It is not remarkable that James Clavell writes about joss (fate, destiny, luck) or wa (harmony.)
It was joss, and pretty bad joss at the time, that found the young artillery soldier in Changi, the notorious Japanese prison camp (but with Korean guards) in the early years of World War II.
It was clearly joss that helped him survive the camp. And more that saw him "invalided" out of the British army after the war because of his injuries.
Then, he says, "I had to find something to do, because like most children of military families, I was brought up wondering what anybody did do who wasn't in the services."
So instead of a career as a British army officer, James Clavell grew up to be a writer. First screenplays, like the B-grade sci-fi, "The Fly." Then, 18 years after the war, his first book "King Rat," the strongly autobiographical story of Changi.
Now closely following the record-shattering "Shogun," with his fourth best seller, "Noble House," on the bookstands, Clavell muses that "as long as I can relate back to Changi, I have wa, I'm in harmony . . ."
He's got an Ace bandage around his wrist -- dislocated because of the handshake of an overenthusiastic fan.
He professes to be tired, to hate the inroads into his privacy, of having to cope politely with the questions of those he classifies as "nutters," like "Tell me, Mr. Clavell, have you evern been in Japan? . . ."
But deep down inside, James Clavell, one suspects, is a bit of a ham. Underneath that determinedly British air of world-weariness there lurks just a soupcon of pleasure in the notoriety his storytelling gift has brought him.
The man who brought you "King Rat" and "Tai-Pan" and "Shogun" has done it again. And if you thought the plotting and counterplotting of "Shogun" was hard to follow, well you haven't seen anything like plots within plots and deals within deals and wheels . . . not to mention assassinations and betrayals, personal and professional. And agents, doubled and redoubled. And sex and sexism and feminism. Throw in guns, drugs and natural disasters and . . .
"Noble House" is presented as a novel about modern Hong Kong, as a indeed it is, continuing the bitter rivalry begun in "Tai-Pan" between the House of Straun and House of Brock, now between Dirk Straun Dunross and Quillan Gornt, all complicated with international espionage and plot-counter-plot, not to mention Jin-quo's half-coins . . . But the book also brings one up-to-date on the century-old protagonists in artful "historical" asides.
Clavell manages to view the action not only as seen by the barbarian Westerners, the "foreign devils," but by the Asians and Eurasians (as he did so adroitly in "Shogun") who people the novel, giving it a depth and a texture and a cohesiveness that make its sometimes improbable plot twists perfectly logical.
Eat your heart out John le Carre, James Clavell is here with "Noble House," 1,207 pages long, 2 1/2 inches (not counting covers) thick and 3 pounds and 13 ounces to drag around because you can't put it down.
"Sometimes," says Clavell, his hazel eyes smiling, "I think that Hong Kong only exists when I am there."
He goes back to the scene of "Tai-Pan" and "Noble House" with some regularity, and perhaps to confound the existentialists, and perhaps to convince himself, he has written an analogue of himself into "Noble House," just as he did into "King Rat."
Are you Peter Marlowe? he is asked.
There is mischief in his grin. He says, "Before I answer that, you must tell me, is Peter Marlowe a man of heroic proportions?"
Absolutely, he is assured.
"Well, then, in that case -- indubitably. The best of me is in Peter Marlowe."
Peter Marlowe is writer doing research in Hong Kong for a novel or screenplay, and had been a POW at the Changi camp in Singapore.
So was James Clavell. (And Peter Marlowe was Clavell's analogue in "King Rat.")
It is no mistake that characters from "King Rat" and descendants of characters from "Shogun" keep turning up in "Noble House" which is a sequel, 120 or so years later, to"Tai-Pan." Got it?
What happened, explains Clavell, was that quite without realizing it, the research he did for the first three novels simply led him to the latest. The first two were respectable best sellers. And then came "Shogun," which of course was something more, and then there was the blockbusting TV miniseries (of which Clavell was the executive producer) making it something even more again.
Now the four books are called the "Asian Saga."
There are probably two more books to come, says Clavell. Maybe more.
Clavell, his wife of "a few" years (but more than 25) and an ancient dog, a Russian shepherd, live mostly in California. But he also has a country house in England. He has two married daughters.
"Novels are easy," he says. "You've just got to start it, and then continue it."
Whether or not it will have "the magic," of course, only time and joss will tell. Joss is probably the favorite concept of the myriad of characters in "Noble House," be they Chinese, English, Russian, American or mixture thereof, and next favorite is a Hong Kong gutter greeting which is never translated, but which one knows is deliciously obscene: Dew neh loh moh.
Clavell is tall, tending slightly to the burly, and still chafes at his Changi-caused limp. But with proper British stiff-upper-lip, he tosses it off with, "I had to change my ways a bit . . . used to be prone to violence, but have to watch it now. I can't run away, you know . . ."
He has a warm, friendly face that lights up when he smiles, which is often.
He also has a charming, quiet humor which is often wicked, or at least mischievous. For example, he tantalizes throughout the book with obviously pungent invective in Chinese (several dialects thereof), Russian, Portuguese and Spanish, but rarely translates more than a sense of the meaning. Without, however, losing a lot of its impact.
And a casual conversation in "Noble House" will permit a pair of Chinese to discuss whether it is true what they say about Western women . . .
Then there are family in-jokes. In "Tai-Pan" for example, the Norwegian ship captain's first name was Clavell's wife's maiden name -- Stride.
April Stride Clavell, who shares her husband's interest and avocation in airplanes and helicopters, was a ballerina with the Sadler's Wells (now the Royal) Ballet and later on musical comedy stage.
He speaks of her gently and lovingly.
And he writes compellingly aof the strength of such long-lasting relationships.
Oddly, he fences about his age, which is, he grins, "younger" than 55.And he says he was born "in the year of the cat." (there isn't one.)
Once "King Rat" was written, Clavell's success was assured. He wrote the hugely successful film, "The Great Escape," and began work on "Tai-Pan."
But he felt something was wrong. He was out of harmony. And he was drawn back to Changi, the formative experience in his life.
He recalls that even though he was a success -- "The Great Escape" was playing in Singapore theaters at that time -- he stood outside the gate and "had this extraordinary experience. In the middle of the gate is a smaller gate and it opened and one of the cops there beckoned to me to come in. Before I knew what was happening I'd walked through this little door and it clanged closed behind me and I had such a shudder . . .
"The Eurasian officer came to me and said, 'Oh Mr. Clavell, I thought you'd want to come in . . .' And my hair stood up on the back of my neck."
"'How do you know me?' I asked.
"'oh,' he said, 'your picture in the paper this morning . . .'"
But it was not until several years later when Clavell returned once more to the scene of the infamous camp, this time with his wife and daughter, that he knew at last "I never need to go back ever again."