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Book description

Since I was in high school, James Clavell has loomed largely among my guiltier pleasures. Somewhere circa age sixteen I plowed through Shogun and Tai-Pan one summer, and came away from them heady with Orientalism: because these books are, really, Orientalism at its pulpy contemporary finest (if that isnt an oxymoron). In them, the European hero is thrown into an exotic, spice-scented eastern culture where, through a combination of courage, canny and luck, he is embroiled in conspiracies, admitted into the luxurious inner circles of power, beds beautiful women, and defeats his enemies. Clavell isnt subtle, by a long shot. His villains are machiavellian pedophiles and sadists, his protagonists are manly and muscular, moral ambiguity never registers on his radar, and hes not one to hesitate at cheap gratification (for example, in at least three novels he goes out of his way to have women note the gigantic endowment of his hero). This is broad-strokes, primary-colors-only entertainment, but on that level it works fantastically. He has enough superficial understanding and genuine appreciation of Chinese and Japanese culture to make Shogun and Tai-Pan read like glossy action-movie tourist brochures to a compellingly different world, inhabited by (sort of) real people, that wed like to leave behind our real lives to visit for awhile.Unfortunately, this is far less the case for Whirlwind, Clavells fictionalization of the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Khomeini. The sprawling plot, which revolves around the various European and American employees of a charter helicopter company attempting to cope with, and later escape, the deadly upheaval caused by the Revolution, features Clavells usual twists, turns, narrow escapes, tragic deaths, unexpected betrayals, irredeemable bad guys and unimpeachable good guys. But where his other novels depict the exotic settings of his stories, and the exotic characters who inhabit them, with a sensitivity that at least tries (in a limited kind of way) to shed light on the workings of another culture, here he has settled for caricature in the most unpleasant sense. No genuine attempt is made here to understand, or empathize with, why the Revolution captured the hearts and minds of millions. By and large, Clavells Iranians are illiterate brutes, rapists, and thugs. The only characters who have integrity are those who resist, or at least stand apart from, support for Khomeini, and the virtue of European values -- in particular, the heroic efforts of oil-company employees, who struggle to keep the black gold flowing at any cost -- are never questioned in the slightest. True, on a paragraph-by-paragraph level, Whirlwind is a page-turner that dishes up sex, suspense and violence in heavy rotation. Take a step back though, and this novel emerges as a perfect example of the kind of insensitive, colonialist xenophobia that fueled the Revolution to begin with.

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