A quixotic quest

Tianjin (Tientsin) old city

Charles G Finney:
The Magician Out of Manchuria
Panther Books 1976 (1968)

A comic fantasy not quite like any other, The Magician Out of Manchuria is part satire, part quest story, part picaresque novella and part fantasy, but constantly shifts ground to keep the reader guessing. Ostensibly it is about a Manchurian sorcerer who, with his apprentice chela and donkey Ng Gk, is intent on escaping an encroaching materialism in China, sometime in a legendary past. Already we can see that the author is mixing names and terms from different cultures: for example, chela is a Hindi word for a disciple.

But already, within the first couple of pages, we’re in medias res, for descending to the seashore the magician is easily constrained to rescue from fishing nets the lifeless body of a naked woman, not of a particularly pleasing visage as it happens (an incident portrayed rather lasciviously if not quite accurately the cover of this edition).

The said magician, unnamed like his chela, not only brings her back to life but by his art renders her beautiful. His motivation arises from the fact that he realises she is the infamous Lustful Queen of La, bumped off by the evil warlord Khan Ali Bok, and he decides that this is the perfect excuse to return northward — so the Queen can get her revenge and he can restore magic to the land. And so begins the quest by three unnamed humans (each known only by their status) and a named donkey (which only knows that its status is lowly).

I can’t express how much I enjoyed this — the seemingly inconsequential utterances, the distinctive characters only superficially caricatured, the farcical incidents, the satire poking fun at, particularly, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward of the late fifties and his thuggish Cultural Revolution of the sixties, the broad humour straddling the divide between magic realism and fantasy.

And in amongst it all is evident a familiarity with, even love of, the China of the late 1920s, when Finney was with the US 15th infantry based in Tianjin (Tientsin as it was called then), the port downriver from Beijing where foreign nations held their so-called concessions. Unlike the racial stereotypes around in much 20th-century Western culture (the evil Fu Manchu type, the comic coolie, a Charlie Chan with his broken English or a Suzie Wong call girl) Finney’s figures subvert expectations: the ‘wily magician’, say, and the ‘voluptuous courtesan’ (it’s interesting neither has a name, unlike their adversaries, or even the donkey) turn out to have fully rounded characters, not only with strengths and weaknesses but also with a psychological journey as well as a physical one to accomplish.

Finney had already shown that such jokey one-dimensional personas were false, as he did for the titular figure in The Circus of Doctor Lao (1928). In this novella that mask is symbolised by the magician periodically sloughing his skin like a snake, with corresponding changes in physiognomy and temperament. Is it possible that, where the snake image is concerned, the author was recalling the golden dragon on the 15th Infantry’s coat of arms during service from 1927-9?

Chinese dragon from US 15th Infantry Regiment coat of arms

As the unlikely quartet make their journey across northeast China they rob and swindle, seduce and entertain, make new friends and defeat old enemies. There is pompous interlocution, hilarious sex, and dazzling magic: Finney’s fiction is all down to sleight of hand as he distracts, disarms and deceives.

Manchuria, part of northeast China, and Korea in 1936

This fiction’s fantasy landscape is clearly inspired by the one Finney knew well in the interwar years: the coast, the mountains, the guerilla infestation, even the canal that wove its way through Tianjin and which features in the madcap conclusion to the story, as the canal boat The Flower of the Lotus grows first legs, then wings. And ever and on Finney pulls the rug from under our feet: the action is paused as one character or another — usually the magician — expounds lengthily on some philosophical point, or a piece of elegiac poetry is dismissed as nonsense:

The seagulls lay their eggs near Shan Hai Kwan
And junks put out to sea near Wei Hai Wei;
Bold tigers nurse their young near Toon Li Han
As drugmen pulp the poppies red and gay.
It is not of the mandarins I sing;
It is not of the moonlight that I chant.
But poppies in the dawntime will I bring
When o’er thy grave I rend my breast and pant.

‘A fitting dirge,’ said the magician. ‘One only wishes one knew what it meant.’

What at first seemed a slight and quixotic piece unexpectedly wormed its sneaky way into my affections. How do I know? Because it’s a narrative that I intend to hang onto for a reread in the future, an increasingly rare choice as I devour and discard fictions I’ve neglected up till now.

A fantasy read for Wyrd and Wonder

16 thoughts on “A quixotic quest

    1. I hope you manage to get a copy of this. I think there have only been three editions, this later UK publication, a limited US edition, and the original US publication when it was published in tandem with the related The Unholy City (1937) set in ‘modern’ China.

      Liked by 1 person

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