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.
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 indecency…where were the scented arbors, the jeweled birds? Despite playful hints of parody and pastiche, all Bonfiglioli’s writing is grounded in solid history, often arcane or esoteric but always apposite and rewarding.
Bonfiglioli’s background was a useful springboard for his mid-life decision to become a one-of-kind author: “Of Italo-Slovene descent, son of an antiquarian bookseller,” he led a fast-moving, erratically financed life, with Army service in Africa, some teaching, a late-entry Oxford education, the acquisition of a Rolls-Royce and expensive tastes, avant-garde journalism, science-fiction publishing, and a 15-year stint of picture- and antiques-dealing—all the time a genial host, generous friend, and unrelenting autodidact. At 42 he left Oxford, living first in Lancashire, then Ireland and finally Jersey where he died in 1985, aged 57, three-times married and father of five children.
The Overlook Press has again come to the reader’s rescue in this most welcome new edition: the occasional much-sought-after $100 copy from the Pantheon printing of 1978 no longer turns up in the secondhand marketplace."