Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Review: Shōgun by James Clavell

James Clavell's Shōgun is a classic - there's no going around that. I first read the Finnish translation when I was a teen, so it was high time to go back to it and read it in the original language. It is said that Shōgun has inspired many to cross-cultural learning and to study the Japanese culture and history - and it may be partially responsible even for the ninja/samurai/katana enthusiasm that seems to make Europeans forget about their own wonderful history of musketeers and rapiers. And, when you read Clavell's novel, you will understand why.

"I’ll bathe when I want and I don’t stink!" Blackthorne fumed. "Everyone knows baths are dangerous. You want me to catch the flux? You think I’m God-cursed stupid?"

Clavell has said that he was inspired to write the novel when his daughter's schoolwork included a mention of a westerner - Will Adams - who went to Japan and became a samurai. Clavell used this inspiration to make a story of his own, based around an English pilot, John Blackthorne, who has crossed the Pacific in this attempt to be the first English pilot to circumnavigate the world. He and his crew are shipwrecked on the shores of Japan close to the village Anjiro. Immediately Blackthorne becomes entwined in the Portuguese politics and trade in Japan and faces his worst enemies: the Jesuits. However, the local samurai and daimyō realise the value of the newcomer and choose to break him in order to make him their servant. Blackthorne is separated from his crew and begins to learn about the Japanese culture and language at the same time as the Council of Regents holding power over Japan are breaking apart and a war threatens on the horizon.

Clavell has researched the Japanese culture very meticulously and his novel has been praised for its description of the values and mores as well as the courtesan culture. Some say that the descriptions of culture are somewhat romantized or exaggerated: The Japanese characters find inner tranquillity even in the most difficult of times, are eager to commit seppuku at every opportunity, or to lop off the heads of their underlings when they make the smallest of mistakes. I'm not sure about this - to me, the mere existence of death poems and ritualistic seppuku tells of a culture with very different attitude towards death and suicide than in the west. But even if these were inaccurate or exaggerated, there is enough historical fact in the conflicts between the samurai, daimyō and the regents and their worry about saving face and hiding their true motivations behind politics and devious plots, to ring true to the reader.

However, Clavell does take some freedoms with historical detail. I'm not very knowledgeable of Japanese history, but I noticed that he introduced the concept of female geisha about 150 years before their time and I checked that the so-called "pleasure districts" in cities were actually designated by the shogunate 17 years after the events in this novel. He also made the traditional mistake with sail ships and gave them wheels instead of whipstaffs or mere tillers. Another problematic detail were the bayonets that the musket-wielding samurai were described as having. Clavell had his characters saying that they gave the samurai muskets and took away their swords, because the long blades made their movement clumsier. Instead of separate swords, they were given bayonets that could be socketed onto the barrels of their weapons. This is problematic because, at this time, musketeers still regularly carried swords and Blackthorne would have been very much ahead of his time to introduce bayonets already in 1600. The Chinese have a recorded use of a bayonet-like plugged (not socketed) add-on in 1606, but they were introduced to armies in Europe only after the middle of the 17th century (1660's and 1670's).

Other mistakes are more social in nature, such as Clavell's claim that, in England, women married at 15 or 16, which is far too early, and his exaggeration of the everyday filth in life in England. Similarly, Blackthorne should have been more familiar with Japanese women taking care of the household finances, since his wife back home probably did the same while he was away. These, and other interesting topics, are handled by Sandra Piercy in her article Blackthorne's England, in "Learning from Shōgun". Same textbook also includes a fascinating chapter on Clavell's use of the Japanese language.

In truth, these are minor details - and many can be forgiven as poetic license - and no historical fiction novel survives without at least some mistakes here and there. Especially when Shōgun was written before the Internet, which makes research somewhat easier for modern writers. In fact, Shōgun's age is also revealed in how every time a new term is introduced (shōgun, daimyō, wakō etc.), Clavell stops the story for a paragraph or two to explain the term. Modern writers would usually put such information in a separate vocabulary or try to insert it more naturally in dialogue.

How baffling it was that even the most cunning and clever people would frequently see only what they wanted to see, and would rarely look beyond the thinnest of facades. Or they would ignore reality, dismissing it as the facade. And then, when their whole world fell to pieces and they were on their knees slitting their bellies or cutting their throats, or cast out into the freezing world, they would tear their topknots or rend their clothes and bewail their karma, blaming gods or kami or luck or their lords or husbands or vassals—anything or anyone—but never themselves.

Shōgun is a wonderful read if you are interested in learning about different ways to think about the world - different values and attitudes. Clavell uses time to explore the thinking and actions of the central characters - Japanese, Portuguese and English - and creates great, three-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, this may make the novel slow-going to many modern readers who may be more interested in action than culture. And perhaps Blackthorne is a bit too great an example of a human being (big in size, fast learner, intelligent, sensitive and well-hung). But if the last few scenes in the novel do not drive home the epicness of the story, I don't know what could. Simply put, this is a great novel and well worth a read to anyone interested in the period and deep characters.

4.5/5