I am not usually at a loss for words, but trying to find the right ones
to describe my impressions of this book are proving to be a challenge! Sparklingly clever and subtly hilarious might suffice for starters. I have done
some research, and have as yet been unable to ascertain whether these stories are in any way based on actual Chinese
tales. Nevertheless, whether they are or not, they are filled with wit as sharp as the tools of torture that threaten to punish the innocent and brilliant Kai
Lung unless he and his plethora of wise and sadistically humorous tales can get him out of the messy situation in which he has haplessly landed.
Ernest Bramah was actually the English author Ernest Brammah Smith, and his Kai Lung stories are disguised as awkward English translations of Chinese, making them quite a feat to comprehend (although well worth the effort). Throughout the book, I found myself struggling with certain passages, only to go back and reread them after a couple pages had passed, and in the context of the flow of the story, found the stubborn sentences suddenly had meaning. This is certainly a book that needs to be read a couple times. And the more comfortable one becomes with Bramah's style, the easier reading them becomes. Bramah wrote a series of these brilliantly wry Kai Lung tales, so I intend to become quite proficient!
Most of the humor stems from the vividly satirical picture Bramah paints of ancient China, with an overly exaggerated (I would hope) emphasis on their Emperors' propensities toward painful torture of anyone they deemed might remotely be anything but humbly enslaved by their iron rule. He also pokes fun at the ridiculous protocol toward the hierarchical ladder, toward elders, and respect for the deities, no matter how nasty and abusive they may be. Nearly every paragraph contains some ridiculously silly proverb, and everyone, no matter what level of adversary they may be, converses with extreme politeness. All this combined creates the comical and sardonic China in which Kai Lung resides. Says Wikiquote:
"Ernest Bramah's China, then, is the fantastic bogus China of convention, not the real historical thing at all. He wrote of it in a prose so perfectly conceived that it becomes a miracle of style. As Hillaire Belloc once observed, the sly humor and philosophy of Bramah's stories is a trick he achieves by pretending to adapt the flavor of Chinese literary conventions into English."
Incidentally, for a humorous sampling of "proverbs and ancient Chinese sayings" found in the Kai Lung books, click on the link above.
In the beginning, we find Kai Lung, a traveling story-teller walking along the road from Loo-chow to Yu-ping. He meets a mysterious and beautiful
maiden along the way and they share a meal. She departs, and Kai Lung is then met by Li-loe, the guard at the prison house of Mandarin Shan Tien, who is at
war with Loo-chow, and warns Kai-Lung that since he has been to that city he has "noosed a rope" about his neck. He also informs him that the maiden is
Hwa-mei, who has Shan Tien's left ear, while the evil Ming-shu has his right.
Presently Kai Lung is arrested, and discovers that he is allowed daily into an enclosure where there is a high wall. Hwa-mei comes to him, and they now begin their plot to triumph over the lies that Ming-shu has told the Mandarin about the offenses Kai-Lung has committed. Since Hwa-mei has a heads up as to what is happening inside the palace, they can anticipate what will transpire and plan their defense. And their defense is that Kai Lung always has an appropriate story, told with such eloquence and wisdom, that each time he is taken to be sentenced and tortured to death, Shan Tien delays it for another time. So, thus, the book is made up of a series of stories Kai Lung presents to the Mandarin, to override the whispers of Ming-shu.
The stories are funny, and they get funnier as the situation progresses. One of the funniest is The Story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon. Chang Tao's grandfather has approached him in concern that there are still empty chairs where cradles should now be. Chang Tao, to this point has not been preoccupied with finding a wife. Chang Tao's father, however seems unconcerned:
"The contingency is not an overhanging one," said Chang Tao. "On my last occasion when I reminded my venerated father of my age and unmarried state, he remarked that, whether he looked backwards or forwards, extinction seemed to be the kindest destiny to which our House could be subjected."
The grandfather is angered, and says if the father is so neglectful in his duty, then the grandfather will procure a bride. Of course, Chang Tao is
not particularly happy about this, especially with some of his grandfather's suggestions. He first mentions the eleven Tung maidens. To this Chang Tao
refers to them as the Terror that Lurks for the Unwary.
Chan Tao then mentions Golden Eyebrows, daughter of Kuo Wang. His grandfather protests:
"It would be as well to open a paper umbrella in a thunderstorm as to seek profit from an alliance with Kuo Wang. Crafty and ambitious, he is already deep in questionable ventures, and high as he carries his head at present there will assuredly come a day when Kuo Wang will appear in public with his feet held even higher than his head."
They finally agree upon Melodious Vision, daughter of Shen Yi. She is rather snobbish and bored with too many suitors. To weed them out, the one who
will win her hand is the one who can slay a dragon.
Fortunately, Chang Tao happens to meet a dragon along the way, and they work out a compromise. . .
Finally the day arrives when Shan Tien forbids longer delays. He is ready to sentence Kai Lung:
"You appear, malefactor, to have committed crimes—and of all these you have been proved guilty by the ingenious arrangement invoked by the learned recorder of my spoken word—which render you liable to hanging, slicing, pressing, boiling, roasting, grilling, freezing, vatting, racking, twisting, drawing, compressing, inflating, rending, spiking, gouging, limb-tying, piece-meal-pruning and a variety of less tersely describable discomforts with which the time of this court need not be taken up. The important consideration is, in what order are we to proceed and when, if ever, are we to stop?"
Do Kai Lung and Hwa-mei have one last trick up their sleeve? Read this thoroughly entertaining book to find out!
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