Wednesday, February 09, 2011


So I've finished Shogun. The ending was as abrupt as I remembered it: the threat of epic battle loomed large throughout the nearly 1200-page novel, but in the end was glossed over as the MacGuffin it was. Toranaga's thoughts about the future were essentially what brought the novel to a close (excepting that italicized authorial intrusion at the very, very end, describing the outcome of the war and Lord Ishido's ignoble fate). Characters' thoughts were a major part of the story: Clavell had no scruples about jumping from character to character as an omniscient narrator; sometimes his jumps would occur in the midst of a dialogue. I occasionally wished, though, that he had chosen only one person to be the point-of-view character (isn't this what the TV miniseries "Shogun" originally did, when it chose to show everything through Blackthorne's eyes, leaving the Japanese dialogue unsubtitled?).

Those final five or six pages of the novel wrapped up almost all the loose ends, including the ones I've mentioned in earlier posts and comments. Blackthorne's logs weren't mentioned again, but since the logs had been grouped with his rutters, we did find out the fate of all that information, and came to know that Toranaga wasn't worked up about it at all. We also learned that Mura, the village headman, was actually one of Toranaga's greatest spies.

It's unfortunate that almost every single reference to Koreans in the novel denigrated them as "Garlic Eaters" (always capitalized) and cowards. Only one character, the former Taiko, pondered using Koreans as part of an army to invade China, but even this reference was made in the context of conscription or subjugation. A more Korean-friendly reading of Clavell might be that he was emphasizing Japanese arrogance, but Clavell's book is open to multiple interpretations. He's been accused of a form of "orientalism" by those who feel he's caricatured the Japanese (many of whom seem all too willing to slit their own bellies), but he's also been accused of being a Japanophile by those who take a dim view of his portrayal of most of the Westerners in the novel. About the only two respectable Westerners are Blackthorne and Father Alvito, with the pilot Rodrigues a distant third.

Reading this novel both before and after a Master's program in religious studies proved enlightening; this time around, I was more sensitive to the various conflicts between and among Portuguese/Spanish Catholicism, English Protestantism, Pure Land and Zen Buddhism, and, underlying all Japanese sensibilities, Shinto. The internal struggle of Catholic characters like Mariko-- born into Shinto/Buddhist syncretism, converting to Catholicism, and falling in love with a roguish English Protestant-- was more poignant to me this time around.

I have both praise and complaints about Clavell's writing style. As I mentioned before, his prose tends to be clipped and overly spare. At the same time, I have great admiration for his mastery of 1600-era nautical terminology. I don't know how much he knew about ships and sailing before he sat down to write his novel, but Clavell was eminently comfortable with the terms. It did feel a bit strange, though, to see those terms used when we knew that Blackthorne was speaking in either Dutch or Portuguese almost the entire time.

Shogun remains an excellent novel, to my mind. Not one of my favorites, but well-plotted and fleshed out. It took a long-lost world and made it somehow real, and if a writer has managed that feat, he deserves high praise.



The Maximum Leader said...

Since you prompted me to re-read Shogun as well... I was shocked to read (around page 200) that Mura was Toranaga's spy. I alway recall the reveal at the end (when we learn that Mura is actually Akeci (?) Tonomoto a samurai spy. This time through I noticed that early on (again about pg 200) Mura is revealed as a Toranaga spy. When Toranaga is considering Blackthorne's testimony in front of the Heir he "thinks" that Mura, his spy, should be able to discover who has the rutters.

Elisson said...

Good Gawd... I read Shogun over thirty years ago, coincidentally enough on my first trip to Japan. Being "right there" added a lot to my enjoyment of the book... as did reading Clavell's Tai-Pan whilst in Hong Kong.

I probably should re-read those books. I wonder what I'd think of them today...

Kevin Kim said...

O, My Maximum Leader,

I did a bit of hunting, and am having trouble finding that particular moment during the conversation between Toranaga and Blackthorne in front of Yaemon (pp. 251-264), but I found Mura mentioned on page 203, where we learn through Father Alvito's secret thoughts that Mura was the one who stole the rutters and other maps from Blackthorne and gave them to the priests. I don't know whether this early moment in the novel counts as a shocking revelation that Mura was one of Toranaga's greatest spies, but it does show Mura clearly to be in someone's employ, doing the sort of information-gathering we'd expect from a spy or a glorified thief.

Page 1147 is the big reveal as we listen in on Toranaga's thoughts:

You [Blackthorne] won't fail, and you'll be safe and happy in your large fief, where Mura the fisherman will guard you from Christians and continue to feed them misinformation as I direct. How naïve of Tsukku-san to believe one of my men, even Christian, would steal your rutters and give them directly to the priests without my knowledge, or my direction. Ah, Mura, you've been faithful for thirty years or more, soon you'll get your reward! What would the priests say if they knew your real name was Akira Tonomoto, samurai-- spy at my direction, as well as fisherman, headman, and Christian? They'd fart dust, neh?

So the impression I get is that, on page 203, we know Mura was spying for someone, but it's not until the very end of the book that we see the awesome foresight of Toranaga, who's been playing everyone from the very beginning, like King Joyse in Donaldson's Mordant's Need series, using innocuous, unassuming Mura to help set the chess pieces in their places for what Clavell calls the Great Game.

If you can hunt down that passage, the one with Toranaga's private thoughts on Mura and the rutters, I'd appreciate it. Wading through all that text has taxed my sanity.