'Fan Tan' by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell.
It looks like the sort of thing you might stumble across in a remainder bin in a used book store. 'Fan Tan'. Ah hah I thought another obscure masterpiece cobbled together by some old alcoholic expat in a Thai village. Judging by the cover (never do that) it looks like a Harlequin romance set in the mysterious East. There’s the exotic Asian woman in some sort of silk kimono thing and the besotted Western sailor on the ground wondering what he’s got himself into. So imagine my surprise when on closer inspection the authors turn out to be Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell! Brando of course is the well known actor who spent his later years on an island near Tahiti. But what was Cammell’s name doing there? Cammell was a film maker who directed ‘Performance’ starring Mick Jagger...a destructive little rude word according to Keith Richards in his autobiography ‘Life’. Intrigued I picked the book up...bought it and took it home. This could be good.
Well not exactly. It isn’t a cliché ridden load of rubbish but it comes perilously close. The year is 1927. Anatole ‘Annie' Doultry is a middle aged adventurer serving six months in Hong Kong prison where he befriends a well-connected Chinese pirate. Once out he meets and falls in love with Madame Lai Choi San the pirate’s beautiful boss. Together they sail around the China Seas on her sampan looking for treasure. They plan to attack a freighter full of silver, the biggest act of piracy the world has ever seen no less. One would think this might provide for some interesting character development. But Doultry is too much like Brando. He’s a man of action but his mind wanders all over the place like Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and his philosophical musing isn’t coherent. He has an aversion to authority of course, intellectual swashbuckling, that’s his game but he can’t stick to the plot. Here’s Annie on his bunk meditating…
“However though he was once a Scot, it was not the future of the city that bore on Annie Doultry’s brain, not the world’s either; his own future it was, or would be. The reality to be expected, the facts of it. But was there such a thing as future fact? There was one for Mr. Wittgenstein, indeed.”
Huh? There’s a kind of surreal madness about the book that kept me turning the pages but a lot of the writing is pretty bad. Mind you there are steamy sex scenes to make up for it. There’s plenty of action including a typhoon, intrigue and hand-to-hand combat. There’s even a reference to the famous butter scene in ‘Last Tango’ which should amuse movie buffs. It’s a strange book, full of perverse little asides. And it all takes place against a background of the revolution in China when the Nationalists and the Communists and others were forming temporary alliances.
To be fair it should probably be described as a screenplay rather than a novel. And it turns out that putting Brando’s name on the cover is a publishing trick. Cammell wrote it. In fact the best part of the book comes at the end where film writer David Thomson explains how the book came to be written. Cammell had tried to get Brando for ‘Performance’. Brando was in hospital at the time after scalding his private parts with hot coffee. Anyway he turned the offer down. Later, with Brando weighing about 300lbs due to ice-cream addiction Cammell tried again. They had a complex relationship. The book did get written but getting it published was another matter. Brando baulked again. Maybe he was ashamed of it or maybe he just enjoyed tormenting Cammell, anyway Brando died and Cammell shot himself. The twists and turns of the publishing process would make a good book in themselves I thought.