Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 25, 2012

Charles Cumming – Typhoon

Charles Cumming – Typhoon

The Xinjiang province lies in China’s most westerly border region with former Soviet states and Afghanistan, Russia and Mongolia.  The Uighurs [pronounced ‘oyghor’] is the largest ethnic group in the province,  they are Muslim and Turkic speaking and there is a  history of violence and since 1990 clashes with the Han Chinese have resulted in further protests and executions.  The Han Chinese is the largest ethnic group in the world, and constitutes about 92% of the population of the Chinese Republic.

Uighur allege discrimination and marginalisation by the Chinese Han, who were forcibly immigrated into the province.  Some of the clashes occurred in the run up and during the Beijing Olympics with reports of bus bombings and attacks on police stations [link to Wikipedia].

Typhoon uses the Uighur clashes in Xingjian as the backdrop to a spy story that includes the SIS, CIA and ISI (Pakistan’s secret service) and by slightly amending some of the events and interpretations weaves a believable version of what might have happened in China in order to destabilise the Olympic Games.

Joe Lennox is recruited by SIS as he comes out of University and, a fluent Mandarin speaker, is sent to Hong-Kong, as an undercover agent.  He is not able to reveal his true identity even to his lover and companion, which proves to be the downfall in his relationship with Elizabeth but enables him to infiltrate and disentangle a web of deceit and conspiracy just prior to the start of the Olympics in 1989.

The story starts with the defector Professor Wang swimming across from mainland China to Hong-Kong,  just prior to the handover of the British Colony to China in 1997,  and who when he is picked up by a British soldier, demands to see Chris Patten.  Joe is sent in to interview him but is subsequently removed from the case and is told by his superiors that Wang has been sent back, as he most likely is a double agent.

Joe’s counterpart in the CIA is Miles Coolidge,  who is aggressive, full of a kind of energy that Joe both admires and suspects and who in fact is jealous of Joe’s relationship with Elizabeth even if he is a womanizer of the worst kind, or perhaps because he is.  Miles is aggressive about the Chinese and goads Joe who wonders in fact whether their positions are after all that different:

‘Joe was equally jaded about the government in Beijing.  He despaired for a country so contemptuous of its own citizens.’

The story unfolds by suggesting that America is keen to create disorder, to create chaos in China during the Beijing Olympics that would overshadow the games and thus pull China down on the rank of world nations.  At the same time, this would support Uighur cause on a global scale, and therefore Uighurs are used to further this American ambition.  In reality there is double dealing which unfolds as the Olympics draw nearer.

The narrator of the story is a friend of Joe’s, a journalist who has also been recruited by SIS and thus becomes an insider into everything that unfolds, and is able to piece the real story together when it’s all over.  This is a clever device, it allows the narrator access to documents, insights and e-mail exchanges and he is in fact a confidant of Joe’s.  This makes it possible to trace what is happening in the different groups and camps, without an interfering authorial voice, rather this is the trustworthy friend and accomplice who is given the task to tell the story based on the evidence.

I greatly enjoyed this book, hopping from Hong-Kong to mainland main land China, Beijing and Shanghai and giving us an insight into the racial, religious and political tensions between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese.  The major villain however is not China even if it is portrayed as brutal in its treatment of the Uighur, but rather America in its greed for oil and desire to dumb down China as a world power, and the lengths to which it is willing to go to achieve this.  Nevertheless I believe that the book is banned in China, not surprisingly.

I particularly enjoyed the description of Joe as a character who becomes the restless young Brit who is ill at ease in the boredom of London life and thrives in the constant ‘public’ living that is so pertinent to places like Shanghai, Hong-Kong and also Singapore.  I witnessed the latter from close by when visiting a son in Singapore last year: life outside of work is lived in restaurants, bars, with friends and in constant company, rarely alone.  There is no hiding away or closing of curtains at night, but it is all go and on the move.  This is brought out very well when Joe has a short spell in which he is called back to London, after a short time in Singapore:

Going out in Singapore was a case of picking up the phone, arranging to meet a friend two hours later, and of staying out until five or six in the morning. Going out in London involved making an arrangement two weeks in advance, securing names on a guest list, queuing for half an hour for entry into an overpriced, crowded nightclub and then dodging piles of vomit on the way home.  ….. He felt increasingly disconnected from their [friends] world of nappies and marriage.  Joe was fond of quoting Goethe’s maxim – ‘A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days’ – and longed to be posted back to Asia.

I’m not going to give the plot away any more than I already have: the book is too good to be spoilt and the writing is tense and keeps you absorbed, with just enough evoking of characters and atmosphere as well as explication about the politics of the day.  Only to say that the particular operation instigated by the Americans is referred to as ‘Typhoon’, hence the title of the book.

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Responses

  1. I found Typhoon hard going – it just lacked pace for me and it didn’t have too much resemblance to the China and Hong Kong I know either.

    Interesting review though and I like your writing style.

  2. I love a good action adventure story and the setting for this one is unique to me so I think I’d like it.

  3. shardsofchina – thanks for popping by. I guess we all like different styles, I enjoyed the time taken for developing the characters as well as keeping the story moving. I admit I probably don’t have an in-depth understanding of the ‘real’ China or Hong Kong (I’ve only been to Beijing for a week or so….).

  4. Kathleen – I think you will like it, given some of the other books we have in common!


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