Lost at Sea

Reviewed by Louis Bayard
Sunday, August 28, 2005


By Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell

Knopf. 249 pp. $23.95

What a twisted provenance is this! We begin in 1979, with Marlon Brando pitching a movie idea to British film director Donald Cammell: a South China Sea pirate story, to be titled "Fan-Tan," featuring an outsized fifty-something hero with a marked resemblance to a certain increasingly outsized actor. Working at Brando's home on Teti'aroa, the actor and director hash out a 165-page film treatment. To whet the interest of backers, Cammell then converts the treatment into a novel, which British publisher Sonny Mehta agrees to publish -- until Brando, at the 11th hour and with the capriciousness that marks so many of his relationships, pulls the plug on the whole project.

Decades pass. So, too, do Cammell and Brando. Their manuscript is resurrected by Cammell's widow and lateraled to the estimable film critic David Thomson for editing and completing. Mehta, now with American publisher Knopf, steps forward once more to publish the book, and so, courtesy of three authors (only one alive), the remains of this ancient opus come washing up on our shores.

It is the wreck you would expect. It is also the wreck you wouldn't expect -- an exceedingly strange, high-stepping, low-stooping tale that pulses fitfully with talent -- all of it Cammell's. This now-obscure figure from cinema's fringes ("Performance" and "Demon Seed" are among his credits) had, it seems, the makings of a fine novelist.

Unfortunately, to prove it, he had to work against the grain of the scurvy sea yarn he and Brando had cooked up. Hard work, to be sure, since Brando sits so heavily atop everything in the person of Anatole ("Annie") Doultry, a Scottish-American ship captain who, between running arms shipments, ponders Wittgenstein and plays stride piano with his first mate, Barney. During a brief incarceration in Hong Kong's Victoria Gaol, Annie impulsively lies to save one of his fellow inmates from the gallows. His reward upon being sprung is the attention of the inmate's employer, Madame Lai Choi San, a "beautifully striking" flower of China and a full-blooded pirate, born and bred to the business. The madame has a hankering to relieve the British-owned ship Chow Fa of its cargo of silver bullion and wants Annie to be her inside man. Will Annie go along? Will the madame get her silver? Will the two of them get it on?

More troubling than any of those questions: Why does a novel written in the early 1980s feel like something that had lain at the bottom of the sea for half a century prior? I will only say that it's been a long time since a character walked into a bar and asked for "the fat man" -- and that I was in no way surprised to find Mr. Fat smoking a cigar and getting a massage. In the old days, this would have been a B-flick with George Raft and Anna May Wong and would have run right after "The March of Time" and before the Ginger Rogers feature. No doubt, audiences of that era would have excused its more outlandish plot turns (a character is killed by a bullet that ricochets off his own gun and into his mouth) and its embarrassing racial dialects ("De wind still blowin' dat way, dose nor'easters gon' ketch her upside her quarter an' we gonna make two hundred mile a day cross dat Injun sea, Cap").

Hard to say, though, what any audience would make of Annie, who is explainable only as an aging star's wish fulfillment: "a large man and terribly thick of thew," with a "great hairy pampas" of a chest and a lovingly fetishized penis that dwarfs all pretenders. (Annie even uses it to urinate on a vanquished foe in a scene that hails from the outer precincts of gay porn.) Fan-Tan makes pretty clear how Brando saw himself. It also makes clear, in flashes, how Cammell saw him: "Annie had no shame for his perversity. It was immense, and pointless. . . . Untruth was a violin on which he played like a Paganini of bunkum. He lied for the dear loveliness of it and with as much devotion as others purport to give to the church of fact."

That sharp-eyed and, indeed, prescient view of his collaborator is one of the signs that Cammell was already pulling against the original concept. Maybe he got waylaid by boyhood memories of Maugham and Conrad, or maybe it was just the itch to make something that actually belonged on a bookshelf, but he couldn't quite deliver Brando's ideas unadorned. Every line bears his own dervish spin. A sea "drawing back like an immense hand." A character's eyes "like weevil holes in a drum of Dutch cheese." A prisoner "who could no longer hear himself except as cello notes in his own bones." Again and again, we feel the excitement of a film director falling in love with the written word, wanting to color with it as he'd once colored with images.

And if this zesty prose never produces a correspondingly lively book, blame it on the project's fundamentally misbegotten nature. Fan-Tan , from the outset, was the vehicle for one man's vanity; a hack writer might, in a way, have done it more justice -- squeezed it for what it was worth and moved on. Cammell was not that hack; it was both his triumph and his tragedy. The rest of his career, according to David Thomson's empathetic afterword, described a downward spiral of scotched hopes (including another ill-fated venture with Brando). His last film, "Wild Side," was so mauled by studio suits that Cammell pulled his name off the credits. On April 24, 1996, at the age of 62, he shot himself in the head. "He lived for forty-five minutes," his widow recalls, "in a state of clarity and ecstasy that was, for me, unimaginable. He spoke nearly continuously, recounting people, places, and plans. Finally, the room seemed to fill with light, and he died." ยท

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company