Fan-Tan is less a novel (or more precisely, novelization of an unproduced screenplay) than a candygram from the gods of Eccentricity. A collaboration between the late Marlon Brando (once great actor turned barely walking public joke) and the late Donald Cammell (cult demi-legend behind Performance and the far-less-seen director’s cut of the glorious psychosexploitation traumedy Wild Side), the book’s as defiantly anachronistic as it is diverting.
An ad hoc vaudevillian mixture of Shanghai Gesture orientalia, “Terry and the Pirates” (there is a sexy, piratical dragon lady called Madame Lai), and countless seafaring pulp stories that lodged in Brando’s youthful brain, Fan-Tan has a surprisingly deft soft-shoe touch. It was developed via the actor’s improvisations, where he’d do all the characters, and which Cammell then fleshed out as a somewhat rambling, pleasingly discursive narrative. Set in the 1920s, it follows a late-middle-aged rogue named Anatole “Annie” Doultry (“rhymes with poultry”) from his incarceration in Hong Kong’s Victoria Gaol through his inducement to join a band of Chinese cutthroats for a spot of high-sea robbery.
Whatever the degree of Brando’s participation/ inspiration, Cammell seems to have fondly rendered a key portion of the thespian’s prankish inner life and self-image with accuracy: “Untruth was a violin on which he played like a Paganini of bunkum.” That con-man streak is well honored here; between the prison cockroach races and speakee-funny dialects and the infantile sensuality, there is a well-judged sense of how much poor Marlon wanted to escape the tragic confines of Brando-hood. The book’s energy wanes as it gets tangled in the anemic thickets of plot, and by the time the last chapter rolls around (left unfinished and rather too archly sketched in by editor David Thomson), it is dead in the water. Still, it leaves a sweet tang of the garbled fantasies infecting movie dreamers—quixotic, undaunted, doomed from the word go.