I’m still winding down from Whirlwind. With everything going on in the Middle East, it hits close to home.
It’s about the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and, like all of James Clavell’s epics, based on true events in a “clash of cultures.”
Everyone knows Shogun, and Whirlwind has the similar theme of Western people struggling to stay alive in a culture they can barely make sense of. Instead of a sea pilot visiting Japan, it’s now helicopter pilots working for Iran Oil, and the story is their escape from a nation suddenly taken over by strict Islam.
Not your usual Clavell
What strikes me rereading the book today (it was published in the 1980s) is the different thrust it carries from Clavell’s other novels. He was known for building bridges between East and West, but he seems to have been more intent on burning bridges when it came to the Middle East.
Shogun and Tai-Pan, for instance, are about cross-cultural fusion: the Western protagonists remain in Japan or Hong Kong, meshing their Western outlook with revelations in the East. They take the good and discard the bad from both, and it’s about a 50/50 wash. If the West emerges superior for its democracy and free trade, the East scores for progressive medicine, cleanliness, liberal sexuality, healthy diet, and wiser philosophy.
Whirlwind advances a much different impression, that there can be no optimistic marriage with Islamic states like Iran. The caliphate that was declared in Iraq and Syria two months ago (ISIS) certainly copies that impression.
Capturing an alien mentality
Critics have noted how the novel sticks out. Gina MacDonald, for instance, writes that in Whirlwind Clavell does his typically excellent job in “capturing an alien mentality, but he does not help readers appreciate it” (James Clavell: A Critical Companion, p 145).
But that’s not a fault. There’s just not much to appreciate in a culture possessed by religious supremacists, kangaroo courts that execute the innocent, and patriarchs who silence women and force them to wear the chador.
Whirlwind is less humbling and more cathartic. It makes a Western reader feel good about being Western–something rare in Clavell. It’s not Islamophobic by any means, but its realism doesn’t leave much hope for regions under Sharia law.
And while it’s fiction, it’s based on the real evacuation of Bristow Helicopters. I was sweating as those pilots fled across the Persian Gulf. Imagining the face of James Foley on every one.
About Loren Rosson
Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.