20 September 2014

The Mandarin Code: it's not about fruit

| Angela Hutton
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The Mandarin Code

The Mandarin Code is the latest offering from seasoned political journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. A follow-up to their previous novel The Marmalade Files, the Mandarin Code has been developed into a TV series.

It’s clear from the start that the authors know Canberra – the novel opens on the discovery of the body of a Chinese National discovered in our own Lake Burley Griffin. From there we follow political reporter Harry Dunkley as he navigates the complexities of political power plays that take us to Beijing and Washington and back home again.

The story is of a mammoth power struggle in the new world warfare of cyber intelligence, where China and the US engage in what might be described as a game of piggy-in-the-middle with Australia in the role of piggy. Laid alongside a minority Australian government with a recently deposed PM (amusingly familiar I have to say) the storyline is at times worryingly credible. Lewis and Uhlmann’s years in the political and parliamentary circus provide a ring of authenticity. I did find myself worrying about poor China, which comes off as villainous. The US doesn’t fare much better, portrayed as having an inept blow-hard of a President, captive to some powerful lobbyists. Of course this is a work of fiction and should be read as such.

In case you’re wondering, a ‘mandarin’ is a senior bureaucrat. The term has Imperial Chinese origins, but since I’m no historian I won’t embarrass myself by trying to explain. In this book, it’s clearly used in relation to senior bureaucrats in the intelligence community. There are lots of these in the story, in fact at times I wondered if there weren’t a few too many, and had to occasionally concentrate to keep the many characters and side-plots straight. For me, this is not the sort of novel I would take on a lazy beach break.

As a loyal Canberran I got a kick out of seeing our Canberra juxtaposed against Washington and Beijing. References to local places and landmarks are liberally peppered throughout – it felt familiar. The places in the book are real, I know them, and I even know a bit about ‘Canberra’ the seat of political power as opposed to Canberra the place. Thank goodness it IS fiction though, read it and you’ll see what I mean.

I enjoyed the Mandarin Code and would recommend it. The Mandarin Code is published by HarperCollins and is available via usual outlets.

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