Tai-Pan by James Clavell

Hello again everyone!

Ok. So I just finished this awesome book two minutes ago, that being Tai-Pan by James Clavell. This particular author has an interesting story in my family. Clavell used to be a favourite author of my dad’s, and back in the days when he spent his time fixing naval ships he used to take a few of Clavell’s books with him for the long and often quite dull trips. So, armed with that knowledge I eagerly scooped up three of Clavell’s books – Tai-Pan, King Rat and Shogun – at a second-hand book sale. I wasn’t too sure about them when I bought them over two years ago (yes, I procrastinate with books it’s a bad habit I really must work myself out of), but I’m glad that I bought them.

One of my favourite subjects in Modern History during my high school days was the East-India and China tea and opium trade. I remember doing the assignments with far too much excitement for a sixteen-year-old who just wanted to graduate with her sanity intact, and maybe a good OP as a bonus prize. Tai-Pan, coincidentally, is about the tea and opium trades, and the political tension between the traders and dealers. Ordinarily a book like this would send me to sleep in about five minutes, but not so with this one. It has so much colour and life to it that it pops off the page and beckons you, like a reveller, to join in with the party. And I couldn’t resist the invitation.

I started reading Tai-Pan right after reading The Requiem Shark by Nicholas Griffin (see post of same name), and given that Tai-Pan‘s story focuses heavily on the use of ships to trade goods (and lots of in-fighting between the traders, who has more power, and whose ship is better), it flowed nicely from one era of seafaring straight into the next. Or at least one close to it. It even has pirates, oddly enough, but rather than have these particularly nefarious individuals be the focus of the story it focuses on the trials and tribulations of two families – the Brocks and the Struans – and how they are in constant and sometimes violent competition with one another to make the most profit from the tea trade. Struan is referred to as the Tai-Pan, an honorary title that is awarded to the ruling house of traders which is called ‘the Noble House’, to match the head’s title. Brock is endlessly jealous of Struan’s position. His main goal is to be the next Tai-Pan, and he plans to do anything he can in order to get there. Unfortunately for Brock, Struan is not only smarter and more resourceful than he is but Brock’s compatriots aren’t exactly the brightest and often land him in more trouble than the venture is worth. Struan’s position has given him even more joss (read: luck) than he originally had in the eyes of the traders, and so most of his deals with the Chinese traders to get the tea and other goods go well. He even has a mistress, May-May, who frequently acts as an informer for him on the political situation of China. Sometimes these deals go bad though, and when they do its dramatic and very hard to prevent from exploding and having everyone kicked out of China for good.

One thing that stands out for me as a reader is Clavell’s intimate knowledge of the trading system. I won’t bore you all with an essay, but suffice to say it was almost as if I were a trader myself the amount of knowledge I took from the book.  Not only this, but the high quality of Clavell’s writing is simply astounding. For the most part, the book isn’t gripping. But, it’s very detailed and very, very, heavy. I mean that in the sense of the plot: many of the disputes between the traders are very weighty issues and often leave the fates of the characters in the balance. Life-against-life stakes. It’s almost as if Clavell has thrown two angry herds of bulls into a paddock and waved a red flag between them. The overall tension of the work ebbs and flows like the tide, and it switches between characters. Occasionally, the intrigue and the plotting and the ‘who’s going to try and kill so-and-so next’ became a little confusing and it was hard to keep up. Especially for characters who played two or three different roles in a number of different political spheres. Sometimes it even annoyed me that the characters couldn’t just sort it out and stop trying to kill each other. But then I remembered the time period and it made a lot more sense.

The second thing that really caught my attention – and not in a good way – was the method in which Tai-Pan was written. The book itself was published in 1966, and one thing I’ve found with many novels published during that time period- or even a decade before – is that they tend to utilise a lot of literary tropes that in the 21st century easily strike the reader as overused or cliché. One that particularly irked me was the action repetition between Brock and Struan. It was painfully constant. It even showed up in their children sometimes. The other – and probably the biggest – was the use of the ‘extremely convenient natural disaster’ to put everyone out of their misery. I mean that in the most literal sense; almost three quarters of the best and most important characters are killed off or put in the line of fire of a giant typhoon, which completely destroys Hong Kong but leaves the naval fleets mostly untouched. It seems that Clavell himself was getting tired of all the political to-ing and fro-ing and just decided to chuck a typhoon in there and make everyone suffer for better or for worse. There was a lot of action and excitement, but not much dynamism and the characters were constantly at war.

In terms of character development, most of the characters are too preoccupied with their own political agendas to bother with developing themselves. But, taking that statement into account, it’s interesting to note that the characters are so vibrant that they seem to walk out of the book and strut around the room in all their prowess and superiority. Some are even godlike – like Dirk Struan, who is endlessly commanding and is not one to be disobeyed lest he kills you. Others are simply there as comic reliefs, like Aristotle Quance. Even his name is comical. Tai-Pan is by and large a tapestry of different personalities and individuals, all working on the same canvas and probably all just trying to get along and make their own way. This is much like real-life is, and for once I’m not bored with the idea but intrigued.

Intriguing (and awesome) as it is, I have mixed feelings about it. It finished with a bang, that’s for sure, but a bang (or ten) doesn’t make a brilliant book and I feel that Tai-Pan may have lacked some substance. The focus wasn’t on character development, wasn’t on action, and wasn’t on political intrigue. It wasn’t really on anything; it focused on a bunch of different subjects and although it made a tapestry worthy of an art gallery the tapestry was stretched too thin and was too colourful to make any sense out of. Like modern art, it looks pretty but you wonder what it means, if it means anything at all. Maybe it’s a bunch of different morals, all interconnected and interwoven so that they themselves become a tapestry? Or maybe it’s meant to make us ask questions of life, and show us that there is always a reason to keep wondering why and keep asking questions, and just keep going no matter how confusing things get.

Either way, I do recall being distinctly reminded of some of my earlier attempts at writing. The lack of clear structure was what dragged it back to my conscious mind. And even if there was no clear intention, it reminded me never to forget how important structure and focus are in writing something.

I can’t say I would confidently recommend Tai-Pan. It’s one of those books that leaves you buzzed but upon thought dampens the buzz a little. It’s ok. It might surprise you, though, don’t take my word for it. I’m just one reader amongst billions.

That’s it from me for now. With a bookshelf fit to burst at the seams, and a half-finished degree, I have a lot to keep me occupied. But stop by, have a read, and maybe you’ll find something on these pages to spark your interest.

Don’t stop reading;

AdmiralCarter.

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