The New York Times
By JAMES FALLOWS
Published: November 20, 2009
By Charles Cumming
397 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99
I’ll never know. Chinese media controls are all the more effective because they are so haphazard, leaving you always to wonder what was suppressed and what simply got lost. But if my copy ended up with a propaganda ministry cadre capable of reading it, that person was in for a surprise: the world power that comes out worst in this depiction is not China but the United States.
“Typhoon” is the fourth novel of modern — that is, post-Soviet and shaped by 9/11 — espionage by Charles Cumming, a Scottish writer in his late 30s who, like the protagonist of this book, was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service right out of university. Cumming says he did not sign on — of course, he would say that. (I believe him, but it never hurts for spy novelists to leave a little doubt.) Joe Lennox, the young agent whose story is the core of this book, must maintain cover by lying about his real work to his friends and his paramour as well, with disastrous effects in the latter case.
The story turns on his unraveling of a conspiracy that stretches from 1997, just before Britain transfers control of Hong Kong to the mainland government, to 2005 and the buildup to the Beijing Olympics. As internal dissidents with external support try to disrupt the Games with a terror campaign, ever-unfolding layers of deception and double-cross are told as a reconstructed narrative by a British reporter who moonlights for MI-6.
What the Chinese government won’t like is the book’s treatment of the racial, religious and political tensions between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, the vast region in China’s far northwest where sectarian violence erupted this year. Lennox has to determine whether a conscience-ridden Han defector who has swum across an ocean channel to reach the British authorities in Hong Kong is telling the truth about relentless Chinese brutality against Uighurs in Xinjiang. The book’s portrayal of national motives and practice is fairly bald on all sides: the Chinese government is in business mainly to wring cheap labor from its people and to suppress dissent; the United States to protect its oil interests and knock down Chinese rivalry to its power; the British to humor and truckle to “the Cousins” in Washington. But the major perfidy is American, since at various stages C.I.A. agents are working both with and against Uighur separatists, the Chinese government, Britons and one another.
Lennox’s counterpart and nemesis, Miles Coolidge of the C.I.A., is a pure vessel of American energy and aggression. “I have never known a man so rigorous in the satisfaction of his appetites, so comfortable in the brazenness of his behavior and so contemptuous of the moral censure of others,” the narrator says of Coolidge. “There is no question in my mind that Miles was jealous of Joe: jealous of his youth, his background as a privileged son of England. . . . Everything that was appealing about Joe — his decency, his intelligence, his loyalty and charm — was taken as a personal affront by the always competitive Coolidge.” In anything-goes competition between a gentleman and a shark, it’s not hard to guess who dominates — including in the contest for the attention of the ravishing Isabella Aubert, who starts out as Joe Lennox’s lover and ends up with Miles and, like all the characters, damaged at the end.
As a thriller, “Typhoon” is easy to like. The plot is tight and complex, and the local details are accurate about the three main cities where it is set: Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. The questions and tensions set up in the first 300 or so pages are resolved in a multifront action scene through the final 100 pages, as characters converge from around the country to create or thwart terrorist violence. I think of spy fiction set in Europe — by John le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles McCarry — as being dark in ambiance and mood: twilight scenes, drizzle, disappointed characters with their best years and opportunities behind them. Cumming’s tone is correspondingly bright, partly thanks to the pep of urban China, partly because the characters are young and on the make.
And as for the themes that may have scared the censors? You don’t necessarily read such books for current-affairs analysis, but “Typhoon’s” implicit message about China mixes a plausible element with what I consider pure fantasy. The complications the United States has created in Xinjiang, an important element in the plot, are all too real. After 9/11, America effectively blessed a Chinese crackdown in the region on the theory that Uighurs, being Muslim, might well be terrorists.
I am spoiling no surprise by saying that in this book the United States wheels back hard in the other direction. The C.I.A. tries to sponsor not simply an independence movement in Xinjiang and pro-democracy demonstrations across the country but also terror bombings in China’s biggest cities, all in the hope of derailing the Beijing Olympics. Why? “America understands that the Games of 2008 represent an opportunity for the People’s Republic to present a civilized face to the world,” a disaffected C.I.A. agent tells Joe. This the United States cannot allow. “There can be only one superpower. There is no place for China at the top table.”
In their most paranoid suspicions about foreign disrespect and interference, Chinese officials have not envisioned quite this scenario. Perhaps it’s as well to have the book read mainly outside China, where it can be appreciated as skilled fiction.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.