Forget your invasions, your battles and sieges: the most exciting theme to come out of the entire back-catalogue of Empire fiction is TRADE! Tea, silks, spices and of course opium were what kept the Empire ticking over, providing shedloads of cash to fuel the growing worldwide British conquests of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Military takeovers, after all, are expensive, messy affairs that are of little use on their own, and of course the British engaged in these only when they absolutely had to (though they proved extraordinarily good at it, over and over again…). But when TRADE was involved, well roll up your red-sleeves, private, because you’re going to be sent in to sort out those fuzzy-wuzzies and teach them how to make some economic use of their land… at the point of a bayonet, of course.
If ever a book will make you believe (even for the span of a mere 700 pages) that stock markets and tea prices can be as exciting as battles and wars, it’s Tai-Pan.
I’ve always been suspicious of these chunky, doorstop historical novels that promise ‘epic, sweeping’ tales that follow the fortunes a cast of characters more numerous than the medals on a tinpot dictator’s chest. Partly it’s because they usually fall into the ‘airport novel’ category for me, what with their authors’ names embossed in gold text larger than the title. I know this is largely down to literary snobbery on my part; the thought that the idea of a book should always take precedent over, y’know, telling an entertaining story. And if a book is marketed towards people who care more about who the author is than what the book is about (cough cough James Patterson), than the idea can’t be up to much.
I’ve always been haunted by this anecdote from my brother’s bookshop-working days:
Customer: I’m looking for something by James Patterson. I love him.
Brother: No problem. His books are over here. Which ones have you read already?
Customer: (looking at books) Eh… I’m not sure. I can’t remember.
Partly too, my suspicion down to the books’ enormous length. I usually admire conciseness in writing and storytelling, and the whole Victorian-author-being-paid-by-the-word style has never struck me as a good way to produce literary quality. Of course, their insane length is what allows these books to be epic and sweeping, as they claim to be. Still, why they have to be heavier than a bad date at an arthouse cinema is still somewhat mystifying to me.
James Clavell does not come to me without some baggage, either. As a kid, I was enthralled and saddened by his weirdo cod-Japanese fantasy Thrump-O-Moto, an insane picture-book fable about an Australian girl on crutches who hangs out with a tiny Japanese wizard-in-training. If I recall, it has a leprechaun in it, and a villain with the hilarious name of Nurk-U The Bad.
While in university, I tried really hard to read Shogun, which is probably the novel that most people know him for (it was made into a successful TV miniseries in 1980). The book promised an ‘epic, sweeping’ tale of Japan in the 1600s, but despite being based heavily on the fascinating real-life story of William Adams, the ‘English Samurai’, I found it an interminable snoozefest. I can proudly say that it remains unfinished by me to this day.
So is it any wonder that Tai-Pan sat on my shelf for close to six months (albeit inclusive of two moves of house)?
Well I’m sure glad I gave Clavell another shot, because Tai-Pan is one of the most enjoyable doorstops I’ve ever spend a month of my life with.
The setting is China in early 1841. The British have just wound up the first Opium War, ensuring themselves many more years of merrily providing the Chinese with the killer, life-destroying drug. As part of the reparations (how dare the Orientals try to outlaw the importation of such a product!), Britain has acquired the barren, uninhabited island of Hong Kong. While some see little merit in this, its deep natural harbours and closeness to the mainland are seen as a blessing by others, in particular the giant Scottish trader Dirk Struan, Tai-Pan (or boss) of the Noble House trading company.
Struan is a mountain of a man, in body, personality and influence. The many plots in the book revolve around him, and the book twists history into making it seem as if Struan deliberately manipulated the Chinese and British into going to war, as part of a deliberate scheme to acquire Hong Kong. The cast of characters mostly stems from Struan: his mistresses, sons (legitimate and illegitimate), his business partners, rivals and enemies. This is Empire-building as seen from the point of view of the businessman rather than the soldier, though Struan has long-term plans for the company that might one-day affect the entire practise of colonialism.
The most fascinating aspect of Tai-Pan is its world-building. I’m hard-pressed to think of another work which so well conjures-up the detail and minutia of a forgotten time. Absolutely nothing about the lives of the Europeans in 1840s China seems familiar; not the way they talk, think or act. It’s almost impossible to imagine how Clavell would have acquired enough information to build this fictional society from research- unless of course, he’s making it all up. The nuances of contemporary trade and politics are entered into in more detail than in most similar works. The characters rarely feel like thinly-disguised 20th-century people in period grab, partly because the book was written in 1966, before the uber-PC standards that we’re now used to came about. As a result, Tai-Pan feels like a genuinely different world, full of characters whose morals and mindsets are utterly alien to us.
Even the length of the book didn’t bother me too much; it rarely becomes dull. It’s true that the much-maligned ‘who-will-be-best-dressed-at-the-ball’ subplot drags on for what seems like hundreds of pages, but it rarely dominates the other, better material. There’s so much good stuff going on- pirates, suspicious Russians, Chinese secret societies- that there’s always something to keep you reading. I would have appreciated some more strong Chinese characters, mind.
Clavell has a whole pile of other books that follow the fortunes of the Noble House over the next 150 years. It probably won’t be anytime soon, but I might one day be persuaded to take on another such behemoth again.