Shogun (James Clavell)

book_cover_shogunSet in the 1600’s of medieval Japan, immerse yourselves in this tale of the invincible Japanese warlord Toranaga, the bold English pilot Blackthorne, the beautiful Mariko torn between two ways of life, two ways of love, and a host of many other unforgettable, stirring characters. Shogun is a 1000+ page turner which captures any reader’s imagination.

Clavell follows the English sailor Blackthorne, or as the Japanese call him “anjin-san”, as he experiences, and is shaped by, Japanese culture to the extent that he becomes repulsed by, and ashamed of his old crew. It is this culture, and the effect it has on Blackthorne which is one of the most beautiful aspects of the novel. The Japanese way of life was very different to Blackthorne’s obviously. Clavell demonstrates the “honour” it was for a samurai to commit “seppuku”: suicide, and the importance of formality and obedience in ancient Japan. The events are often shocking and violent, but always very profound.

‘Historical’ fiction is something of a misnomer, as books placed in this category are almost always fiction first and ‘historical’ only in time and setting. Shogun, however, comes close to being a true example of this field, detailing the late 17th century exploration and exploitation of the Orient by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and English. As few people are aware of some of the atrocities and cruelties committed in the name of crown and religion during this period, some of the scenes depicted in this book may come as a shock. But they provide an excellent background portrait of the European mind-set of those times, a palette that Clavell uses to contrast and define the extraordinarily different culture of the Japan of that time.

Written for a Western audience, and certain items have yielded to literary license to make the story more approachable by the reader. Certainly Toranaga would not have played chess, but would Western readers have understood ‘Go’ as metaphor for Toranaga’s deep political machinations? But these are very minor distortions of the historical record. As a story, a tale of high adventure, as a hard look at alternative life philosophies, as an exposition of a very exotic time, place, and culture, this work succeeds on almost every level.

This is an excellent read that will expand your horizons and enrich your life, entertain you and satisfy your inner craving for something different from the every-day world of today. To understand why this book is a work of pure genius and, in my opinion, one of the best ‘historical’ novels ever written, it is critical to understand that James Clavell spent most of his wartime years imprisoned in Japanese POW camps. It was during his time in captivity that Clavell developed the extremely profound understanding of Asian culture which made his books come alive with a very rich characterization of Asia.



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