Monday, September 13, 2010

[Novel Review] Shōgun

A novel by James Clavell

This novel deserves much better. If nothing else, it deserves to have had its review written back when I first read the book, rather than seven or eight months later. I mean, Clavell doesn't care - he's deceased. But such an outstanding novel deserves a review that can adequately and enthusiastically convey everything about it that made me attack this 1,000-page-plus novel and let it pull me to its conclusion as if I were on a high-speed rail.

Shōgun is loosely based on real people and events. The height of the Japanese feudal period involved such characters as Oda Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa - men who united Japan under their iron fists and dared claim the title of Shōgun - the supreme military commander second in rank only to the Emperor, himself. In reality, they were second to none in terms of the power and authority they held over the daily lives of everyone living in Japan during their rule. In the year 1600, when Tokugawa was still a daimyo - a high-ranking feudal lord vying for power against his peers - Englishman William Adams piloted a Dutch warship around the southern tip of South America and into the pacific. This was a historic moment for Europe, as previously only the allied Spanish and Portuguese fleets had ever made the trip (following the path of noted Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan). England and Holland, both protestant nations, were hostile to and in competition with Catholic Spain and Portugal, and their lack of access to India, China and Japan was a major impediment for them. Adams's arrival in Japanese waters - albeit with only a fifth of his hundred-man crew, all sick and storm-tossed - could potentially be a major coup for the protestant nations. Or, it might be a death sentence for the Pilot and his men.

In time, Adams came to be an adviser to the crafty, arguably brilliant Tokugawa. Together they befuddled the Jesuit priests, the Spanish merchants, and the other Japanese lords all contending for control of Japan in a deadly and lucrative game of politics. Adams came to be known by the honorific Anjin-sama (essentially "Lord Pilot") and opened up relations between England/Holland and Japan, at least temporarily, and expanded the reach of the Dutch East India company.

The novel takes these historical figures and makes them real people, with their own heroics and foibles, their own strengths and flaws. He renames them, probably to signify the extensive dramatic license he took with the people and events on which he based his novel. Tokugawa becomes Toranaga, and Anjin-Sama Adams becomes Englishman John Blackthorne. Blackthorne sails the Dutch ship into Japanese waters after taking heavy losses in a storm. There he immediately runs afoul of the local Jesuit priest and the Samurai (Japanese knight) who ruled the local village. Unable to speak Japanese, Blackthorne is at a significant disadvantage. The customs are strange to him, and the people do not value what he values. He's lost, both physically and culturally.

Blackthorne begins at the bottom - broken, adrift, and confused. Throughout the novel, we see him build himself back up. He's a brilliant navigator, engineer and mathematician, but none of that is important to the Japanese, at least at first. He's a curiosity - a smelly, uncouth swine with bad manners, a nonsense language and no position anywhere in the hierarchical system of the rigid Japanese society. They detest him, just as he finds their ways incomprehensible and ridiculous.

What's remarkable, then is to watch the transformation of John Blackthorne into Anjin-sama. Throughout the book, he literally becomes Japanese. He takes on their clothing, their manners, their customs (such as regular bathing!), and, perhaps most importantly, their language. Once he's able to speak Japanese, his ability to relate to the powerful men and (to an extent) women around him increases dramatically. He becomes an ally and advisor to Toranaga, who we learn is an eccentric yet ultimately brilliant strategist and politician.

Eventually, Blackthorne's "man-out-of-place" persona becomes an asset rather than a liability for him. As he wraps himself in the skin of a Japanese, he keeps the heart of the bold explorer that brought him to Japan in the first place. He dares where others would cringe. He speaks where others would remain silent. He impresses and offends those around him with his courage and audacity. The result is that certain of those in power come to respect him above and beyond all of the thousands of Japanese around him. Or, they hate him and wish him dead.

And it's those dichotomies that are the backbone of Shōgun. Those who hate Blackthorne and those who revere and even love him. The Englishman he was and the Japanese he becomes. The man who gets pissed on (literally!) and tossed into a foetid pit and the feudal lord who helps his liege claim the ultimate title - and the ultimate power - that of Shōgun!

Clavell's book is remarkable in not only how it portrays its characters, but in how it introduces its (presumably) Western audience to feudal Japan. You can almost learn to speak rudimentary Japanese by reading this book - but never does it feel like you're slogging through language lessons. As Anjin-sama learns the ways of Japanese society, the reader learns along with him - how and when to bow, to kneel, to speak or not, the role of the peasant, the woman, the courtesan - all are explained in detail, yet always through action and dramatic tension. I enjoyed Shogun immensely - from the death-defying naval escapades to the climactic ninja attack, and everything in-between. I even made my wife read it, and she enjoyed it just as much as I did (and although our tastes in books diverge about 80% of the time). I highly recommend this novel to enthusiasts of adventure tales, foreign lands, the "golden age of sail", Japan or anyone who just wants a darn good read. I whole-heartedly rate Shōgun an A+!

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