Monday, August 18, 2008

Shogun by James Clavell

(book review)

It seems like all Japanophiles read this book sooner or later. Most of them sooner. So, I decided I might as well get it out of the way now.

If you travel in any Japanophile circles, chances are you've already heard of this book. It was also made into a TV miniseries in 1980 which, according to wikipedia, was one of the highest rated TV miniseries in television history.
(I never saw the TV series, but I hung out with a lot of geeks in high school and college, and I would occasionally hear about it from them.)

This is one of those books that’s difficult to classify. It contains too much history to be called pure fiction, and yet it takes too many liberties to strictly be called “historical fiction” either.

“Shogun” is loosely based off the story of William Adams, who was the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in 1600. He wasn't the first Westerner--the Portuguese and the Spanish had beaten him by about 50 years--but he was definitely the first Englishman, and he and his Dutch shipmates were the first Protestants. (Much to the annoyance of the Portuguese Jesuit priests, who had already established churches in Japan).

By incredibly historical coincidence (a gift from Clio to history writers) William Adams managed to arrive in Japan the same year Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his enemies at the battle of Sekigahara, ended the era of warring states, established a unified Japan, and began the Tokugawa Shogun era, which was to last until the resignation of the last Shogun and the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
William Adams managed to become a friend and confident of Tokugawa Ieyasu during this period.

James Clavell is not an historian by trade, but he did a tremendous amount of research on 16th Century Japan for this book. And then he apparently decided not to write it strictly as a historical fiction, but to change everyone’s names, and write it as a pure fictional novel to give him more freedom with the characters. Thus William Adams becomes “John Blackthorne”. Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes “Toranga Yoshi”. Et Cetera.

There are whole separate books written on what is true and what is fictional in “Shogun”. And in fact, I even read one of them. (“Learning from Shogun”--which I’ll review separately). In broad terms, Shogun simplifies the complexity of Japanese politics a little bit, creates a few characters that are amalgamations of 2 or more historical characters, condenses the action into a shorter time frame, and increases the importance and role of William Adams (John Blackthorne) to the struggle for the Shogunate.

In minute terms: if one were to list all the anachronisms, cultural mistakes, and even the linguistic mistakes Clavell makes in this book it could take quite some time. People who've spent time living in Japan should be able to pick a number of these out without any assistance.
(For example Clavell occasionally has his Japanese characters use Western gestures, like shrugging their shoulders. He also never really understands the difference between the Japanese words “Dozo” (please receive) and “Kudasai” (please give). (It’s surprising the publishers never had anyone with a knowledge of the Japanese language proofread this book before publication)).

If you’re enough of a geek to be concerned about the history, it’s always a good idea to read “Shogun” alongside a more historically accurate book. For example, I started reading “Shogun” at the same time I started reading “Samurai William” by Giles Milton (which tells the real story of William Adams). Of course I finished “Samurai Williams” months ago, but I’m only now finishing up “Shogun”. That’s partly because school intervened, and for 4 months I had almost no time for reading. And it’s partly because “Shogun” is a monster book at 1152 pages.

Fortunately, “Shogun” is one of those books that, though it may be long, never gets boring. In fact the story keeps getting more and more complex so that when I neared the last 100 pages, my thoughts were not:
“When is this going to be over already?”,
but rather,
“How is he possibly going to wrap up all these plot threads with just 100 pages left?”

There are, as the saying goes, wheels within wheels in this book. For example, the most obvious culture clash that dominates the whole book is the Japanese versus the Western barbarians. But the Western Barbarians are sharply divided into Protestant and Catholic camps. On the Protestant side, William Adams (John Blackthorne) is the only Englishman on an otherwise all Dutch ship, and his shipmates occasionally resent him for that. But the quarrelsome Dutch show just as much inclination to fight amongst each other.

On the Catholic side, the Portuguese and the Spanish have arguments over whose domain Japan belongs in. The Jesuits and the Franciscans have arguments over the proper way to proselytize the Japanese. The church clashes with the Portuguese Navy and merchants over who has ultimate authority. And of course the Jesuits often argue among themselves.

…And all that is without even beginning to get into the Japanese side of things: the complex political situation, the varying alliances, fiefdoms, ambitious daimyos and treacherous vassals.

The whole book is a mess of changing alliances, backstabbing, and betrayals.

James Clavell is famous for his long books, and reading this my impression is that he is one of those writers incapable of writing a short book. There’s not a single flat character in “Shogun”. Every character who enters into the action, even the minor characters, are fully developed, have a back story, and have conflicting loyalties and motivations.

