Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fan-Tan - Marlon Brando & Donald Cammell

 Yes you have read correctly...Marlon Brando. THE Marlon Brando! I never knew that he had turned his hand to a novel. Suffice to say the name alone just leaped out at me from the spine of the book when I was in my library several days ago. Brando obviously starts with a B, and when I quickly perused the F's I saw that Carrie Fisher ( Leia of Star Wars fame ) also had a novel sitting there. She has actually written several novels which I shall read one day given the chance.

 So home came Marlon's novel. But like so many other dual authored books, it is difficult to truly ascertain how much is Brando, and how much not. In this particular copy there is a piece at the end on its development etc, but it doesn't really say how much input Brando had. All I could gather was it was written over a long period with Brando supplying ideas and Cammell writing them up. That is my understanding anyway ( it was published 1n 2005 after Brando's death ). Of course with this being Brando I couldn't help but feel as I read it that it was a vehicle for a film. Well it was but due to Brando's enigmatic nature it never came to fruition.

 But unlike many novels written solely for filming purposes, Fan-tan isn't overly simplistic in plot or prose. In fact the prose is a little too flowery at times as Cammell searches for deeper literary sense than the novel needed. I feel as if he is trying to make the novel more than just a story, but also a piece of literature in the process. I do admire the attempt, but unfortunately Cammell has tried too hard, and at times the style is a bit too difficult to swallow. Many of the reviews I have read pertaining to the novel all state the same thing. It isn't the lot or storyline that is the problem, it is the way it is written

 But style aside I found the rest of the novel really good. Apparently Brando and Cammell did immense research on the era, namely 1920's Hong Kong. It comes through loud and clear that they did, because unlike many historical novels, Fan-Tan takes you into the world of Chinese pirates and the Hong Kong underworld ( for instance the Chinese woman as pirate lord was based on a real woman ). For this alone I could tolerate the difficult writing style as the strength of the research more than compensated. One last word on the writing style is seen in the fact that it took me three nights to read its brief 227 pages! It really was a difficult book to sit down and read over long periods . I read a bit put it down, read some more, clawing my through it like that.

 The plot is excellent and I really enjoyed it. The whole feel of the novel is superb because the atmosphere is so well described. This is like a James Clavell novel based in the 1920's. Of course James Clavell wrote some of the best novels on the Far East with King Rat, Noble House, and in particular the brilliant, Sho-Gun. If you have read books on the Far East, or just love that part of the world, then I'm sure you will like this novel. I myself aren't a reader of Asia as such and yet this novel impressed me for its authenticity and feel. I mean I could quite literally smell the incense, burning opium, and other exotic smells of 1927 Hong Kong.

 The plot revovles around American Anatole 'Annie' Doughtry who saves the life of a Chinese man in a Hong Kong prison. On his release he is offered the share of a silver hesit a local woman pirate lord is about to undertake. After much negotiating he agrees to take part and the heist is undertaken. But to their horror there is no silver, only later is found out there is onboard the equvilent monetary value of rare pearls. Through a sex scene involving the pearls,  'Annie' steals them and sails off into the sunset.

 But there is a serious problem with the novel because it does delve into some unnecessary perversity at times. Somehow Brando's own real world views creep in and blight the novel. Just certain sentences are overly crude, feeling tacked on to the narrative without being a really valid part of the plot. And unfortunately the last few pages really go over broad. There is a warning from Cammell to skip them if you don't like graphicness, but since I'm open minded I read on. What did I get? Well a sex scene that was crude and poorly executed. The novel's main protagonist 'Annie' Doultry wakes up in the morning after having a night of having a pirate woman  sticking pearls up his bum. He reciprocates with her 'orifices' . Getting the picture? Then the worst bit of crud ever written. Annie finds, as he slept, she has pooed on his chest!!!!!!! You read correctly.......she has shit on him!

 H then carefully scoops it up, excretes the pearl from his bum, and places it on top for her to find ( I won't go into the why as it will be a total spoiler ). But you get the idea. This is the novels crudest moment, but there are other slightly smaller parts dealing with 'assholes' throughout. This turgidness is a low point, and with the overly  flowery prose the novel trips itself up because it undoes the superb research and authentic feel. I really did feel myself transported back to 1920's Hong Kong and smell the opium wars, see the junks, the pirates, etc, etc. This is the novel's high points and I recommend it for that alone. But if you don't like overly crude writing, then this may be one to avoid, because it does go overboard with the perversity.

In such a short novel there are  alot of strengths. The characterisations are good, the feel is superb, the plot solid and plausible. But it is let down in trying too hard to be taken seriously as a piece of literature. With less flowery writing used then it could be assessed as a novel alone, but it wants to be both a novel, and a piece of literature. Then it really tests the reader with its perversity's. These were unnecessary, and they will force away many readers who may otherwise have stuck the novel out.

 Ultimately then Fan-Tan can be only recommended to those with a very broad mind, and who love novels about the Far East. It is not an easy read and the style is again a test. If you can get through the first 30-50 pages you will read the rest. If you don't then you'll give up in despair. Personally I enjoyed the story and setting, but the writing and turgidness left me somewhat cold.

 Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars from 10 reviews. Of those 10, 4 are 1 out of 5 reviews! I think 3 1/2 is fair. A lot to like but lets itself down. The hardest thing to fathom is if Brando envisaged filming this, how did he expect to put in the perversities??


  1. Hi Brent,

    Just wanted to tell you, after my own research on Brando, you got his crude element spot-on! He was fantastically imaginative and would have done vast research on the topic but you're right; he could'nt help spoiling it with not just a crude streak but a childish streak..he was fond of ka ka, pee pee, fart jokes.. look up Johnny Depp's encounter with him... Brando was that funny mixture of rich imagination/tenderness and crudness/childishess rolled into one.


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