Tuesday, July 6, 2010


It's taken me some months to get through this book, but that's mostly been because I've been reading too many things simultaneously. The story behind the book is almost as interesting as the book itself. Sax Rohmer (born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) penned a number of short-stories serialized 1912-1913 revolving around the infamous Yellow Peril. Much of the interest in the Yellow Peril was sparked by the Boxer Uprising (1898-1901) and Japan's subsequent expansion campaign, culminating with its defeat of Russia in 1905. Sax Rohmer's writing is very much a product of his time, and is fascinating as a historical artifact describing European fascination with the cultural trappings of East Asia, coupled with Westerner's paradoxical fear and misunderstanding. The British short stories were originally collected in a single volume entitled The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, but when published in America, the stories were removed from their serialization and converted into chapters of a single novel, called The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. The reason for this decision by the publishers is curious, and I honestly wish I had known about this before I bought the American version (otherwise I'd have ordered the British version online).

William Maynard over at the (now closed and archived) Cimmerian has written a number of articles analyzing seven of the short stories. The series is called Blogging the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Part One--"The Zayat Kiss"
Part Two--"The Zayat Kiss," continued
Part Three--"The Clue of the Pigtail"
Part Four--"Redmoat"
Part Five--"The Green Mist"
Part Six--"The Call of Shiva"
Part Seven--"Karamaneh"Part Eight--"Andaman--Second!"

A lot of what Maynard has to say is totally accurate and worth mentioning so I'll probably be referencing him at least once of twice.

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (U.S. title) by Sax Rohmer

Inspector Nayland Smith (whom I picture as played by a young Cary Elwes--Westley from A Princess Bride) interrupts Dr. Petrie (whom I picture as played by Jude Law in a similar vein to his Dr. Watson from 2009's Sherlock Holmes), whisking him from his dull, ordinary life on the verge of starting a family practice, and recruits him as an assistant in his pursuit of the mysterious criminal mastermind, Dr. Fu-Manchu.

Nayland Smith's description of the cunning doctor is poignant:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true-cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Smith embodies the British "stiff upper-lip" severity--he is singular of purpose, incapable of distraction, and obsessively driven to capture and see convicted the nefarious doctor. Petrie, who narrates the story, is drawn willingly into the case, although all logic would suggest that, in reality, Petrie would have no business running around with a cadre of Scotland Yard detectives and a former British operative late of Burma after his first recruitment as a consultant in the initial case. Petrie never laments his involvement in what is undoubtedly something far above his own head, but almost seems to see it as his duty to his friend, Smith, to be a stalwart and trustworthy companion. He also seems driven by his curiosity and desire to see the criminal mastermind imprisoned, but not with the myopic obsession that engulfs Smith. Petrie's interest in the matter is compounded by his fascination with a beautiful young Arabic woman who is enthralled by Fu-Manchu. Petrie, in typical heroic fashion, seeks to liberate her from the dreaded doctor's clutches.

Maynard, in his first and second commentaries, compares the characters to Doyles' Holmes and Watson, and clearly marks the differences between them. Firstly, Smith, while obsessively driven to capture the doctor, is fully aware that he is no match for the cunning genius that is Fu-Manchu's. Indeed, Smith and Petrie are almost always one or two steps behind the doctor, who always seems to have them outwitted. Luck, quick-thinking, and the support of comrades are the few things that they seem to have on their side, and often only barely allow them to foil a few of the dreaded doctor's schemes.

The second difference is Petrie, who is Watson to Smith's Holmes. They do not start out as bachelors looking for living quarters together (as did Holmes and Watson), but already know of one-another. Indeed, Smith comes to Petrie because his old friend is one of the few people that Smith can trust. Petrie is not much of a hero, but is instead the British version of an "Average Joe" (albeit with a medical degree). He is remarkably undistinguished, and reacts much as we can imagine the average educated Englishman would given the variety of circumstances in which he finds himself. He doesn't once resent Smith for dragging him out of his ordinary life (he was on the verge of starting a family practice) and into a lethal and convoluted mire of intrigue. Instead, he never questions Smith, but signs on without thought or hesitation, and is accepted by everyone, from Scotland Yard to the dreaded doctor himself, as Smith's accomplice and confidant.

Petrie's love-interest is fascinating for it showcases a number of European (and particularly British) attitudes towards the East (both Near and Far). Karamaneh, the Arabic slave-girl, is a complex mystery. Her dusky skin and dark eyes mark her as physically exotic. She is the only woman in the entire series of stories that is ever described in any manner. All of the other women are mentioned only briefly, with the exception of Reverend Eltham's daughter, Greba. Greba is an almost typical young British gentlewoman, reserved, naïve and innocent, but remarkably curious. On the whole, however, when compared to Karamaneh her typicality makes her boring and dull, almost mediocre. Karamaneh is enthralled against her will and begs Petrie to rescue her from the doctor's enslavement--but the rescue she wants is outright kidnapping. Petrie, a civilized Englishman, is loathe to sink to barbarism to rescue this girl, whom is compelled to return to Fu-Manchu's service, even though she constantly seeks to aid Petrie in his fight against the doctor. She is defined by her contradictions. Her remarkable difference from the more passive yet free British females may be a subconscious commentary of Rohmer on the women of his time. Although she is enslaved, she is driven by something internal, and takes as much action as she believes herself capable. Though Rohmer never describes it, Karamaneh is a very erotic character, symbolizing the mysterious sexuality of the Near East, a sexuality that is nine-tenths myth, and grossly misunderstood by the European. Rohmer seems to realize that the West drastically misunderstands the East, and plays off of this.