Clavell thus pulls off a difficult feat for an historical novelist. Despite the various liberties he takes with the story, almost all of the characters end up with the same fates as their historical counterparts. And yet the story feels completely character driven. Even though the outcomes are predetermined by history, the reader never feels like the characters are pulled along by historical threads. Instead it feels like the characters are choosing their own destinies.

Finally, there is a large amount of historical backstory in this novel. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Toranga Yoshi) was only able to succeed in unifying Japan because of the political situation created by two military strongmen before him: Nobunaga Oda (or Goroda, as he is called in “Shogun) and Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Nakamura), and James Clavell will occasionally go off for a few pages re-counting the backstory of Goroda and Nakamura.

The backstory is my only criticism of this book. In a pure historical fiction, one puts up with the occasional information dump necessary to set the backstory, because it is historical fiction after all, and even if it does interrupt the narrative you are learning some history at the same time.
In a novel, one is less inclined to put up with these things. Especially if all the names have been changed. The backstory of Goroda and Nakamura, as retold by Clavell, is true to their historical models of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, but I somewhat resented having to read pages of historical backstory only to have to learnt names that were all wrong anyway. (It is at this point that a companion book, such as “Learning from Shogun” becomes helpful to decode the fact from fiction. I’ll be reviewing that in my next post).

According to John Updike’s rules for fair reviewing, here is an extended quotation from the book to give you a feel for it.
This takes place very early on in the book (P.37 out of 1152). John Blackthorne, the pilot, and his Dutch shipmates have just landed on some strange land, and are recovering from their scurvy and other sea illnesses. Blackthorne finds out that they are in Japan, and that the Catholics have already established there, and goes to report this to his shipmates. Notice in their conversation how the fact they've arrived in Japan is only of secondary importance, almost like an afterthought, to their horror at finding themselves stranded in a Catholic domain:

“Listen,” Blackthorne said. “There’s a priest here. A Jesuit.”
“Christ Jesus!” All banter left them as he told them about the priest and about the beheading.
“Why’d he chop the man’s head off, Pilot?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’d better get back aboard. If Papists catch us ashore…”
There was great fear in the room now. Salamon, the mute, watched Blackthorne. His mouth worked, a bubble of phlegm appearing at the corners.
“No, Salamon, there’s no mistake,” Blackthorne said kindly, answering the silent question. “He said he was Jesuit.”
“Christ, Jesuit or Dominican, or what-the-hell-ever makes no muck-eating difference,” Vinck said. “We’d better get back aboard. Pilot, you ask that Samurai, eh?”
“We’re in God’s hands,” Jan Roper said. He was one of the merchant adventurers, a narrow-eyed young man with a high forehead and thin nose. “He will protect us from the Satan worshipers.”
Vinck looked back at Blackthorne. “What about Portuguese, Pilot? Did you see any around?”
“No. There were no signs of them in the village.”
“They’ll swarm here soon as they know about us.” Maetsukker said it for all of them, and the boy Croocq let out a moan.
“Yes, and if there’s one priest, there’s got to be others.” Ginsel licked dry lips. “And then their God-cursed conquistadores are never far away.”
“That’s right,” Vinck added uneasily. “They’re like lice.”
“Christ Jesus! Papists!” someone muttered. “And conquistadores!”
“But we’re in the Japans, Pilot?” Van Nekk asked. “He told you that?”
“Yes. Why?”
Van Nekk moved closer and dropped his voice. “If priests are here, and some of the natives are Catholic, perhaps the other part’s true-about the riches, the gold, and silver and precious stones.” A hush fell on them. “Did you see any, Pilot? Any gold? Any gems on the natives, or gold?”
“No. None.” Blackthorne thought for a moment. “I don’t remember seeing any. No necklaces or beads or bracelets. Listen, there’s something else to tell you. I went aboard Erasmus, but she’s sealed up.” He related what had happened, and their anxiety increased.
“Jesus, if we can’t go back aboard and there are priests ashore and Papists….We've got to get away from here.” Maestukker’s voice began to tremble. “Pilot, what are we going to do? They’ll burn us! Conquistadores-those bastards’ll shove their swords….”
We’re in God’s hands,” Jan Roper called out confidently. “He will protect us from the anti-Christ. That’s His promise. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

(The conversation continues for several more pages, but hopefully this gives you an idea).

Link of the Day
Michigan State House Primary 2008: What to Watch

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