Monday, August 13, 2012

100 Books #74 - James Clavell's SHOGUN

I realized, as I started reading this risibly enormous tome, that there has been a lacuna in my omnivorousness, reading-wise. I have relatively little experience with 20th century blockbuster/bestselling fiction generally, and almost no experience with blockbuster fiction of the 1970s/80s, except for maybe a spate of devouring every Robert Ludlum I could get my hands on after seeing the miniseries adaptation of The Bourne Identity on TV as a young'un.*

A lot has changed in the world since this novel's first publication in 1975. Like a whole explosion of cross-pollenization between Japanese and American/Western European pop culture that has also led to a much greater general understanding of Japanese high culture in our hemisphere as well. I spent a lot of the 90s watching all kinds of anime with my friends, for instance, and since my friends were the kind of people who can't just sort of enjoy a thing, we became immersed in all things Japanese: food, language, culture, music, handicrafts, gardening. The Porter Exchange Building in Cambridge, MA was like our second home. We ate Pocky more than candy bars. If it was Japanese, we were all over it.

So a lot of what pads out this giant (over 1100 pages!) novel seems to be stuff that makes me want to scream "I already freaking know that" to James Clavell. Which is woefully unfair. As I said, in 1975, the ubiquity of Japanese pop- and high-culture in our society was still in the future. Most of Clavell's readers then doubtless knew less about Japan than I now know about string theory; even the plethora of Samurai films we take for granted today, including many amazing ones that pre-date this novel, were hard for most of Clavell's readership/audience to come by. A nearby move theater had to be screening them, and foreign films were really only shown in college towns and other hoity-toity places. I know all this. I was alive in 1975. Okay, I was only five years old, but things didn't really change in this regard until I was almost an adult.

So the experience of reading Shogun in the 21st century has been kind of a herky-jerky one; I was divided between the otaku-type who bristles at being subjected to declarative sentences about the obvious, the post-modern moralist who bristles at the fetishization of Asian women that lards so many chapters, and the ordinary happy little reader who just wants to be told a good story. To some degree, this is always the case for an educated reader -- especially a reader who majored in literature -- but for some reason this conflict was profound as I read this book.

Which is a shame, because there is quite a good story here. And Clavell tells it very well indeed, in vivid prose, at a lively pace, and with quite an interesting set of characters, European and Japanese. I especially admire the proxy sectarian struggles, a 17th century culture war with actual stakes!

Too, the extraordinary length is not all condescending culture-translating pandering. This is a big, big story, a first contact tale in which both sides are of the same species and from the same planet, but are alien enough to each other for the plot to be seamlessly transferred to an episode of Star Trek. Which is awesome!

So, as a meditation on the power and value of novelty and on the struggle to exploit it, Shogun is nonpareil.

I mean, it's an Elizabethan Englishman in Japan! Who just happens to also be the best guy ever at improvised sign language. Seriously, the first third or so of the book seems to have something along the lines of "With signs Blackthorne made him comprehend" every few pages. But Clavell is perhaps sparing us the tedious description of the combination of signs-and-blank-stares-and-more-emphatic-signs he probably is really describing, neh? So perhaps I'll just stick to Elizabethan in Japan! Gaudeamus! Except he's a Protestant, so I should avoid Latin. Hooray!

And the flesh is barely back on Blackthorne's bones when he becomes the hottest commodity to hit Japan since the Black Ships first arrived, and maybe even hotter than them, because he has the power to complete -- and completely transform -- the Japanese understanding of the greater world from which he and they came. He quickly realizes his power, as the first non-Iberian visitor to Japan, to poke holes in the tissue of lies and concealed motives that have been presented to the Japanese who welcomed the Spanish and Portuguese as trading partners and missionaries but were ignorant of just how those newcomers had behaved in those roles in other parts of the world (think Conquistadors) and of their essential goal of world domination, with Japan just the latest strategic stepping stone to feel their boots.

All that and he knows all about deep-seafaring, shipbuilding, navigation, and where the Portuguese have stationed forts -- staffed and defended by samurai! -- along the African and Indian coasts. And he's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed giant, packed with DNA that has not ever been combined with the local gene pool, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Which brings me to the wonderful Mariko, one of the most fascinating heroines I've encountered in some time. She is far more than a love interest, and not just because she's handy with a sword; she is indispensable to the machinations of her liege lord, Toranaga, keeping the plot churning so constantly that the reader only rarely notices that this novel is really just one giant tease for Crimson Sky. Mariko, though, ah, Mariko. She can get more done with a non-committal bit of politeness than a whole army of Brown or Gray samurai bristling with swords -- or muskets. Her continual awareness of how everything is playing out and exactly how much she and her men can get away with make her a complete joy to read. And of course, without her, Blackthorne is a resource no one can exploit, or even understand.

And Toranaga! He lives forever in my head personified by the great Toshiro Mifune. I love his weirdly majestic interpretation of a sailor's hornpipe and wish I could find a clip of him doing it alone on the mountaintop, but this is still pretty good:

In short, I can't remember when the last time was that I so enjoyed being so exhausted by a novel. I approached its end with a mixture of joyous anticipation (because I have so many other interesting books lined up to read) and bittersweet sadness (because I've gotten a great deal of pleasure out of reading this one). There are, of course, four other giant boluses of novel that Clavell set in Asia, and I will definitely read them in time on the strength of this one, but none of them will have Toranaga. Or Mariko. Or Blackthorne. Or Yabu. Or Rodrigues. Or Father Alvito and those wicked, scheming Jesuits. Ah, me.

*Coincidentally, that miniseries starred none other than Richard Chamberlain (and seriously, shut up about Matt Damon. The King of the Miniseries is the only true Jason Bourne), who, of course, also starred in the miniseries adaptation of Shogun. And speaking of the miniseries, I had a delirious moment or two whenever Mariko addressed Blackthorne and calls him "Pilot-Major Blackthorne," because of course the actress exaggerates the famous Asian accent so it sounds like she's calling him "Pirate-Major Brackthorne" and immediately I have Gilbert & Sullivan on the brain. Gilbert & Sullivan are, of course, also famous for "The Mikado" in which Japan is used as an exotic setting for a sharply satirical commentary on English society.

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