So I’m reading James Clavell’s Shogun as you know, as part of my three year Self Doctorate. The main character of Shogun is the Englishman John Blackthorne, who has been shipwrecked in Japan near the year 1600.
Blackthorne, who has not seen his family in years, has come up with this coping mechanism: “Over the years he had trained himself to think about them [his family] as characters in a play” … “otherwise the hurt of being away would be too much.” Clavell tells us that in eleven years of marriage, Blackthorne could almost count the days he had spent at home. We also learn, just from the names of his children, that Blackthorne, for all his cynism, is quite the patriot; the names of his children being “Tudor” and “Lisbeth.”
The Japan in which Blackthorne arrives has, within living memory, undergone some pretty drastic societal changes. In the old days, anyone with the ability, valor, and dedication could become a Samurai. But by the time Blackthorne arrives, the position of Samurai has become hereditary. And as we all know or should know, when nobility becomes based on heredity instead of virtue, it is a sure sign of decadence and decline in any time, any place.
I wonder if there’s anyone else out there who sees the similarities between good historical fiction and good sci fi; what I mean is this: just like Frank Herbert with Dune or George Lucas with Star Wars, Clavell creates for us a foreign world that is nevertheless full of recognizable human drives and emotions and is peopled with interesting characters. I think there is a secret connection between Sci Fi and Historical Fiction that most people miss.
As an aside… For any of you who watched the HBO series Rome: from the first, I approached the show like I did Star Trek: The Next Generation— and with that mindset, found it very rewarding, despite its flaws (the most important of which was a badly drawn main character whom I will not name).
Anyway, one thing I love about Shogun so far (and there are still many, many pages left during which I may grow bored) is that it’s not only a good story, but I feel like I’m learning about Japan in a deeper way than I would just by memorizing terms like “shinto” or “bushido.” We learn alongside main character Blackthorne that shinto is the native animist religion and bushido is the warrior’s way.
The novel is set during the great contest between the Protestant North and the Catholic South of Europe. The fact that Clavell educates us about Europe via Japan is pretty special, I think. And it all feels very natural, because Japan, itself, in the 1600s is having to deal with European politics. Those pesky, world-navigating Portuguese won’t stay at home, and they’ve established a strong presence in Japan already, having made hundreds of thousands of converts to Catholicism in the country since their arrival several decades before Blackthorne’s arrival.
Personally, I found it very interesting to learn that the Portuguese during this time had ports in both Macao, China and Nagasaki, Japan, and that they conducted trade between these two ports. This resulted in an enrichment of both China and Japan (who without the Portuguese middlemen would not have traded since they were not on the friendliest of terms). Of course, the Portuguese middlemen were also greatly enriched.
Besides the educational aspects of the story, Clavell also presents us with philosophical considerations along the way. At one point, the survivors of Blackthorne’s ship, stuck in a pit by their Japanese captors, must choose one of their own to die as a sort of sacrifice for what the Japanese consider the Europeans’ bad behavior since being shipwrecked. I won’t spoil it by telling you how the men work through this horrible decision.
I will venture to tell you one nice tidbit of wisdom a Japanese samurai relates to our main character, Blackthorne (translated to Blackthorne by the Portuguese priest, Sebastio). This occurs after Blackthorne has inadvisably said that he would “piss” on the samurai one day. The samurai says: “It is bad manners to say that you will piss on anyone. Very bad. It is bad manners and very stupid to say you will piss on anyone when you are unarmed.” To illustrate his free lesson, the samurai then proceeds to piss on Blackthorne (who is powerless to stop him at this point).
Another interesting thing that Clavell does is allow us to see the story from the perspective of the “bad guys.” For instance, one of the samurai, named Yabu, takes a particular delight in torturing people. This is Yabu’s description of the torture-to-death he inflicted on one of Blackthorne’s men the previous evening: “That was a marvelous experience, he thought. Never have I felt so close to nature, to the trees and mountains and earth, to the inestimable sadness of life and its transience. The screams had perfected everything.”
If Shogun stays this good (I’m on about page 200), then it should definitely occupy a higher spot on the list of great European/American novels.