Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Masque of a Savage Mandarin

Philip Bedford Robinson Masque of a Savage Mandarin (1969)
I bought this specifically because Mark Hodder ordered me to do so. Read this, he barked on my facebook page, it's mental! I'm paraphrasing, but he communicated this recommendation with such conviction that I could only shrug, order a copy from Amazon, and hope that he hadn't been posting whilst three sheets to the wind.

Masque of a Savage Mandarin
is the work of an author who otherwise wrote only text books about computers, and does indeed seem to be one of those lost masterpieces you always hear about, just as Mark Hodder said it would be. It's science-fiction in so much as it probably wouldn't quite fit into any other category, but shares some common features with earlier allegorical novels such as Huysman's Against Nature*, or even the work of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and those guys. The Mandarin of the title is an enlightened individual - at least on his own terms - one who seeks to elevate a neighbour by experimenting on him, by destroying both the man's ego and the societal conditioning which limits his behaviour, effectively performing a lobotomy by means of a pseudo-scientific machine which sends invisible rays through the apartment wall that divides them.

It's darkly comic, thoroughly engaging, and exceptionally well-written - so well-written that the fact of this being Robinson's only novel is baffling. I suppose one distinguishing feature of greatness is knowing to say nothing when you've already said it all, which is at least consistent with the quality of this solitary work. When I say comic, I mean to invoke the kind of wry humour associated with Peter Cook or Tony Hancock, whom I name because Masque of a Savage Mandarin seems similarly tied to its era, and might even be read as a distant, more philosophical relative to Hancock's The Rebel in some respects, not least in its pursuit of the absurd. It appears to represent a response to the decade in which it was written, and specifically to the then recently popularised notion of humanity on the verge of some great evolutionary surge, a mystic revelation to be brought forth in all that stuff about the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. The Mandarin is in some small way attempting to force this great evolutionary surge on his hapless neighbour, but of course destroys the man in the process, the foundation of his aspiration being built upon an illusory understanding of the world. At least that's how it seemed to me, and it's a lot funnier than I've made it sound.

This really is a wonderful book, and I have no idea why I should only have heard of it this year.

*: As distinct from the one I wrote which is available here and you need to buy right away, unless you've already bought it in which case you probably need a second copy by now; and in case you're "waiting for the paperback" (as were a number of my friends who obviously were no longer quite so close as to bother reading the fucking link), this is the paperback. If you can't be arsed, just say so for fuck's sake. Great news, Loz - I'll definitely want one when the paperback comes out blah blah blah... wankers. Consider yourselves off my Christmas card list, fuckers.

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