating suspense, and at keeping the reader alert. Fu Manchu does not appear until Chapter 18, but before then a reader who knows the genre will have picked up tantalising hints – like the glimpse of a pair of piercing green eyes staring from the shadows. Sax Rohmer likes to keep the reader waiting. He’s also good at getting us to share the characters’ ‘vague supernatural dread’. Inexplicable things happen and we are always being asked to expect the unspeakable and the unimaginable:
“What could it be—this flying thing? I conceived horrors transcending the imagination of the most morbid story-tellers.”
There are hints of terible punishments all the more effective for not being described:
‘The exact details of their fate at the hands of the eunuchs are more lurid than pleasant. But the guilty pair were finally thrown from the gallery to the street below. The mosque has never been used since that day; and the death cries of the victims are supposed to be heard from time to time…’
The story begins in Ispahan, in Persia, where Sir Lionel Barton – ‘the greatest Orientalist of his century’ – has dug up the grave of El Mokkana, sometimes called the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, who in 770 A.D. had set himself up as the new Prophet and revised the Koran. (‘Mokanna was a hideous creature. His features were so mutilated as to be horrible to see…’) the Veiled Prophet was a heretic, but still had his secret followers. Sir Lionel Barton is presented as great scholar but as a greedy and clumsy man, wanting the treasures for their historic value but insensitive to the repercussions that might follow this disturbance of a grave.
Fu Manchu takes advantage of the situation, and in a plot reminiscent of Buchan’s Greenmantle, wants to use the desecration as a way of starting a jihad against British rule.
“By discovering and then destroying the tomb of El Mokanna he awakened a fanaticism long dormant which, properly guided, should sweep farther than that once controlled by the Mahdi. And the Mahdi, Mr. Greville, came nearer to achieving his ends than British historians care to admit. Your Lord Kitchener—whom I knew and esteemed— had no easy task.”
The standard objection to a book like this would be to its racial stereotyping, and rightly so. Chinese are amoral and inscrutable; Moslems are easily led into fanaticism; foreigners generally are untrustworthy. The narrator says:
“I had experienced a pang of uneasiness on realising that the stewards were almost exclusively Javanese, some of them of a very Mongolian type: silent, furtive, immobile, squatting like images at the corner of nearly every alleyway—their slippers beside them, their faces expressionless.”
I could also mention gender stereotyping. Sir Lionel’s daughter Rima is only there in the story so that she can be kidnapped twice by the evil Oriental.
Inscrutable Chinamen were staples of the genre. The essential elements included in the works of the thriller-writing hero of P.G. Wodehouse’s Honeysuckle Cottage are listed as: ‘revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen and dead bodies – with or without gash in throat’ (All of these are present and correct in The Mask of Fu Manchu.) Fu Manchu himself transcends the stereotype to some extent, though. The narrator describes:
‘That wonderful face, on which there rested an immutable dignity […]. And the power which radiated from the person or this formidable being was of a character which I could never hope to portray. He seemed to exude force. The nervous energy of Sir Denis was of a kind which could almost literally be felt, but that which emanated from Dr. Fu-Manchu vibrated with an intensity which was uncanny.’
Fu Manchu is a ‘stupendous genius’ and therefore to be feared, but while he is impervious to Western conceptions of good and evil, he has his code, which the narrator frequently insists on:
“The most evil man I had ever known, he was also, according to his own peculiar code, the most honourable.”
Fu Manchu keeps his word, which is more than the unreliable Sir Lionel, obsessed by his historical discoveries, does. When Rima is kidnapped by Fu Manchu, and the golden treasures are demanded as ransom for her return, Sir Lionel cheats Fu Manchu by substituting forgeries for the real treasures. He will be repaid for this trickery eventually.
Contrasted with Sir Lionel is Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu’s opponent in all the books. He is thoroughly English, calm, reserved and utterly principled, and unlike Sir Lionel in that he represses all personal feelings. I was reminded of the book I read last month, Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters. When the Indian troops arrive in Europe, they are amazed to see European women behaving naturally, in a manner that is unreserved and not repressed. The British in their empire were expected to show Nayland Smith’s virtues – utter seriousness, the permanent stiff upper lip, and not Sir Lionel’s impetuosity.
I started to read this book as a fable of Imperial anxiety. It reminded me of Kipling’s ‘The Mark of the Beast’ (in Life’s Handicap), where a drunken Englishman desecrates a temple, and then suffers for it. Sir Lionel’s disturbance of the tomb is sort-of similar. Both stories seem to be saying: Don’t mess with what the peoples of the Empire hold dear, or it may come back to bite you. You may even have bitten off more than you can chew.