James Clavell is probably best known for the first installment of his Asian saga, Shogun. The fictional epic which was later made into a television serial brought to light Clavell’s immense knowledge of Japanese culture and meticulous attention to detail. He described ceremonies and customs which were still relatively unknown to most westerners at the time and through fiction scrutinized traditional Japanese mentality. It is with same scrupulous intention that Clavell approached Tai-Pan, his second episode in the saga.
In Tai-Pan, China takes the center stage. The story unfolds as the war between Great Britain and China is neutralized by the handover of a small island called Hong Kong to the British. The island provides the backdrop to this tale of a man’s hunger and struggle for power. Clavell ingeniously brings to life characters that personify human natures strengths and weaknesses and through them he represents the culture and mentality of Chinese and British alike, living in the 1800’s. His knowledge of the era and the culture baffles me and I must concede that he must be a qualified historian apart from being an extremely talented fiction writer. Within the entrails of an awesomely entertaining story he manages to enlighten the reader with facts and particulars about China that are stimulating and educational to date.
The main character in Tai-Pan would be Dirk Struan, the hard driven English trader fighting to stay on top of the game and maintain his Tai-Pan status. He is surrounded by an assortment of equally charismatic and colorful characters that existed at the time. My favorite character would have to be Struan’s Chinese mistress, May-may. She is a feisty young woman who is somber in public and a wild tiger behind closed doors. I especially appreciate the manner in which Clavell has ‘gotten into’ her mind and psyche. The story is not written from one particular person’s point of view but rather as it progresses we get to sit in each character’s head and experience their thoughts, logic, and reasoning. May-may is so fascinating to me because she looks at situations from the Chinese perspective as well as trying to understand the beliefs and actions of her lover, Struan. She raises conflicts regarding faith in Christianity versus traditional Chinese beliefs in their Gods. She manages to do this in most cases with such lightheartedness and innocence that one can not help but find her lovable and amusing. She also represents the more provocative views society held over the roles of mistresses. This is just one of the aspects in Tai-pan that I felt was apparent in the Far East today.
Clavell begins to build his epic tale with the apparently simple creation of heroes and villains with traits poles apart, but soon enough the characters begin to crack and expose their souls within, each a victim of their own flaws and merits. Even the most seemingly despicable people show some grace, which I believe is an accurate portrayal of human beings in general. No person is completely 2 dimensional and James Clavell brings a 3 dimensional scale to his conceptions. The story itself comes into a slow climb at the start; in fact I would say it begins with a quick drop when the hero, Struan, looses all his wealth. The deliberately unhurried ascension that follows is where the excitement and marrow of the story lay. A meticulously well thought out safety net not only prevents Struan from being consumed by his enemies and business competition, but also lays the foundation for a whirlwind of an adventure to come. Once this plan is set in place the story takes off like a rollercoaster dropping over the peak.
This mass of a book, over 700 pages, was not as much of an effort to get thorough as I first expected. Once I got past the first hundred pages I was captivated. The high voltage battles on the high seas, battered ships struggling against ruthless squalls, and men forced to battle with each other to save face bring color and energy to this novel. The vivid descriptions of the food, aromas, bars, brothels, and country sides are all done in a manner unique to Clavell and strengthen the institution of Tai-Pan. The story did not slow down at all! As a matter of fact, when I got towards the end I was wondering how the author was going to tie up loose ends. The action, mystery, and intrigue would just not let up. It lasted till the very last page. In a way I was a bit disappointed that so many issues were left unattended to but being a saga, I presume they will be pivotal in the following novels. There are so many characters that Clavell gave birth to as well that yet have to feature. And you can tell from the role they played that in future their presence will be felt.
I am excited to work my way through the rest of this series. Unfortunately I will not be going to HK for a while so I have started on another book till then, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. But Tai-Pan is something you have to check out when you are in the mood for a good adventure. I could write so much more about it if my finger did not hurt so fucking much and if I could give the story away.