Tai-Pan by James Clavell.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
The thing I suppose I needed most this year was a balls-out story of daring, legal piracy and hard-nosed colonialism in the service of personal riches and furthering the drug trade. Either that, or everything else going on was balls enough to make me believe that that kind of story would be great.
Enter James Clavell, from beyond the grave, holding a copy of his 1966 tome, wordlessly gesturing that I should get that into me.
I did, and I’m glad because if there’s anything that can distract from this year, it’s a doorstopper-sized tome about Bastards Being Bastards played out against the backdrop of 1840s China (including the nascent outpost of Hong Kong) and the oceans of the world.
Having inhaled Shōgun (and the excellently terrible miniseries adaptation) on a trip through Japan, I was well prepared for the way this novel would go. Tai-Pan was written before Shōgun – even though their positions are reversed if one is to read Clavell’s Asian Saga series in chronological order – and I think that it whips through the action a lot more quickly. Sure, Shōgun has a higher level of detail, but Tai-Pan is scrappier, leaner.
(As lean as a 700-page book can be, I suppose.)
A lot of that cracking energy comes from the titular Tai-Pan (or big cheese) of the work, Dirk Struan. He’s all action, all the time, whether he’s up to (authorised) freebooting or rooting. He’s a man of action, a trader, a sailor and a bloke with a long memory: a lot of the book is taken up with a long-awaited reckoning with his nemesis, Tyler Brock. But mostly, he’s presented as a more international bloke than the sort you’d picture given the time: he has a Chinese mistress, and – albeit in cringe-to-read-now pidgin English – communicates with locals more effectively than his competition in the import/export trade. He adapts Chinese ways more readily than others, bridging the gap between Britannia’s steel fist and the effective habits of the people who actually live where the novel is set and putting him ahead of the pack.
He is, of course, completely over the top, and it’s this that provides a lot of the friction in the work: he’s a Scottish giant who has Plans and Schemes, and who twists representatives of the Crown around his little finger. He’s a hard bastard, but one that’s stupidly enjoyable to read.
A friend on Twitter said that they’d always imagined this book was about an enormous snake, given the title. Immediately, the fact that Dirk Struan is relentlessly Scots attached itself to the image of a snake and somehow I ended up with an inability to imagine him as anything other than Sean Connery in Zardoz.
Which, as you can imagine, made for quite the read.
If you’re looking for historical veracity, you should probably give this one a pass. But if you’re looking for propulsive swashbuckling bullshit set in a hyperreal version of the past, then you could do far worse. It might not be something you’ll come back to, but the time taken to read will be well, if guiltily, spent.