ALL THE TEA IN CHINA by Kyril Bonfiglioli


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Do not burst a kishka trying to believe what I am writing: just enjoy."" The saga of a Catskill comic? A Hester Street hilarity? No, strangely enough, this is an 1840s swash and buckle, but, by making his narrator-hero a wily Dutch Sephardic Jew who's been to London, the stylish Mr. Bonfiglioli has given himself the license to be pretty eclectic in his restrained tongue-in-cheekiness--sometimes Yiddische, sometimes Dickensian, sometimes dourly Dutch. Carolus (Karli) Van Cleef must leave home for the standard lust-gone-awry reasons, so he's off to England with some of his mother's long-treasured Delftware. With the aid of a Pickwickian tea tycoon (an incomparable glutton), Karli steals enough time from his wenching to do handily in the porcelain trade (he's a mama-trained expert), but soon the bigger fortunes in opium and Chinese china call him seaward: a clipper to the Orient. Also on board are a fatalistic, syphilitic young blueblood (Karli's crony), the Captain's deflowerable va-va-voom wife (who's been led to believe that lovemaking is just a matter of whips and self-abuse), and the hateful bugger Lubbock--Karli's arch-enemy. Pirates, mutiny, shipwreck, a trek through Boer country, a tribal sojourn with Hottentots. . . . The picaresque usual, in fact, but rolled along with enough easy wit and neat detail and endless food to entice even some landlubbers. It must be said, however, that most of the natural audience for this sort of period charm will be sorry to see Karli leave the London art-and-commerce for the Errol-Flynnanigans; and the fans of straightfaced high-seasonings may not appreciate the Bonfiglioti banter. A sequel seems likely from the finale here--may it stay closer to shore.

Pub Date: May 31st, 1978
Publisher: Pantheon