Friday, 27 October 2017

Typhoon - Charles Cumming



Typhoon is the fourth of Cumming's post Cold War spy novels. It comes straight after The Spanish Game, which I reviewed earlier this year and was greatly impressed by. It shares some of the same elements - revolutionary terrorism in a forlorn corner of an apathetic nation - but here the nation is China and the minority the Uighurs of Xinjiang province. I have to be honest, I had never heard of the Uighurs, and in a way I guess that's Cumming's point. I also have to admit, I did not love Typhoon.


It's not the theme, setting or essential plot that bothers me - it is certainly not the writing which is as good as Cumming always is - it's the structure. Cumming has chosen two major events of China's emergence into the free market world, the hand-back of Hong Kong in 1997 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and decided to link them. The narrative is thus in two halves. This is not in itself a problem. The problem is that nothing thrilling happens in 1997 except the domestic difficulties of spy life, and the first half is therefore far too long. Others might have tried for the same effect through flashback but I don't believe it would have worked any better - probably worse. The problem is there is far too much backstory and it's just not interesting enough. The second half, on the other hand, is almost entirely brilliant, the plot racing along nicely. The end, I'm afraid, is a bit of a dud, sadly underwritten. Cumming cuts away from the action too soon. He has already given the game away in fact, in an irritating prologue involving an even more irritating occasional narrator, a writer called Will. Will serves no purpose whatsoever as he is not present at 99% of the action. The only purpose he does serve is, as I indicated a few sentences ago, he strips the narrative of jeopardy. We know from the start that the hero, the good honest spy Joe Lennox, survives whatever is coming later.


Reading Typhoon, I was constantly reminded of Le Carre's The Perfect Spy, which I have been reading sporadically for well over a year and just cannot come to terms with. One the one hand I hate it for its endlessly looping narrative and lack of narrative drive, on the other I have to admire the sheer skill that has gone into writing it. Being compared with Le Carre is no bad thing. Maybe Typhoon is Cumming's Perfect Spy, not the most enjoyable of his output but an essential landmark in the development of a great writer.

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