After finishing “Shogun”, I was eager to see how author James Clavell would keep the momentum going in“ Tai-Pan ”(1966), the second novel in his“ Asian Saga ”series. Needless to say, Clavell has produced yet another epic historical fictional adventure filled with thrilling characters, poignant themes, amazing detail, and a narrative you’ll contemplate long after you’re done.
Set in 1841, the novel begins at an inflection point in the First Opium War between Britain and Imperial China, when the British had just secured the country that would become Hong Kong. The tale follows the exciting business adventures and political intrigue of a Scottish merchant, junkyard, opium smuggler and general charmer known as Dirk Straun. Dirk is the “Tai-Pan,” or head of the Noble House, Asia’s richest trading company. His company is in fierce competition with the second best company, Brock & Sons, run by its big rival, Tyler Brock. The two companies are engaged in a fight to outsmart the other in order to gain the favor of inept and opium addicted Governor General William Longstaff. Each also tries to gain influence with Chinese traders and emissaries but, above all, to be the richest man in Asia.
Dirk and Tyler are both deeply selfish men, accomplices, straightforward and power hungry; yet, in their own way, each has unique qualities that show their humanity. For Dirk, it’s his unwavering love for one of his many wives, May-May, and the impeccable standards he upholds for his son from his first marriage, Culum. As for Tyler, his commitment to his family and his passion for the good of his children, no matter the personal cost or indiscretion he faces, is simply breathtaking and baffling. Their characters alone make “Tai-Pan” worth reading, creating suspense around what each will do next and the bridges they are willing to cross in the realm of moral ambiguity. In combination with their compelling personalities, you will also fall in love with them even if you know you shouldn’t.
Much like in “Shōgun”, in addition to the stories of the main characters, the narrative takes on many other equally enjoyable perspectives. Some come from disgruntled sailors who have been stranded or humiliated by Dirk and Tyler. Others are derived from the swashbuckling pirates who harass the waters of the South China Sea near Hong Kong. There are also tales of ambitious lovers who seek to manipulate others for their own benefit and immoral artists whose actions show the extent of artistic freedom. Perhaps my favorite perspectives come from the Chinese characters: merchants, partners, and disgruntled children who act naive but are cunning, unsuspecting actors subtly indulging in ingenious machinations, just like their European counterparts.
“Tai-Pan” is worth reading for its relevance to topical issues ranging from colonial oppression to political subterfuge and questions of moral relativity. Throughout the novel there is an omnipresent conversation on colonial events, oppression and exploitation in Asia, as almost every European figure validates while every Chinese figure condemns the practice – though they also do not reject their vision of a bigger empire. Additionally, the extent to which the characters are willing to engage in a plotline is remarkable, and it highlights the type of stab in the back, transactional nature of the policy and Corruption scandals found in most places today. Additionally, the novel poses reflective questions about how we build our moral foundations, forcing us to contemplate what centers our humanity and decide whether our sometimes rigid standards regarding alcohol use, infidelity, or blasphemy. worth respecting.
To contrast political and moral dilemmas, Clavell weaves emotional topics that balance Machiavellian issues by examining what constitutes true love. Dirk’s experience with May-May is a testament to the discovery of true love, as he is always ashamed of the affection he feels for his wife, simply because of his own internalized racism.
May-May and Dirk’s relationship is complex, at times toxic, and a fascinating look at how racism can corrupt a relationship. Dirk is worried about disturbances that could arise in his public life if he officially recognizes her, as his European counterparts would look down on him. Already criticized by his friends and enemies for adopting several Chinese lifestyles, Dirk puts aside his love for May-May as it is beneficial to his social status, thus allowing his own racism to come in between. . This dynamic permeates the entire novel until the end, leaving the reader torn on how to perceive their relationship.
What I love most about “Tai-Pan” is that it excelled in the same aspect that made “Shōgun” an exquisite tale – it perfectly illustrated the divisions, the lack of communication and the lack of communication. understanding between the cultures of the East and the West. . Throughout “Tai-Pan”, Cavell portrays the cultural partitions of the world perfectly without making one seem inferior or superior to the other. Instead, its characterization implies that they are simply two halves of the same whole that lack exposure to each other. It’s Clavell’s determination to demonstrate that we should all experience cultivating each other without prejudice to become better human beings that solidifies the novel’s timelessness.
Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” is nothing less than a brilliant extension of the frame laid out for readers in “Shōgun”. In its best moments, “Tai-Pan” offers us a glimpse into the kind of political intrigue that characterized the colonial period of the 1800s, underscoring the vivid and frightening disconnect between the colonizers and the colonized. The novel portrays the enduring nature of true love and the gradual acceptance of other cultures that flow from it in a way that will touch your heart. In short, “Tai-Pan” is a thrilling non-stop adventure of love, loss, deception and conflicting worlds that leaves me eager to see how it all unfolds in the upcoming “Gai-Jin” novel.
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.