The Strauns, those ruthless, money-grabbing empire builders, are back, providing another invaluable lesson in Far Eastern culture and history. And this time, novelist James Clavell returns to the roots of his Asian saga -- Japan, the land of "Shogun."
"Gai-Jin," the Japanese word for foreigners, is set in 1862 -- 100 years before "Noble House" and some 20 years after the buccaneering Dirk Straun ("Tai-Pan") helped cut the deal that led to the founding of Hong Kong.
Straun's Noble House, based on the history of the trading company Jardine Matheson, is threatened once more by its bitter rival, Brock and Sons, which has cornered the Hawaiian sugar trade and is pressuring bankers to call in the Straun family's loans.
Noble House's future appears to lie in the expansion of trade with Japan. The European nations have started a settlement in Yokohama, from which they seek to negotiate a share of the nation's vast riches.
Standing in the way of the Europeans are powerful shoguns, warlords who have ruled Japan for centuries, and a group of revolutionaries, the shishi, determined to drive all foreigners from their shores. Only one shogun, Toranaga Yoshi, a direct descendant of Mr. Clavell's "Shogun," realizes that Japan must learn from the Europeans if it is to survive.
Mr. Clavell skillfully weaves the political scheming of the Japanese factions and their sword-wielding samurai into the story of Malcolm Straun, the 20-year-old grandson of Dirk and heir to the title of tai-pan, leader of the Noble House, and his love for the French adventuress Angelique Richard.
The 18-year-old Angelique could give Scarlett O'Hara a run for her money when it comes to turning disaster into profit and using her charms to further her ambition. Nothing gets this woman down -- not death, unwanted pregnancy, disease or disaster. Back she bounces each time, as perky and devious as ever.
As "Gai-Jin opens," Angelique, Malcolm and a party of British officers and officials are on their way to Kanagwa. The party crosses paths with a shogun whose samurai are enraged when the Europeans fail to show proper respect to their leader by dismounting from their horses. The swords flash as the warriors behead one of the British and severely wound Malcolm. Angelique, not a girl to lose her head to either a sword or circumstances, flees for the safety of a nearby settlement along with Malcolm, near death and bleeding profusely.
Malcolm is stitched together by a local doctor, but he can stand the pain only by taking large quantities of opium. Still, his wounds don't prevent him from becoming infatuated with Angelique, who after being given a sleeping draft to help her get over the trauma, is raped in her sleep by a renegade samurai.
As if that weren't enough to turn any convent-bred mademoise gray, Angelique turns out to be pregnant. But, hardly missing a dance step, she enlists the aid of a sleazy French official who arranges for her to get the Japanese version of the morning-after-pill from a local madam.
Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, Malcolm's father has died, and he is now officially head of Noble House, which is being run by his mother, the fierce Tess, estranged daughter of Tyler Brock. Tess, known to Clavell fans as Hag Straun, learns about Malcolm's infatuation with Angelique and is determined to thwart any wedding plans.
Mr. Clavell spins out the adventures of Angelique with a steady pen, as he moves his heroine from one disaster to another. At the same time, Mr. Clavell, who probably has forgotten more about Far Eastern culture than most of us ever will know, provides a fascinating look at Europeans as viewed by the Japanese. The Europeans don't wash and they smell; they eat barbaric food, are impolite and uncivilized.
He also introduces readers to the languorous but devious "Willow World," where geishas and prostitutes ply their trade of pleasing customers with art and tradition. Mr. Clavell constantly stresses the pleasure to be had from a skilled masseuse who knows exactly how to work the pressure points of pain. Mr. Clavell also resorts time and again to describing the split-second savagery of the samurai, who are forever slashing off a limb, more like skilled butchers than warriors.
These are, however, just minor quibbles. At more than 1,000 pages in length and three pounds in weight, "Gai-Jin" is worth both the time and strength needed to absorb a mesmerizing look at history from another perspective.
Author: James Clavell.
Length, price: 1,035 pages, $27.50.