Lobbyist Gerald Felix Warburg seems to have written his debut novel The Mandarin Club with screenplay aspirations in mind. From the front-cover endorsement quote by an “Emmy Award-Winning Film Maker” to comments Warburg has made in the press, the executive vice president at Cassidy & Associates hints at cinematic ambitions.
However, the spy thriller would not lend itself well to the silver screen. Its characters are too introspective, too much of the book’s development is internal rather than external, and many of the nuances Warburg is able to craft carefully would be lost. The strength of his character elaboration is also at times his weakness, slogging down the book’s narrative.
The book follows a group of seven 1970s Stanford University students who specialized in Chinese scholarship and, 30 years later, are high-stakes players in Chinese foreign policy, journalism, intelligence and finance.
While in Palo Alto, the seven dub their close-knit group the Mandarin Club, vowing faithfulness to each other as they are about to take part in China’s economic explosion when it opens its markets to the West.
The book chronicles club members’ personal and professional lives, which merge at a crucial crossroads of tensions between China and Taiwan. Its plot is wholly believable and chilling in its depiction of electronic warfare, with Beijing effectively crippling Taipei’s information infrastructure within a matter of hours.
At times the characters’ dialogue seems stilted, peppered with quotes from Vladimir Lenin, John Steinbeck, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. The Mandarin Club is Tom Clancy meets Herman Melville.
Washington insiders will appreciate Warburg’s references to earmarks and seersucker suits on Capitol Hill and his description of a legislative aide as filling the role of “a minor god,” with the power to determine congressional action.
The Mandarin Club is undoubtedly autobiographical, at least to some degree. Warburg studied China at Stanford and worked on Capitol Hill, where he helped draft the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978.
His ominous depictions of Chinese views on Americans are striking, perhaps to the point of caricature. From one of Warburg’s high-level Chinese intelligence officials: “America will fall like the Roman Empire someday, in an ocean of debt, one big Disneyland in ruins, infested with stray cats like the Colosseum. … The decadence of the West will lead ultimately to their ruin.”
Warburg acts as social critic, sometimes to the point of preachiness, though his motivations are admirable, citing Greek philosophers’ adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
“Where our generation went wrong was to confuse adrenaline surges with some higher consciousness,” says one member of the club who eventually becomes disillusioned with the international politics. “We thought cliff diving and smoking dope were so very deep. But they didn’t yield any vital human experience. They were just a cheap rush.”
While perhaps not movie material, the book is worthwhile reading as China adds to its burgeoning economic and military power. Warburg’s life experiences allow him seasoned insight into the intricate web of policy, motivations and moral quandaries surrounding U.S.-China relations.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The Mandarin Club
Gerald Felix Warburg
Bancroft Press, 2006
322 pages, $25