Reviewed: James Clavell’s Noble House

"The Epic Novel of Modern Hong Kong"

James Clavell’s Noble House is a novel about one week in the life of a Hong Kong business executive in 1963.  And it’s 1370 pages long.

No, wait, don’t stop reading!  That wouldn’t have enticed me, either, but it’s actually one of the most fascinating and exciting things I’ve ever read.  It’s full of espionage, drug gangs, political plots, natural disasters, kidnapping, hostile takeovers, seduction, ancient oaths being called into fulfillment…and, yes, quite a few business negotiations.

A story this large and detailed could be approached from many angles (I’d love to discuss its use of Chinese words and phrases–this book is packed with Chinese culture and treats it with unreserved reverence), but the biggest surprise for me was just how political Noble House is.

I guess I should have expected it.  The book is dedicated “as a tribute to Her Britannic Majesty, Elizabeth II, to the people of Her Crown Colony of Hong Kong—and perdition to their enemies.”  So the author’s perspective is pretty clear from the get go.

Noble House is a cold war novel—communist spies and leftist traitors abound.  What makes it especially intriguing is that it’s a book about the first half of the cold war, just months before the Kennedy assassination, but written in the second half of the cold war, published in 1980.  Reading it in 2011, twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, provides a history lesson, but also allows the reader to look back on cold war ideas from a safe distance.

James Clavell thus has characters wax eloquent every now and then on the future Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in the year 1997, the foolishness of escalating forces in Vietnam (which he could see in hindsight), and the importance of America maintaining its control of the Panama Canal (which the U.S. gave away on December 31, 1999).  There are even arguments about the effects of the birth control pill on the next generation.

Sometimes today we hear of the British conflict with Egypt in 1956, from which the U.S. abstained, as a reference point for the current war on terrorism.  1980’s Noble House contains a reference:

“Oh!  You mean the 1956 fiasco when Eisenhower betrayed us again and caused the failure of the British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt—because Nasser had nationalized the canal?”

“Yes.  That cost us a fortune—it wrecked our Middle East interpreters, almost ruined us.  If the previous tai-pan [supreme leader of the company] had known about a possible closure of Suez we could have made a fortune booking cargo space—increasing our fleet…or if we’d had an advanced insight into American thinking, particularly that Eisenhower would side with Soviet Russia against us, we could certainly have cut our losses.”  (191—all page numbers refer to current mass market paperback edition)

Now there’s an opinion we don’t often hear.

At one of the novel’s big parties, tai-pan Ian Dunross debates with some visiting British politicians:

Grey jeered.  “You mean free to exploit the workers.  Well, never mind, when Labour gets in at the next election we’ll change all that.”

“Come now, Robin,” Sir Charles said.  “Labour hasn’t a prayer at the next election.”

Grey smiled.  “Don’t bet on it, Sir Charles.  The people of England want change.  We didn’t all go to war to keep up the rotten old ways.  Labour’s for social change—and getting the workers a fair share of the profits they create.”

Dunross said, “I’ve always thought it rather unfair that Socialism talks about the ‘workers’ as though they do all the work and we do none.  We’re workers too.  We work as hard if not harder with longer hours an—“

“Ah, but you’re a tai-pan and you live in a great big house that was handed down, along with your power.  All that capital came from some poor fellow’s sweat, and I won’t even mention the opium trade that started it all.  It’s fair that capital should be spread around, fair that everyone should have the same start.  The rich should be taxed more.  There should be a capital tax.  The sooner the fortunes are broken up the better for all Englishmen.”  (596)

Then there’s a bit about the decline of the British Empire.  So not much is new under the sun, eh?  As I said, it’s interesting to read this in a post-Margaret Thatcher world.

Of course, that liberal MP (member of parliament) later turns out to be a Soviet stooge (just one small surprise in a novel full of Byzantine twists).  While meeting with come communist superiors, he says:

“You know I’m not a Communist, and never have been one,” Grey said.  “I don’t approve of a police state.  I’m totally convinced our British democratic socialism’s the way of the future—Parliament, elected officials and all that it stands for—though a lot of Marxist-Leninist ideas are very worthwhile.”  (855)

Not subtle, but such persons surely existed, and still do.  I wonder what Robin Grey would think of Europe in 2011, and the economic crises that his beloved social-democratic state has engineered.

Indeed, page 646 has a high-ranking traitor from Dunross’s company meeting with a Soviet official, who confides that the communist world’s strategy is to bankrupt the United States by encouraging it to develop as much debt as possible.  “Why should we fight them when their own greed and stupidity’s destroying them,” he asks.

And this was printed in 1980.  Thirty years later, its prescience almost boggles the mind.  Our debt situation hasn’t exactly gotten better in that time.  The USSR might be gone, but if this was (and is?) our enemies’ strategy, I wonder who’d be left standing when the dust settles.

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2 comments on “Reviewed: James Clavell’s Noble House

  1. >> “I’d love to discuss its use of Chinese words and phrases–this book is packed with Chinese culture and treats it with unreserved reverence”

    Please do discuss this.
    A number of reviewers who said they were from China or HK, said that the book is wildly inaccurate as to chinese culture, chinese attitudes to foreigners, relationships, love and sex, and the way the chinese actually talk, and said Clavell is totally wrong on a lot of these issues. Interesting to find out the truth.

    From personal knowledge, I can say that his Russian phrases/ names are quite wrong/illiterate (i.e. the author obviously did not bother checking his alleged russian with any experts), so interesting if the same attitude holds true for chinese.

    • I really don’t know, Alex, so thanks for offering this info. The story is detailed and complex, but I have no way of knowing how accurate everything is. It is very interesting, though.

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