Book Review: Shogun - James Clavell
James Clavell was the real thing. A prisoner of war in Changi (source of the inspiration of his first novel, King Rat) he somehow managed to rise above his experiences in war to write perhaps the definitive fictional account of pre-Tokugawa Japan in Shogun. Sure Christopher Nicole wrote a truer account in his novel Lord of the Golden Fan, but it lacked the snap and punch of Clavell’s creation, lacked the in-depth research, the feeling, the entire mentality of Japan. Let me put it this way: at the end of Shogun, you spoke some Japanese and had more than an inkling into the entire mindset of the culture. Few novels I’ve ever read have such a sense of verisimilitude, or drew you so deep into the complex inner life of an entire people.
The story follows Jonathan Blackthorne, ship’s navigator, who is blown by a storm into a bay in the Japanese islands in the late 16th century. The story follows him through his initial hostile reception by the local daimyo (feudal lord) and Portuguese priests, through to his secondment to the entourage of the daimyo Toranaga and his gradual assimilation into Japanese ways of life. And what an assimilation it is, because Clavell contrasts the western mind with that of the Japanese, makes us understand the utter foreignness of one to the other, the politics, obligations, dietary practices, and in Blackthorne’s learning, we learn alongside him.
Alongside this is a primer on history and politics of pre-Edo Japan. For those who know nothing of this, there was a period of many years where various powerful families and clans and feudal lords battled for overall supremacy in Japan (the late Warring period); in the late 16th century one general managed to unite most of the four main islands but could not take the title of shogun (regent for the emperor) because of his common birth: after a rash invasion of Korea and China, he died, and one of his regents finally took power and stabilized the empire for over two hundred years until Commodore Perry forced the islands open in the 19th century. Shogun tells the tale of this intrregnum and the steps leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (with foreshadowing of the taking of Osaka castle later…but I digress).
I know this sounds somewhat dry, but trust me, it is anything but. Strategy, tactics, political maneuvering, great battles, treachery most foul, love all tender, ninjas, samurai, madams, sex, violence, swords, guns, power and command, all wrapped up in a long, delicious serving of a novel that isn’t afraid to go where the story leads, without compromise. And in all that we meet characters not soon forgotten: Blackthorne, Toranaga, Mariko, Tsukku-san, Ishido…the list is long and distinguished.
This is the novel that introduced Japan to the average western reader. From battle ethics and seppukku to hygiene, diet and cha-no-yu, the interwoven narrative lines flow harmonically, like fish in a Zen rock garden pool. Beautiful, economical and seamless, Clavell’s insights on human nature have produced a masterwork of historical fiction, not to be missed by any.
And if that isn’t enough for you, well, there are always those ninjas.
NB The full TV miniseries is faithful to the book and is not a television event to be missed if you can get the entire thing.