Petrie's reaction to Karamaneh comes off as typically British. The civilized doctor sees it as his duty to liberate the woman and rescue her from her situation. Ironically, throughout the book, it is Karamaneh who does most of the rescuing (reinforcing her sexuality and the stark disparity between her and her British counterparts). If viewed in a certain light, one can comment that Petrie is a parody of himself--he and Smith are constantly falling into cunning traps devised by Fu-Manchu, and it is only the quick thinking of Karamaneh that manages to save them. Petrie regards her as a double-edged sword of Fu-Manchu's--she is his agent and does his dirty work, but she is treacherous. This treachery seems to be a trait, not just of females in general, but of Eastern femininity as a whole. Again, this must be contrasted with the much more mundane predictability of Englishwomen. They faint on cue (Karamaneh as well, though it usually takes much more stress for her to swoon than the typical Englishwoman), they go into hysterics, and they are generally unreliable in a fight due to their gentility and innate belief in their own weakness. However, they are reliable in the way a domesticated animal is reliable--they do what is expected of them, rarely think for themselves, and aren't worth mentioning a great deal 90% of the time. Karamaneh's treachery is innate to her nature as an Arab and an Easterner, but it also enhances her eroticism even further.

Dr. Fu-Manchu is rarely seen, and mostly felt, throughout the book. He is a master of lores and alchemies that are virtually unknown to Western science. His lethal tools include poisonous insects and fungi, disease, drugs and toxins delivered in a cunning variety of ways. He is served by Karamaneh and a number of dacoits, South Asian murderers and thugs who serve as Fu-Manchu's enforcers, spies, and assassins. Smith and Petrie are always astounded by the mysterious manners in which he steals plans, kidnaps dignitaries, and murders ambassadors. When Smith describes his methods, it is always clear that the East Asians consider them to be supernatural. Although Smith and Petrie together determine the true and mundane nature of Fu-Manchu's techniques, there is no doubt that these methods are exotic, making use of drugs, poisons, and animals not native to the Western world (and often wholly imagined by Rohmer).

Fu-Manchu's drive is simply to restore China to its dominant place as an imperial world power--in effect he wants a Chinese empire to replace the British Empire. It is ironic how the British characters interpret this as a threat to the entire white race and an overall Bad Thing. In one respect, Fu-Manchu can be seen as a patriot and not necessarily an overly evil villain. He is the head of a criminal organization, true, and he engages in murder and intrigue to achieve his ends. However, in comparison to the CIA and the British Empire, Fu-Manchu is actually far more benevolent. He heals those he injures if it does not effect his plans, and if he can achieve his goals without murder, he does so. While he takes pleasure in seeing his plans come to fruition, laughing as British police officers die in traps that he sets, he is perfectly willing to let others live if they resign themselves to no longer interfere with his work.

This is, again, an example of Rohmer creating an Eastern and Asiatic character who is a set of contradictions. Fu-Manchu is a threat to the entire white race, but he is not a barbarian. Indeed, his command of other languages (including English) is masterful. He is constantly praised by Smith and Petrie for having one of the most brilliant medical minds on Earth, and cursed for not using it to advance Western medicine. He avoids killing when unnecessary, but does not hesitate to murder if it to his advantage. The doctor does not act out of his own interest, but is an idealist--his goal is something that goes far beyond himself. He does not hold personal grudges and never grows angry. He is ruthless, but he is not cruel.

These contradictions display a deep confusion and fascination in the early 20th-century Western world regarding East Asia. These countries were some of the most difficult to understand and penetrate throughout the preceding century. At times The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu reads as if the author was in love with Asia, and at times as if he hated it. It is clear that Rohmer had learned a great deal about the East during his research of the stories, but that knowledge was tainted by typical early-20th-century assumptions and misunderstandings of the realities of the Eastern world. While some might be quick to label Rohmer's work as "racist," I'd avoid using that word. Rohmer doesn't hate East Asians, and doesn't judge them as lower than whites. Although he is clear that he believes the races are separate, he is keenly aware (so aware it goes unsaid) that the British Empire was subjugating half of the world at that time, and it also goes unsaid that he considered this a Good Thing (Kipling thought so, too). Thus, when he describes an emerging China as a threat to the entire white race, it is, perhaps, more the threat to Europe's prosperity borne on the backs of neo-colonialism that is threatened.

As a set of stories, Rohmer's writing is, at times, unremarkable. A century after his work was published, his superstitious fears of a Yellow Peril seem quite trite when compared to the realities of the Second World War and Asian industrialization. At the time, the stories were no doubt thrilling, but today we are far more aware of East Asian culture than we were a hundred years ago. Rohmer's strengths, however, are with characterization. Smith's singlemindedness and its contrast with Petrie's divided passions make for a believable and enjoyable camaraderie between the two characters. Fu-Manchu himself is a captivating villain, and his sparse appearances throughout the stories make each one unique and memorable. He is human and believable, and indeed, to an early 21st-century reader, quite sympathetic (although this was likely not Rohmer's intention). Indeed, the stories grow more interesting as the reader progresses through the book and the characters encounter Fu-Manchu more often.

The primary value of this book is in its status as a historical document. While the short stories themselves are pretty good, they're not spectacular, and I found other writers (like Robert E. Howard, who scrawled yarns for numerous magazines during the 1930s, 20 years after Rohmer wrote his original Fu-Manchu stories) to do much better with the mysterious Orient than Rohmer. Nevertheless, Rohmer catapulted the idea of the Yellow Peril into mainstream fiction of the early 20th-century, and had a tremendous impact on numerous other genres, from war stories to spy fiction to action-adventure.

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (U.S. title) by Sax Rohmer B

1 comment:

Greta Niu said...

Thanks for a thoughtful review--especially helpful that you note Rohmer's historical and cultural context--though I think one could still argue the author displays racism against Chinese and Egyptians.