Saturday, May 07, 2011

Fu Manchu

I think I have carried the thrill of Fu Manchu since high school. Back then, I simply responded to the charged atmosphere of adventure, similar to what Raiders of the Lost Ark aimed at. I have since become more enthralled in the meta cloud surrounding Fu Manchu, tho admittedly I have been satisfied to leave deep cogitations on the subject alone. I will not get deep here, either.

To a clear extent, Fu Manchu = Sherlock Holmes, but on the dark side. He’s more about megalomania than monomania, but in both cases, there’s a perplexingly weird and involved attachment to some goal that those words cannot satisfy. The bee in each of their bonnets, the weed up each of their asses, is enormous.

So okay. Holmes is for Good and Fu Manchu for Evil, but that’s as may be. They’re really out there for a good tussle. Here we discover a particular difference between the two. Holmes matches against an evil twin in Moriarty, as well as other felons of considerable device. Fu Manchu battles a minor lamp in the British Empire’s brilliant beam, Sir Denis Nayland-Smith. It don’t seem fair, but Fu Manchu always gets thwarted.

Read Nayland-Smith as an early version of James Bond. He’s crisp and focused, yet it’s always his good luck, and Fu Manchu’s bad, that British civilization isn’t overrun by Chinese hordes. Yes racism is a player here, more anon.

Unlike the invention of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Fu Manchu, only one plot appears thru out the series, so far as I know. I have read a number of the books—not all, surely—and cannot differentiate them. That’s okay. P. G. Wodehouse made do with one plot, i.e.: upper class twit (Bertie Wooster, or a clone) must perform some ridiculous antic like steal a hat to avoid marrying someone. Butler ex machina, aka Jeeves, saves the day at the last minute. Fu Manchu tries his darnedest to overthrow Western civilization but Nayland-Smith somehow always throw the appropriate monkey wrench into the works. You come to the end of the book and wonder how that happened. British pluck, inherent, is the answer.

Like Holmes, Nayland-Smith has a helpmeet in his adventures, and a doctor to boot: Dr Petrie. He’s the one carrying the torch (i.e. flashlight) and revolver. Petrie’s peppier than Watson, and in a cunning twist, somewhere along the line even marries Fu Manchu’s daughter.

I mentioned plot, and here it is:

In a charged atmosphere of intrigue (and I am not kidding about that) Nayland-Smith breathlessly appears to British government officials and Dr Petrie with information gathered from arcane sources that Dr Fu Manchu is on the move. The death of some ambassador, or whatever, indicates this. Rare poisons are used and that can mean only one thing. Mysterious appearances of Asian factotums also indicate that Fu Manchu is at work. Sir Denis and the Doctor then proceed to the chase, which always ends up in some wet place, a sewer or waterside warehouse, where Fu Manchu has set up his headquarters. Minions are captured and killed but Fu Manchu absquatulates, but not before a grunt of respect between the two nemeses. Whew!

I have gotten this far without mentioning the name of the author of the Fu Manchu stories. It is Sax Rohmer, born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward. I only know what Wikipedia tells me.  Note the possibly real connection to arcane knowledge. I love the picture there, Sax Rohmer wearing a silk robe, smoking a pipe. Ah the enchanting mysteries!

The racism here is full throttle, albeit “normal’. Descriptions of Asians, including Fu Manchu himself, obsess on physical features considered ugly or strange. The stories basically report the jolt of Other. Fu Manchu and Asians generally are simply too strange to understand. Their motivations seem thoughtlessly biological. This would seem like the racism of an ignorant day but the death of Osama Bin Laden shows that that day lies close still. Bin Laden himself, ‘as we know him’ (thru media exhortations), is Fu Manchu, plotting and hiding. Never the twain shall meet is not merely an observation, but somehow a right.

In the world of Fu Manchu, Good and Evil teeter in Manichean balance, with just enough sway towards Good to keep us happy. In the real world, such a balance cannot be blessed to remain. Little of substance holds the partisanship together. Yet factions are seen as bulwarks.

Well, I’ve managed to overthink this. I respond to the intrinsic hilarity of these characters. I don’t know if it is still done, but it used to be that in pro wrestling, a playful racism engaged the viewer. It involved evil characters, representing cultural or racial groups, attempting to take over the world of wrestling, after which falls the country and the world. Fu Manchu’s involved plots bear the same nature. And we have an officious and tightly wound Bertie Wooster to save us… I guess at this point I should ask who you are voting for for president next year.