Noble House party

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 April, 1993, 12:00am

GAI-JIN By James Clavell (Hodder, $205) AYEEYAH. That foul-smelling foreign devil has written yet another fornicating book about round-eyes in the coastal waters of the Middle Kingdom.

Their green-eyed devil barbarian leader, Struan, is only really interested in entering the Jade Gate of the haughty Missy with the disgustingly oversized breasts. May they drown in their own filth.

Yes, James Clavell is back - and so is his huge cast of dramatis personae in the Far East. Gai-Jin is the latest in his series of fat novels about the historical interaction of east and west in the Asia-Pacific rim.

This is a classic Clavell: an ultra-lengthy saga of multi-cultural intrigue, taking place in Japan in the 1860s. As usual, he has enormous fun giving each race its characteristic dialogue.

The Chinese speak pidgin English out loud when in the company of Westerners. When asked how far a place is, a Chinese servant replies: ''Ayeeyah no far chop chop never mind.'' But when the Chinese are thinking, they reveal themselves as cunning, wily people who treat Westerners with disdain, using the style of speech with which I started this review.

The British come across very differently, and sometimes much worse. Frequently they are ludicrously stiff and unemotional. For example, the British are talking about being trapped in a house surrounded by Japanese swordsman wanting to hack them to death.

One soldier comments: ''Too many of the buggers really - eventually they would have overrun us. Eventually. Of course the fleet would have revenged us but we would have been pushing up daisies and that's a pretty bloody boring thought.'' Then there are the Japanese who play a major role in this book. They are fiendishly clever but also cruel and brutal. Western readers may find it hard initially to cope with the fact that one of the early baddies is called The Lord of Satsuma (to me it sounds like a fruit shop in Greenwich Village).

To tell the story simply, we are in Japan in 1862. A small band of Westerners, including Malcolm Struan, heir to the Noble House, and his French girlfriend Angelique, are in Yokohama. A skirmish with the samurai threatens to turn into a major international incident. Events take a turn for the worse when Japanese assassins infiltrate the Western encampments.

I was pleased to read near the start of the book that the heroine, had ''an oval face that was in no way pretty, but had a strange, breathtaking attractiveness, very Parisian''.

Do we really have a non-gorgeous heroine? Not a chance. Clavell immediately forgets she is ''in no way pretty'' and she is stunningly beautiful throughout the rest of the book.

She is repeatedly referred to in terms of her breasts (large) and her perfume (enveloping), and it is hard not to visualise Dolly Parton walking around in a cloud of Samsara.

But it is easy to poke fun at what is basically a non-literary adventure story. This aims merely to be a period thriller on a grand scale and it succeeds in being that. Clavell's pacing has definitely improved through the years, and you don't need to keep flicking back the pages to be reminded about which character is which.

And if you do lose track, there's a list of principal characters and a map at the front of the book. At 1,019 pages, you need all the help you can get.