The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu

Next week we’re taking on The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu in my League of Extraordinary Gentlemen class, and it is a piece of work.  On the one hand, there is a lot of action, it’s pretty suspenseful, and the atmospherics are enjoyable.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that it’s the most indefensibly racist book I’ve ever taught.  Kipling and Conrad’s approaches to empire are complex.  Even Rider Haggard has a dim enough view of human nature that his work turns into something other than crude imperialist cheerleading.

But The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu is wholly different.  It’s all noble Brits and diabolical, hideous Chinese threats:

“Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face liek 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 resouces, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, moreover, 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.”

I like that it doesn’t matter which Eastern race–indeed, any will do, and Dr. Fu-Manchu, who combines disparate techniques like a pan-Asian chef juxtaposing unrelated “Eastern” flavors.  By contrast, here’s the true British stuff:

“A servant of the Crown in the East makes his motto: ‘Keep your word, though it break your neck.'”

Mercifully, it’s not all wizened old criminal masterminds and stiff-upper-lip chaps: There are *also* inscrutable, but devoted, exotic beauties:

Seemingly, with true Oriental fatalism, she was quite reconciled to ehr fate, and ever and anon she would bestow upon me a glance from her beautiful eyes which few men, I say with confidence, could have sustained unmoved.  Though I could not be blind to the emotions of that passionate Eastern soul, yet I strove not to think of them. Accomplice of an arch-murderer she might be; but she was dangerously lovely.

The best part is that I’m teaching from the Dover edition, which includes an introduction by Douglas G. Greene.  Near the end, he remarks:

 Rohmer’s novels remain popular not because they say anything about what was going on in the world in his time or in ours, but because they are almost pure fantasy, appealing to the armchair adventurer.

That is a relief–I would hate to think that the popularity of naked imperialist fantasy told us *anything* about either Edwardian England or ourselves!

Let’s not read that snark the wrong way: I’m not saying one can’t enjoy Rohmer, but I don’t think that one gets to dismiss the icky bits with a wave.  It’s not like it’s a minor detail–the undigested imperial fantasy is a core part of the story.  And unlike with Kipling or Conrad (or even Haggard), one can’t even take the strategy of defending Rohmer’s position in order to unsettle the pieties of tolerance.

Maybe I can just show Peter Sellers or Helen Mirren clips all week.

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