Work Title: All the Tea in China
Work Author(s): Kyril Bonfiglioli
The Overlook Press
272 pages, Hardcover, $23.95
Reviewer: Peter Skinner
Those far-sighted enough to have snapped up Overlook Press's 2005 re-issue of the Mortdecai Trilogy---Kyril Bonfiglioli's powerfully comedic, high-octane send-ups of the bon-viveur-cum-sleuth detective story---may have hoped that this fine-tuned souffle chef of an author would turn out a steak-and-the-works banquet of a book. He did.
All the Tea in China, set in the 1840s, is a rollicking, picaresque travelogue account of the adventures of Karli Van Cleef, an ever-optimistic Dutch-born Jewish scoundrel in his twenties. The story is fast-forward. Young Karli leaves Holland in a hurry for the all-too-usual reason. "Adoption" on arrival by an exuberantly generous tea-merchant right out of the world of Robert Surtees, the Victorian serial comic novelist, enables Karli to open a porcelain shop. Selling his mother's gift of Delftware is only a beginning; ambition soars, the lucrative opium trade beckons, and Karli becomes an on-board partner on an opium-buying voyage that takes him to India and China, but back---after the required pirate attacks, typhoons, mutiny, and assorted derring-do---overland via Africa.
Bonfiglioli's great gift is the ability to re-energize the form. He canters past such still-rewarding worthies as Richard Dana and Captain Marryat, and his cast of sharply drawn characters makes those of Robert Louis Stevenson seem like Sunday School lads. And what a range he has: a foppish porcelain-purchasing peer ("I've skimmed the cream a bit, what?"), a murderous captain ("hold your tongues, you dogs"), a young aristocrat serving as third mate ("I am a ruined man...the Great Pox"), an African cook who could teach Cesar Ritz a thing or two. And, of course, there's a woman at every turn who is God's gift, not to mankind, but to Karli.
The prose is as colorful as the narrative: "The East India Docks presented a scene of indescribable confusion; it was as though the Tower of Babel had collapsed alongside the Slough of Despond" may not rival Herman Melville on New York Harbor, but concisely evokes the cacophony-amid-squalor that characterized London's Victorian docklands. India's commercial heart receives an unexpected put-down: "Calcutta was a disappointment,...temples adorned with carvings...explicit in their...