OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Ernest Bramah’s 1929 Short Stories of To-day and Yesterday, there are four tales extracted from his Kai Lung stories. Kai Lung is a storyteller from the time of an ancient Emperor of China …well, maybe the Emperor himself wasn’t all that ancient!

Told in an even more ponderous and pedantic style than the more contemporary stories in the same volume (from Max Carrados Stories and The Specimen Case), Kai Lung’s Chinese tales appear at first sight to give a simplistic, caricaturist’s version of that Imperial culture. You might even say that, in keeping with period in which Bramah was writing, there’s an imperialist’s hand at work, a racist’s even. This is the China of the Mikado, and Bramah makes reference to W.S.Gilbert and what he might do with a tale that Bramah himself is trying to tell!

The case is though, I am sure, that Bramah was not trying to give us any picture of China, or Chinese culture, but was hitching a ride on popular notions of it, on popular ignorance of it in fact, in order to have fun with the malleability of his own language. With tongue firmly in cheek, I believe, he constructed stories filled with sonorous pedants, gauche young men, and desirable, and very clever, young women, who in wonderfully ponderous circumlocutions, fight battles of wits with each other.

The Story of Hien is representative of the selection. Here’s a sentence from a ‘fight’ scene:   ‘And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away his scabbard and picked it up again several times.’   Bramah himself joins in the game, larding their conversations, and his narratives, with cod proverbs that all have more than a touch of comic irony:   ‘However high the tree the shortest axe can reach its trunk.’   The ability to do this, comes not so much from a colonial arrogance and contempt for other races and countries, as with the great void of knowledge about real places, that allowed fictional constructs to rush in and populate them. Nowadays we know so much about everyone, and everywhere, or like to think we do, that we cannot make up fictional countries and peoples without someone calling foul, and without causing offence. (I tried something like it in ‘Turnip Farm Number Three,’ which I wanted to inhabit a totally fictional and unspecified country, and involve entirely uncorroborated, unchecked, un-researched and made up ‘facts’ – you can find it in Nine Arches Press Under The Radar #15. http://ninearchespress.com/magazine.html)

The purpose of these fictions, and contemporary versions of them, was and is, of course, to examine ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time they could be set only a few hundred miles away, like Prospero’s Isle, but by Bramah’s day, the far side of the world was almost too near to pull off the same trick. Before his life was out, space itself had become ‘the final frontier,’ and we could let our imaginations run riot there, in both actions, and words. Here’s Bramah making a meal of Thang-Li, wise and dignified father of the beautiful Fa-Fei. The eminent gentleman (see how easy it is to slip into it?), has got himself stuck in a hollow tree whilst spying on his daughter, and two would be suitors. In a long, protracted conversation, Thang-Li is trying to persuade them to pull him out – but not by his pigtail!

‘Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and would be even more agreeable to his own feelings.’

Language, rather than people or place, is where Bramah is really going, and it is the language of those around him, only slightly skewed into the pompous and the pretentious. In fact, the pleasure of reading the Kai Lung stories, comes down largely to trying to work out exactly what anybody means! Word on the Wicki is that Bramah’s Kai Lung tales remained in print for a hundred years, and they may still be for all I know! It’s worth pausing here to reflect that Gordon Lish, that famous editor who cut text to the bone, was not working in an English tradition. The English of the English, to borrow a phrase, is a rich stew of origins and usages, and the more, is often – think Gilbert and Sullivan – the merrier.

Departures, Kindle ed.http://www.amazon.co.uk/Departures-stories-Brindley-Hallam-Dennis-ebook/dp/B00TIWMEO6