One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.
Racist. Sexist. Colonialist. They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon. So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.
What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans. If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about. It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.
I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.
It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world. Pretty standard stuff so far.
But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal. He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary. It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day. Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.
The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.
I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them. It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload. And a great story to boot.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future. You can have a look here.