Fan-Tan by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell
Edited and with an afterward by David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf 2005
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
By the time of his cue-card-reading, dress-wearing performance in The Missouri Breaks (1976), Marlon Brando was officially, professionally eccentric. The second half of his career seemed a series of self-indulgent performances that were the dramatic equivalent of showing your backside to the audience. Who knew, then, that the man was a novelist?
As editor David Thomson says in his explanatory afterward, “It is not an uncommon fantasy among Hollywood’s great to think they could be writers only if they had the time, the patience, a pen, or the spelling.” We can leave the complex origin of this novel to Thomson, but suffice to say that, in the late seventies, Marlon and Donald Cammell—a bon vivant, sexual adventurer, and director of the iconic film Performance (starring Mick Jagger)—dreamed up a screenplay based on an idea of Marlon’s about a pirate’s adventures. The screenplay developed by fits and starts, and went nowhere. Cammell had the idea to turn the screenplay into a novel, which he did, with Marlon’s assistance. Brando held onto the rights and, after securing a hefty advance, killed the project for mysterious reasons, leaving Cammell feeling betrayed. Following the deaths of both parties, the novel has now been published from the original manuscript with additions by Thomson based on written ideas from Cammell.
As the story opens in 1927, we encounter the imposing Annatole “Annie” Doultry, a six-two, 220-pound hulk, “named Anatole for Monsieur France.” Born in Edinburgh in 1876, residing in the San Juan Islands in Washington state for sixteen years, his true home was the Sea Change. A two-masted trading schooner, ninety-two feet long, twenty-four in the beam, of ninety-six tons, built in 1892, the Sea Change had plied its arms trade to and from the Phillipines for two years. Assisted in these ventures by Bernardo “Barney” Patrick Hudson, his black first mate from Tupelo, Mississippi, Annie had been arrested over a little misunderstanding about smuggled guns.
On release, he is summoned to the house of Madame Lai Choi San, “a great femme and very fatale” She had a certain mechanical magnetism: “She was a beautiful piece of machinery. Her power-to-weight ratio was formidable, her structure delicate and highly stressed. Her movements were deft and authoritative without being brutal.”
She was also one of the most feared pirate leaders in Asia. She recruits Annie for a piratical caper on the scale of Ocean’s Eleven, and therein hangs a largely diverting tale.
The reader may wonder the extent to which Annie is based on Brando, based on the character’s size and physical description. There are certainly hints: “Whether stuffed to the brim or an aching pit of nothingness, this man’s stomach was the mother of most of his behavior, and his genitalia the father of the rest.”
Annie is also what may appear to be a habitual liar, but seems to be something slightly more complex: “As long as it was not present as a serious thought before he uttered it—or let us say, as long as it uttered itself—without reference to any visible points of truth, Annie was happy to say it. Of course, sometimes he made up answers that turned out to be true.”
Fan-Tan is indeed an outrageous sea story, with babes and pirates, drunkenness and sex. It has an undeniable charm, but is also uneven, both in its pacing and the quality of its prose. The opening chapters take far too long to set up the main action, and the syntax sometimes stops the story dead. Here is a man introducing himself to Annie: “But while thinking of it, he was irresistibly propelled by convention toward Annie, with that smile broadening behind which his fear blossomed all in a fragrant bunch, and he leaned over Annie’s table and stuck out his hand.”
Annie’s penchant for lying results in this beaching up on the page: “Untruth was a violin on which he played like a Paganini of bunkum.” However, other parts of the story, fuelled by the authors’ delight in all things about the sea, are interesting and well-handled.
The mysterious title refers to a Chinese gambling game (not to be confused with the card game of the same name). The narrator claims that it is a game whose charm lay part “in its limpid simplicity, part in its rigorous dealings with the laws of chance, part in the rites of its justice.” The game doesn’t succeed, as far as I can tell, in having any thematic significance for the action, but instead provides a colorful page or two of exotic action.
Fan-Tan is basically a curio, and students of film, lovers of Brando, or those with a hankering for another tale of avarice and deceit on the high seas will want to have a look. Others can safely give this one a pass.