Monday, October 10, 2011

Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu

The Mask of Fu Manchu, published in 1932, was the sixth of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. This time the threat to civilisation comes from an heretical Islamic sect.

Sir Lionel Barton, the eminent but rather fiery archaeologist, has discovered the tomb of El Mokanna, the Veiled Prophet. Having retrieved the precious relics buried there, the Sword of God, the golden mask and the golden sheets inscribed with the New Koran, Barton blows up the tomb. This might seem like an odd thing for an archaeologist to do but it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Sir Lionel Barton to do.

El Mokanna had been the leader of a sect of Islamic heretics, a sect that still has its devotees - and they take the fireball in the desert caused by the explosion as a sign. It awakens ancient longings and resentments and the potential is there for an uprising on an even larger scale that than of the Mahdi in the Sudan in the 1880s (which led to the death of General Gordon in the defence of Khartoum in 1885).

Dr Fu Manchu sees an opportunity here, an opportunity to advance his own interests. Anything that is likely to cause problems for the European powers is welcome news to Fu Manchu. He intends to manipulate the rising, but first he will need to get hold of those precious relics. It’s up to Sir Denis Nayland Smith to prevent this from happening.

This is a typical Fu Manchu novel. In other words it’s enormous fun.

One of the things that makes Fu Manchu such a memorable character is that he is not a simplistic villain. Rohmer’s characters always describe him with a mixture of fear and admiration and it’s reasonable to assume that this reflects Rohmer’s own views of his famous creation. On one occasion the narrator Greville (one of Sir Lionel Barton’s assistants) describes him as being the most evil but also the most honourable man he has ever encountered. Fu Manchu’s word is his bond.

This particular novel is even more sympathetic to Fu Manchu than the earlier books. He demonstrates not just his habitual sense of fair play but also displays something close to affection to Greville, sending him rare and valuable presents on the occasion of his wedding.

There is a sense in which Fu Manchu is being depicted as a worthy adversary. He is ruthless certainly, and implacably hostile to European colonial power, but he is also a gentleman. He knows the rules of the game, and he knows that certain things are just not cricket. He will kill to achieve his aims, but he will never kill without a reason, and never for such a base motive as mere revenge. If his plans are foiled that’s part of the game.

Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee plays an important role in this novel, and she’s an ambiguous character as well. She is motivated more by lust than the pursuit of power but the Fah Lo Suee of the novel is rather less evil, and less depraved, than the Fah Lo Suee so memorably played by Myrna Loy in the 1932 movie. She is ruthless and devious, no question about that, but she’s not a monster.

To some extent this reflects the fact that the book is a product of a different world from our own, a better world, where even diabolical criminal masterminds are constrained by matters of basic decency and good sportsmanship.

While the Fu Manchu books are often cited (especially in these days of all-pervasive and draconian political correctness) as being representative of the worst kinds of jingoism and racism I have to say that I strongly disagree. While Rohmer certainly believed in the likelihood of a power struggle between East and West I’ve personally seen no evidence in his books that he regarded Asians as morally or intellectually inferior to Europeans. On the contrary The Mask of Fu Manchu contrasts the scrupulous honesty of Dr Fu Manchu with the dishonourable conduct of Sir Lionel Barton, and as always Fu Manchu turns out to be at least the intellectual equal of his opponents. We have dangerously widened our definition of racism so that any suggestion of the possibility of cultural conflicts is now seen, quite wrongly, as racist.

If you’ve never sampled the delights of the Fu Manchu novels I would urge you to read them in the correct sequence, starting with The Mystery of Fu Manchu (published in the US as The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu ). There is immense enjoyment to be found in the pages of these books.

1 comment:

  1. d., I've read two of these novels. Drums of Fu Manchu was a turgid affair despite the promising device of the doctor pitting himself against a surrogate Hitler, but Mask was much more entertaining. I especially liked how FM's feindish plot actually sputtered out about 2/3 of the way through, but the heroes still had to spend the last section worrying about reprisals. More people probably "know" this story from the movie version, which is over the top in its racial hysteria -- but in part that's what makes the Karloff movie such a cult item -- and has none of the novel's subtleties, which come from its place in a settled, familiar series.