Shōgun: A Love Letter

It’s been a while since I blogged. Shit happens and your days get filled with things you hadn’t anticipated. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” as the divine St John of Lennon says.

Anyway. I have just been re-re-re-re-reading (I normally read it once a year, and first read it in 1990 – you do the math(s)) Shōgun, the incredible novel by James Clavell, and thought I should due obeisance to its wonders. (I also must give my appreciation to my dad, who gave it to me when I was but 11. He was in many ways a fuck-up, but he was a pathfinder, the one amongst his peers who discovered and passed on Tolkien and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Orb and all that good stuff).

In brief, Shōgun is a story of the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in the year 1600. Piloting a Dutch ship from Amsterdam which was the first ship outside the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly on the Cape of Good Hope and Magellan’s Strait, he lands with around ten men remaining from the three hundred who first sailed, all weakened with scurvy and a year-long voyage. Japan had then had Portuguese in it for around forty years, though in a far more controlled way than the Conquistadores and priests who had plundered and destroyed the civilisations of South America. Trading was restricted to one port, Nagasaki, though the priests were free to move where they would if they were decorous. Japan then was still largely a feudal society, its lands controlled by around two hundred warlords (daimyos), its people divided into castes with the warrior caste of samurai at the top, then peasants, then merchants (as commerce is widely despised) and then the despised eta, who butcher and handle the dead. What’s great is how Clavell immediately sets up these oppositions and conflicts: the immaculate and decorous Japanese landfall village of Anjiro compared to the cockroach-ridden, death-rich ship Erasmus; the polite Japanese villagers as against the foul-mouthed and unrestrained rabble of the remaining sailors; the arrogant samurai and the deferential and silent-hating villagers; the Portuguese desperate to retain their toe-hold on Japan and the English and Dutch aching to dislodge them; the Catholic and Protestant schism; the New World and Old; East and West… Clavell invests much of these in his characters and sparks fly right from the off. But these aren’t one-dimensional characters who only speak according to their types (if you’ve seen Wall Street you’ll know what I mean). The first daimyo we meet, Kasigi Yabu, has a torture fetish and the morality of a shark; the village head man is a Christian (and, as we later learn, a lot more besides); Blackthorne is an intelligent sea-faring man with five languages, a family he misses, a fondness for Shakespeare (a late scene with men digging for earthquake-lost swords is straight out of Hamlet and the gravediggers) and a temper; and Toranaga, perhaps the most complex and great man I’ve ever read of. (Well, maybe excluding Gandalf, if you count him as a man).

So immediately the setting is vivid, despite its complexity to someone four hundred years distant. What’s even better than that though is they way Clavell guides you, the reader, through the gradations of Japanese society, all the way to the highest daimyo, and to the intricacies of Japanese politics. Like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars, Blackthorne is our guide, the outsider in the midst of great events. After twenty years of Japanese unity under the dictatorship of the Taiko, he had died leaving only a seven year-old son and an appointed Council of Regents to rule until his heir comes of age at fifteen. When Blackthorne lands the Taiko had been dead a year and the Council split between Toranaga, the greatest general of the age, and Ishido, the Guard to the Heir and protector of Osaka Castle, the strongest military and political stronghold (where the Heir resides) in Japan. Clavell makes Japanese politics – its regard for “face”, the self-control, the concealment of one’s inner desires, the manipulation, the outer courtesies and protocol – wonderfully vivid. One way he repeatedly does so is to contrast what characters are saying in a dialogue, and what they are actually feeling. (You might say Shōgun predates Peep Show by thirty years in this technique, though obviously Peep Show does it for comedic effect and Shōgun more for dramatic purposes). This also heightens conflict, so that any conversation (with useful plot-moving properties) can have double the impact, or even more, if the character’s true feelings illuminate helpful backstory. For example, at one point Kiri (the chief consort of Toranaga) and Mariko (the daughter-in-law of Hiro-Matsu, Toranaga’s chief general, and one of the book’s leading characters) talk. Clavell fills us in about Kiri’s feelings about Buntaro, Mariko’s husband; about Mariko’s father, who is important to her psychologically and thus to the outcome of the whole book; and about the backstory of the Taiko and Toranaga, how they had battled together and won Japan). But on the outside the conversation is polite and little more than formal.

(The veneration for face and self-control, in fact, makes you see politics in a different, less emotional light. I do sometimes despair of people who say they just want politicians to be honest, not seeming to realize that politicians reflect the hypocrisies of the electorate, not from any natural or developed drive. Drugs and tax policies are two of the best examples. This is not to say that I welcome the grotesque cynicism of Karl Rove or the pseudo-wonkery of Paul Ryan, but to say that you see political moves more analytically. Someone fucked you over? Well, are you going to need them tomorrow? Better stay on good terms. Rivals with someone? Better to conceal your disdain until ready to strike. And so on.)

Another marvellous aspect of the novel is the range of characters and the humanity Clavell displays in evoking them. It goes from pit-digging villagers (Uo, the fisherman, once won the inter-village farting competition) who bawdily lust after the beautiful geisha Kiku to the inscrutable grand vizier Jesuit Martin Alvito, thirty years in Japan and official translator to the leading daimyos, from the ferocious guileless aged general Hiro-Matsu to the plump primped pimp mama-san Gyoko, holder of secrets and threats. Toranaga stands supreme amongst them all, the spider at the center of an incredible web. His humanity too shines through: here is a man of majesty and power, with more men under arms than the King of Spain, but who prefers low-born consorts (always zesty and grateful) and simple peasant dishes and enjoys a piss and a fart. Then again he is no vulgarian: he is a man who enjoys poetry and expanding his mind. The scene where he encounters Blackthorne dancing a hornpipe and insists on learning the steps is indicative of Toranaga’s lack of ego, his hunger to learn, his openness to new influences. (No mean feat for a man in his fifties: already, in my thirties, I find it hard to keep my mind open to new music and books etc).

Shōgun is obviously a novel to savour, and it bears repeated re-readings. Despite the complexity (for newcomers) of its setting, the prose style is functional, and the story-telling always focusing on character. There are immense amounts of dialogue and surprisingly little amounts of physical description. The characterization, as I’ve suggested, is supreme: Clavell’s humanity and instinct for the desires of all sections of society are miraculous. This above all is what makes Shogun one of the best novels I have ever read, a trait he shares with other supreme writers like Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Dickens. (Clavell wrote a series of other Asian novels, with dates ranging from the 1960s (Nobel House) to the 1800s (Tai Pan). His novel King Rat has a very good film version, with a bunch of actors you’ll definitely recognise. But Shōgun is at the apex of them all, in its range, drama and exotic setting. Go read!

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