Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shogun by James Clavell

Rating: 4 Stars

The last book I read that was as exciting as James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’ was…well, it was that other Clavell book I read. Like Tai-Pan, this book is also inspired by historical events. The story’s protagonist is based on  an English navigator,William Adams,  who became a trusted advisor to the 17th. Century Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

At the start of the seventeenth century, John Blackthorn, the English Pilot-Major of the Dutch ship, the ‘Erasmus’ finds himself and his surviving crew run aground on Japanese shores. While Blackthorn finds himself desperately trying to succor assistance from his hosts, he has to keep at bay the Portuguese merchant marines who have already carved a niche in trading with Japan, and will jealously guard their hegemony at all costs. Adding to the complications, Blackthorn has to rely on the interpreting skills of fanatical Jesuit priests, the rare few Europeans who have learnt the Japanese language in their self-anointed mission to convert the heathens of the world to the Catholic faith.

The Japanese daimyos (feudal lords) and the samurai warriors Blackthorn encounters are little impressed with Western claims to empire-building. They are however very interested in the concept of naval warfare and how it could tip the balance in their favor in their own power struggles. It is either the Europeans’ rotten luck or golden opportunity, depending on how you look at it, that they become embroiled in a game of thrones where many heads will roll before the outcome is settled.

Clavell is a master story-teller. I’ve not come across many other writers who have his unique combination of sophisticated plot, intelligent synthesis of history and fiction, engaging characterization, and blood-tingling action. But reader beware, ‘Shogun’ is no easy-reading treat. It’s neither for the faint-hearted, nor for those with attention-deficit handicaps. There are stomach-turning descriptions of violence; and countless names, vendettas, and historical events to keep in mind. The book is marginally excellent and would have been more so, if Clavell had trimmed it by a third and provided a glossary for reference. It’s saying a lot that despite these flaws, ‘Shogun’ stands head and shoulders above much of contemporary fiction.

 ‘Civilization’ is after only a matter of perspective. Blackthorn may be confounded by the Japanese alacrity to shed blood at the least provocation; the Japanese are puzzled by the sectarian differences within the Christian religion, and by much of Christian theology. Each race is understandably horrified and disgusted by the cuisine and sanitation habits of the other. But in the end, as in Tai-Pan, here too, Clavell proves dear old Kipling wrong – East and West shall meet, and it is their mutual destiny to be repelled, fascinated, and ultimately enriched by the contact.

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