Saturday, January 24, 2009

James Clavelle - Tai-Pan

Taipan is the second book (chronologically) in James Clavelle's Asian Saga. Do not be fooled by the fact that it is linked to the rest of the series however; it is a stand-alone story that can be read regardless of what else you have read in the series, and make perfect sense.

James Clavelle's writing is always jarring to me initially, because he can be viewing the story from one characters point of view in one sentence, and then the next sentence be viewing it from another characters point of view. However, this is perhaps one of the strengths that gives his stories such power - every character has his say.

And that is the driving force behind his stories. Behind everything else that happens, every character is scheming, planning, and then scheming some more. But James Clavelle's characters are self serving and devious, and they are often planning things that will benefit themselves more than others - just like real human beings. Plans often go against the plans of others.

Yet the story is carried much by the planning and less by the execution, for James Clavelle artfully inserts plot twist after plot twist, driving the story in new and exciting directions with each passing chapter. Plans are often being reworked, put on the back burner, or discarded entirely. When reading his books, I am often reminded of the quote: "Man plans, and God laughs."

Tai-Pan takes place in the 1840s, following the 'Tai-Pan' of the Noble House, a british trading company. Tai-Pan means leader, and the leader of the Noble House is Dirk Struan, an irishman who has many alternate plans. He rules it with his half-brother, Robb; their main competitor is Brock and Sons, another trading company that is run by Tyler Brock and his son, Gorth Brock. Struan and Brock have long been embittered enemies and share a history ruled by hatred and revenge, scheming, wins and losses. Their rivalry drives much of the planning between these two characters.

Noble House and Brock and Sons are both Opium traders, trading with the Mandarins China through the port of Canton. Britain is attempting to open up the border to China, believing that it is the key to Asia, and world domination.

These are just a couple of the driving factors in the story - there are many more that come up during the course of the story - religion, penitance, forgiveness, revenge, nature, love, sex, marriage, global themes, etc...there is pretty much no stone left unturned. And this, too, helps lead to the fullness of the story and the characters.

Much like Shogun, the book starts in the middle of a story, and by the end of the book, there are so many threads going on that you don't know how James Clavelle could possibly wrap it up. And he does not attempt to try; this book is much like a snapshot of real life. There is no clean beginning and ending in any story, not with all the different factors and characters that become involved, and it becomes impossible to try and tie things up. So the book ends but the story is allowed to continue, in your mind, as you fathom how all the myriad of characters will respond to and move forward given the conditions at the end of the book, and what other events will occur that they will have to respond to before the book is over.

The following is a spoiler, so if you intend to read the book, DO NOT read any further!

At the end of the book, after all the scheming, planning, fighting against disease, etc., Dirk Struan is killed in a tai-fung storm, leaving all of his plans unfinished, and unlike my expectations, his life is not ended by Tyler Brock - their rivalry was ended by an indifferent force outside their control. All the different things that the book was coming towards come to a sweeping end in that book, as the british settlers in Hong Kong are forced to come to terms that their Tai-Pan, the man who seemed so immortal to them, has vanished. Many of his secrets remain unknown; many of his plans, even those closed to fruition, now lay in ruins; and there is much left that other characters were planning based on him. I believe by ending the book in this way, James Clavelle was making two statements: one being on the power and nature of the world (and with it, nature itself), no matter how immortal someone may be, they cannot control everything around them; and secondly, that no matter how powerful and god-like someone may appear, their life can still end at any time, unexpectedly - so it is best to do the things that you plan on as soon as possible, instead of doing the things that do not matter to you, before something you could not have expected comes along and ends your life.