A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
NOBLE HOUSE - JAMES CLAVELL
‘This is for Ayn Rand - one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks. James C, New York, 2 Sept 81’ - written on a copy of ‘Noble House’ sent to Ayn Rand whose writing James Clavell admired.
As the fifth installment in the ‘Asian Saga’ this massive story brings together major stories and bloodlines from previous novels in the Asian Saga.
The Struans - Clavell’s capitalist vanguards are at the helm of affairs in ‘Noble House’ under the stewardship of Ian Dunross - the tai-pan since 1960. Dunross is young and aggressive but tempered, ice-cool and unperturbed with millions at stake at sea and on the bourses. He is an adrenaline junkie of an older generation with a bias for fast cars, helicopters and horses; but his most striking feature is utter fearlessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds - the most enjoyable parts of the story have to do with trouble-shooting and negotiations.
The backdrop is the prestige of being the largest business in Hong-Kong, or the Noble House, with Struans’ position threatened by Rothwell-Gornt. The bitter rivalry between the Struans and Rothwell-Gornt goes back many generations to Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock who fought it out since the days preceding the establishment of modern-day Hong-Kong.
Closing in on destroying the Struans is tai-pan of Rothwell-Gornt - Quillian Gornt. And thrown in to these games of amalgamations, hostile takeovers and sabotage is American industrialist Linc Bartlett and his beautiful CEO Casey Tcholok.
Though the characters are clearly defined protagonists, antagonists and anti-heroes ‘Noble House’ has no good-guys versus bad-guys morals and happily defined endings. This feature, coupled with cumbersome sections of Hong-Kong’s local culture is at odds with the fast-pace of the main plot, and makes the book suitable for mature readers only.
Another gripping theme running throughout is the history of the Noble House, with anecdotes and stories from another time dotting the book. From Dirk Struan’s legendary exploits and his mysterious Chinese mistress May-May to promises made by him binding all succeeding generations of tai-pans.
The story starts by narrating Dunross’ induction as tai-pan of Struans in the presence of the outgoing tai-pan in a closely guarded ceremony with confidential oaths taken and deep secrets disclosed for the tai-pan to bear. Dunross tenure as tai-pan is marred with adversity in business conditions and rivalries, betrayals from within, and being called upon to make good on Dirk Struan’s (expensive) promises.
Fact Behind Fiction
Struans’ is reputed to be a fictionalized version of Bermuda based conglomerate Jardine-Matheson; and Dunross’ is based on Sir Hugh Barton (One of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year) who spearheaded Jardine-Matheson’s hugely successful IPO.
Sun Tzu’s treatise on conflict The Art of War is often invoked in the story. Linc Bartlett - the corporate raider whose intentions are masked behind a façade brings up quotes in the midst of discussions with Dunross, who is well-versed with the text and none-too impressed with Bartlett’s awareness of it. Noble House is a narrative complementing the many editions of the Art of War in which parallels are drawn between battle and business.
Sources and further reading
1. James Clavell’s Asian Adventures (objectivistcenter.org)
James Clavell Books and related Features at FactBehindFiction.com
Best of the Site
This edition features a cover that focuses on the Ian Dunross’ business adventures.
The broken medallion represents not just a promise that the tai-pan must make good on, but draws the story back to an earlier period when the noble house was being dragged kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century by the sheer force of will of one man.
The lady in the corner is Casey Tcholok whose constant interaction and negotiation with the tai-pan leave both with a unspoken but mutual attraction for the other.
The horse-racing represents the sport of the tai-pans where the beautiful beasts are raced and wagered upon in the exclusive Jockey Club of Hong-Kong.
And finally the tubby-looking man who could only be one of the bankers who have endless reasons for holding back funds when most needed. The tai-pan is unperturbed. His resourcefulness sends him to meetings in the seediest parts of the city to power-brokers whose secrets rival his own.
One of the finest and most interesting covers of the book, this illustration draws readers towards a story of real-world adventure and mystique in a world that links past and present.
For those who have already read the book this cover recollects the dual nature of Hong-Kong with big business that flourish side-by-side traditional customs.
On a more obvious note it sub-texts the fact that the book is not about one person or group but tells the story of the expatriate business community in Hong-Kong and the Chinese businessmen and their unusual interaction.