James Clavell | Critical Review by Dick Davis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
This section contains 694 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Terry Teachout

Critical Review by Dick Davis

SOURCE: "How the Tough Get Going," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4366, December 5, 1986, p. 1368.

Below, Davis provides a negative assessment of Whirlwind, claiming that the "version of Iranian society offered is tripe."

Whirlwind, which its author calls an "adventure story", is set in Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution: the plot concerns a rich international company's attempt to evacuate its pilots and helicopters to a friendly Arab Emirate on the other side of the Gulf. The first scene shows us a helicopter flying low over a praying mullah who furiously and incompetently shoots at the departing foreign intruder: this scene more or less encapsulates what the novel has to say and is repeated with variations ad nauseam for the next thousand or so pages. It is very difficult to see why the novel is so long—there is certainly no need for it—and it is almost as if gargantuan length were being offered as a guarantee of, or perhaps substitute for, quality.

The characterization is minimal: the pilots are differentiated largely by nationality (Australian, Finnish, British, etc) and by their slightly different swearing vocabularies: they are all tough men who are good in a crisis and good in bed and have hearts of gold beneath their rough-diamond exteriors. Despite the lack of subtlety with which they are depicted, they are intermittently—particularly when airborne—believable. The Iranians are completely unbelievable: the men are devious and cruel, the women are devious and sexy; the men play with jewelled daggers—or automatic weapons—and smile, the women are of the "curve of her breasts proud under the sweater" kind. The women are also good in a crisis (though not as good as the pilots) and in bed (every bit as good as the pilots); whereas Iranian men are highly strung in a crisis and—we are given to understand—nasty in bed. Beneath the polite surface all nationalities hate all other nationalities and think of them as consisting of dogs, sons of whores etc.

The actual escape is an exciting read: helicopters have to be flown from three different sites simultaneously, there are last minute delays, bad weather, scrambled fighters to intercept them and so on. This is easily the best part of the book and seems the kind of thing James Clavell was born to write: unfortunately it does not get under way until around page 800, and the reader's mind is by then almost numb with clichés about Islam, mullahs, fate, death, karma, good men in a crisis and breasts proud under sweaters.

Much of the novel's attraction must depend on the vicarious insight it claims to give into three seemingly glamorous worlds—high finance, the expatriate pilots' life, Iran in revolution—of which most readers will have little knowledge. Linked with this is what E. M. Forster called "the consolations of history": "we cannot visit either the great or the rich when they are our contemporaries, but by a fortunate arrangement the palaces of Ujjain and the warehouses of Ormus are open for ever and we can even behave outrageously in them without being expelled". And outrageously—with arrogance, sadism and self-congratulation—is how the reader of this bestselling novel is invited to behave.

I cannot vouch for the authenticity or otherwise of the scenes of high financial chit-chat given here, or of those of life in the helicopter pilot's hot seat/bed, but I can say that the version of Iranian society offered is tripe. The book bristles with solecisms about Iran, the caricatures of Iranians are offensive (perhaps understandable in a novel of this kind, which has to have baddies, but offensive nevertheless); there is not much Persian in the book but almost all of what there is has been so garbled as to be gibberish. The author insists on referring to Persian as "Farsi" throughout; this is very irritating—"They were speaking Farsi" is as silly a sentence in a novel written in English as "They were speaking deutsch" would be. About the only thing to do with Iran which Clavell conveys with any accuracy is the nature of the scenery; as soon as people begin to populate the scenery accuracy is abandoned for cliché, and usually erroneous cliché at that.

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This section contains 694 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Terry Teachout
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