Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell

Wow. I finished. Finally.

This book is enormous. 1210 pages. I started it back at the very end of February. It was one of the five fat books I brought on my cruise, just to be sure I wouldn't run out of reading material. Not to worry. Not only would this one book obviously have kept me more than entertained the whole trip, but my ship had a library! (I borrowed two books.) I had no idea that it would be FIVE months for me to finish it, whew!

So, to back up:
On the Dutch ship Erasmus in 1600, the Pilot, Blackthorne (a Brit), and his remaining men arrive at the until-then mythical island of Japan. There are Portuguese there, mostly Jesuits, but it was still not entirely known if the rumors about it existing were true. Partly that's due to the fact that so recently after the Reformation, the Protestants (Dutch and English) don't believe a word they learn from the Catholics (Portuguese). But now Blackthorne must rely on the priests to translate for him as he attempts to navigate his way in this world, trying to keep his ship and his crew safe, and eventually negotiate for their return to the sea (although to do so, they'll need to hire some locals as seamen as they have lost too many crew to get back to Europe by themselves.) Meanwhile he learns of the incredibly lucrative Black Ship - the annual trading ship that runs between Portugal, China, and Japan (which he wants to capture), and he's attempting to learn the Japanese language and ways, with the help of the beautiful Mariko, who through the Catholic church has learned both Portuguese (the language of sailing) and Latin. Blackthorne convinces Lord Toranaga that he can be more helpful alive than dead, as he can help Toranaga build a navy, and teach them how to fight using guns. While Toranaga and the four other lords of the council come to the brink of war over Japan (they are ruling while the heir to the throne is not yet of age), Blackthorne and Mariko grow closer.

Why is the book so darn long? It covers roughly 6 months' time, and there are very intricate political relationships and maneuverings and plotting leading up to possible battle. The translating takes up a lot of time, even if we never get the Japanese. We do get a lot of wondering about the translation's accuracy, comments on its speed, occasional editing by the translator, and so on. But mostly it is due to the extreme formality of the Japanese culture, and the newness of it. Mr. Clavell spends a great deal of time explaining everything from "pillowing" to why Japanese house are made of rice paper to what are ronin. The language is very convoluted, where someone has to ask for a thing in a certain way, and will be repeatedly denied, over and over, and yet must keep asking because that is the tradition and the approved manner to behave. A simple conversation that, in English, could be conducted in a few lines, sometimes takes page after page, in order that no one's rank or sensibilities are insulted. I don't mean to imply that it's tedious - the foreignness of these rituals make them quite interesting - but it is long. And of course learning about samurai and seppuku and bushido and hatamoto all takes a lot of explanation. Even more than you might think because back when the book was published, in 1975, I don't know that there was as much familiarity with concepts like karma as there is now.

Personally, another thing that slowed my reading down was all the Japanese language. I am terrible at languages. Really horrible. It's a family trait, and despite great struggles in high school and college, I remain dreadful at languages. Through the book, as Blackthorne is learning Japanese, more and more of it is sprinkled in the text without explanation. Thanks to Styx, I always could remember domo arigato, but words and phrases like gomen nasai and wakarimasu ka kept cropping up that I was much fuzzier on. So not only did those slow me down as I puzzled to remember their meaning, but I also then wasn't sure I was getting the meaning of the dialogue where those appeared, which further slowed me. Even the names were confusing. Clavell had obviously tried hard to use Japanese names that were dissimilar from each other, but what threw me was that most people had 3-4 different names, even Blackthorne (the Japanese couldn't pronounce that so that called him Anjin which means pilot in Japanese.) There are many, many other readers who would not struggle with this issue even half as much as I did and it shouldn't alarm anyone unless you too decided to not apply to a college you otherwise liked that required 3 years of a foreign language.

These speed bumps notwithstanding, it's still unprecedented that it would take me MONTHS to read a book! So, did that mean I didn't like it? Well, I did have trouble really getting into the story, partly because of the above issues. I love to really get sucked into a story, and when that happens I often will pick up the book at every opportunity, spend entire Saturdays doing nothing but reading, but that never happened with Shogun. I liked it, but I never got sucked in. Well, until the last 150 pages. I thought that I knew how the book was going to end, but several twists in the last 150 pages completely broadsided my assumptions and made the ending much more interesting than I had anticipated. I like an author who is willing to take risks like Clavell did there, and don't worry, they weren't out-of-character events at all (in fact the opposite is true). But I'm not going to spoil it for you.

So would I recommend this book? Sure. I learned a ton which I always enjoy. But it's more of a guy's book with action and machinations and cross-alliances and secret plots, and it's definitely a beach read type. I liked it but I didn't love it. But when I posted it as a "to read" on Facebook, I had more people comment that they had loved the book than on any other TBR posting, so obviously many readers have fallen in love with Shogun. However for me the constant back-stabbing and trying to remember who is on whose side and are they really on their side or are they secretly allied with someone else, well it was a bit exhausting. I enjoyed it but I didn't love it. Many people will, and if you find it intriguing, please don't let my review put you off. Domo arigato.

I bought this book used at the Friends of the Library book sale.


Cath said...

This is one of my favorite miniseries of all time and I have always meant to read the book--it's one of my dad's favorites, and he, like you, has great taste!

I commend you for finishing it...the size is, admittedly, daunting.

Carin Siegfried said...

@Constance Reader, it is the lognest book I've ever read! I just figured out how to add the page numbers to my GoodReads listing and I sorted by it, and it's the longest. Only my complete Shakespeare and complete Chaucer are listed as longer than it - and I didn't read all of either of those!

Anonymous said...

Your review reflects my sentiments to a T!

George K. said...

I just finished reading the book. It was amazing. I don't know what to do anymore. I had to google the author. Pity he's dead because I would have sent him a letter thanking him for producing such a work. You learn so much from the novel: Japanese cultural, global interactions, politics, military strategy. Just an amazing read....please read