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.  Continue reading

Japan and Disaster, Forever

They’re twins joined at the hip.  As the staggering magnitude of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami sink in, I’m reminded of just how deeply interwoven natural disasters are in Japanese history, even in the Japanese psyche. 

One of my favorite authors is James Clavell, whose Asian Saga begins with Shogun, a novel about a European sailor colliding with the samurai culture in 1600.  One of the book’s primary themes is that, even in a land of ultimate beauty, violent destruction crouches ready to surprise anyone at any time.  This produces the Zen philosophy that the Japanese lived by, and is evident in both the stoicism, nihilism, and lust for life on every page of the book. 

That mindset is seen in many scenes of brutal, random violence, but perhaps is nowhere better shown than at the end of chapter 38, where a sudden earthquake ravages the island.  Rather than try to produce a short quote, here are two pages of characters reacting right after the disaster:


I can’t find a good enough passage right now, but Clavell mentions a few times that the chaos of major catastrophe is a mainstay of Japanese life. 

Continue reading

A Bailout Lesson From The Past

Two days after the nationwide tea party protests, I’m sitting in an office waiting to be called up to the window.  As I pass the time reading, I come across this, during a conversation about hypothetically bailing out failing banks:

“But there’s no reason why any bank should do what you suggest, it never has in the past.  Each bank stands or falls on its own merits, that’s the joy of our free enterprise system.  Such a scheme as you propose would set a dangerous precedent.  It would certainly be impossible to prop up every bank that was mismanaged.”

–James Clavell, Noble House, 1981

Recommended Reading: Shogun

I haven’t posted anything in nearly a week largely because I’ve spent most of my spare moments engrossed in James Clavell’s epic Shogun.

I don’t remember the groundbreaking 12-hour 1980 TV miniseries based on Shogun, but I clearly remember seeing Pierce Brosnan in the miniseries version of Noble House later in the 80’s.  When that came out, I was visiting my grandparents’ house, and lo and behold, Grandpa had a copy of Clavell’s massive novel on his shelf.  In all of my elementary school earnestness, I picked it up and opened to page one.  Bored and confused, I never made it to page two. 

I recently rekindled an interest in reading Clavell’s Asian Saga, or at least Noble House.  I figured I should start at the beginning, so I picked up a copy of Shogun.  I began reading during a Spring Break trip with the family to Disneyland.  At first, I picked away at it while enduring endless lines, but soon my nose was buried in between the pages as I tried to navigate crowds and follow my wife as we walked around the park from ride to ride.  

Near the end of that trip, I had come across the relatively early scene where one samurai suddenly flings himself off a cliff just to get the attention of a more important samurai stranded on the beach below.  I stopped in the middle of a walkway, backing up lots of foot traffic around me, but was totally oblivious as people started to go around me because I was still in shock from what I’d read.  That’s when I realized that Shogun was something special. 

I’ve read my share of military thrillers–the Tom Clancy type–but Shogun is easily the most macho story I’ve ever read.  The constant dwelling on honor, strategy, and a nonchalant attitude towards death and violence make this one seriously masculine novel.  Over the course of eleven hundred pages, Clavell demonstrates that he is a master of narrative.  In fact, the only thing I’d ding about Shogun is that sometimes the spying, reversals, scheming, and plotting–in both senses of the word–get to be too dense. 

But it’s worth it.  Read it if only for the wealth of detail about medieval Japan and the stark beauty of Clavell’s prose–he deftly combines the testosterone of the main narrative with occasional moments of crystal clear poetry (literally, a few times, by including a handful of haiku).  That aside, it’s still a juggernaut of action.  One scene that forms a crucial part of the climax has an attack by ninja on a castle just before dawn, including a protracted battle with hordes of samurai.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages until the battle was over, thirty pages later.  Such addictive storytelling is rare, and valuable…and fun. 

I just put the DVD of the Shogun miniseries on hold at the library.  After that, on to Noble House!