Friday, November 3, 2017

Forgotten Books: TAI-PAN by James Clavell (1966)

I've long considered Tai-Pan (along with Shogun) one of the two best books I've ever read. (My favorite book is Red Harvest, of course, but that doesn't make it the best). On this return trip, I read it with my ears, and its lustre remains undiminished. 

Tai-Pan one takes place in 1841, as the British take possession of the island of Hong Kong. (They've just concluded a small war, in which they sailed upriver to Peiking and forced the Manchu emperor to sign it over.) Our hero is Dirk Struan, head of a sea-going trading company whose main business is opium smuggling. (According the novel, the opium trade is what keeps the British government afloat. China had gained a stranglehold on the British economy by demanding nothing but bullion in payment for tea, but once traders started smuggling in opium from India, and demanding bullion in return, the trade balance swung in Britain's favor.) 

"Tai-Pan" is a term taken to mean "supreme leader," and Struan is not only Tai-Pan of his own company, but THE Tai-Pan of the China traders, because his is the supreme trading company. The Chinese have therefore taken to calling it the Noble House. (In the novel Noble House, a sequel taking place 120 years later, we learn that to the Chinese, "Tai-Pan" is a title given to the overseer of a whorehouse, and they are much amused by western barbarians using thinking it's a term of honor.) 

We're often in Struan's point of view, but a great deal of the book (I'm guessing at least three-quarters) is in the point of view of others. Many others. Some are Europeans, some Chinese, some Eurasians. All are richly developed characters, and all have their own secrets and motivations, and intricate roles in the plot.

The plot itself is masterful. There's always a big, compelling story question forcing you to read on, and by the time that question is resolved (to your great satisfaction), another equally powerful story question has you by the throat. It's just one hell of a great book.

I'm now on my second run through Noble House (also in audiobook form). It involves descendants of the characters in Tai-Pan, who still cast their giant shadows over Hong Kong. While I'm enjoying the plot and vast cast of this one, too, it's a lot longer than Tai-Pan (the Noble House audiobook runs 54 hours, versus 35 for Tai-Pan), and feels bloated. There are many digressions that seem unnecessary, and some scenes are as long as novelettes. Though I'm only a quarter of the way through, my feeling is that would be better at half the length. I'll let you know. 

Tai-Pan was made into a movie in 1986. Never seen it. I'd say it's about time.


Unknown said...

I loved these books long ago but have never reread them. I don't read long books these days.

Rick Robinson said...

This was the first Clavel novel I read, and I absolutely loved it. Later, Shogun took over as my favorite by him (I'm not a fan of Noble House). This is one I should re-read. I have that paperback around here somewhere.

George said...

My favorite Clavel novel is SHOGUN. I couldn't put it down! I have a LARGE PRINT edition of NOBLE HOUSE but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. TAI-PAN is first-rate!

Evan Lewis said...

Noble House in LARGE PRINT?? Jeez Louise, it must be 10,000 pages long.

Matthew Clark said...

I've always like Clavel's WWII novel about British POWs in the Pacific, KING RAT. And another good book about the Opium War in China is George MacDonald Fraser's FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON.

Ira Henkin said...

The movie version of Tai Pan was disappointing to me. By contrast, the miniseries version of Noble House was quite good