Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 18 News List

An impostor Taiwanese gets unmasked

Michael Keevak gives a stirring account of George Psalmanazar's big lie: that he was a native of Taiwan

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Pretend Asian
By Michael Keevak
182 pages
Wayne State University Press

In 1703 a man arrived in London and announced he was a native of Formosa. His name was George Psalmanazar. European missionaries, he claimed, had so named him at school. He also proclaimed that he'd decided, after examining all the world's religions, to join the Church of England. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and of typically European appearance. Almost everyone believed him.

He was immediately received by the Archbishop of Canterbury and dispatched to Oxford to instruct the professors in his previously unknown language. This he did, writing out the Lord's Prayer in it, listing an alphabet of 20 letters, and speaking fluently in both "Formosan" and Latin (taught to him, he said, by the Jesuits).

He quickly became a celebrity. He ate his meat raw, claiming this was the custom at home. Jonathan Swift mentions him in his celebrated pamphlet A Modest Proposal as "the famous Sallmanaazor, a native of the island of Formosa, who came from thence to London above 20 years ago and in conversation told my friend that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality as a prime delicacy" and more in similar vein.

As for his fair hair and skin, Psalmanazar explained that he was from the unexplored east coast of the island, and belonged to the aristocracy who lived underground in caves, with the result that their skin never became darkened by the sun.

The reality was that Psalmanazar was a European, possibly from Gascony or Spain, who'd never been further east than Germany. From childhood he'd had a marked flair for languages and, having invented one, decided to pass it and himself off as Formosan. (He'd earlier considered claiming it was Japanese).

Michael Keevak teaches at National Taiwan University and this is his second book. It's far better than his first, Sexual Shakespeare (reviewed in Taipei Times on Jan 27, 2002). The tone is more assured and the narrative pace swifter. The books are similar, however, in displaying an interest in forgeries, plagiarism and adopted personalities -- Sexual Shakespeare looked at faked portraits of the playwright as well as the career of the Shakespeare plagiarist William Henry Ireland.

One of Keevak's main points about Psalmanazar is that his driving force was his talent for languages. He not only invented one but made himself fluent in it, in the same way that he invented an identity and then inhabited it.

After his Formosan hoax had been largely discredited, Psalmanazar remained in London as a hack writer, laboring away on book reviews and other such menial tasks, and also made himself an authority on Hebrew. Keevak sees him as a penniless linguistic genius who needed to find a role in life, and stumbled on his Formosan hoax as a means to that end. Earlier in life he'd successfully passed himself off in continental Europe as a fugitive from Ireland.

Keevak has some interesting things to say about Psalmanazar's "regularity," his capacity for repressing his other impulses and working long hours at his penny-a-word journalism. It was this, together with the repentance for his fraud, that endeared him to Samuel Johnson who once described him as the best man he'd ever known.

He also admired the serene manner of Psalmanazar's death and despite Psalmanazar's earlier career as an impostor, he seemed to Johnson someone he'd never be able to equal.

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