Saturday, October 21, 2006

James Clavell

Currently reading James Clavell's Gai-jin, and a mighty slog it is too, despite having plenty of reading time, with travelling from the far-flung edge of Coventry to Leamington each day and being a rather faster than average reader. It's my third of his, having got through Tai-pan and Shogun previously. The thing I like about Clavell's books is the great 'sense of place' - no other fiction I've read set in the Far East really captures what it's like. Peculiarly, in the case of the Japanese, he writes very powerfully from their (then) point of view, capturing their repulsion to Western barbarians, yet he himself was a Japanese prisoner of war during WWII so you'd hardly expect him to write sympathetically on their score in any manner.

The cultural differences between orientals and westerners in these books is indeed striking. While the westerners were vastly ahead technologically, they seemed incapable of dressing sensibly for the climate and scorned any manner of cleanliness.

The difference in attitudes towards sex is striking: the Chinese and Japanese had simply never been inflicted with the Christian abhorrence, most striking amongst the British, I suppose as an overhang of the puritanical 17th century. There's a rather amusing passage in Shogun, where the main character, John Blackthorne, responds angrily when offered a maid for 'pillowing' for the night. The lady of the household and a samurai guard are rather nonplussed and wonder between them whether he'd prefer a boy, or a 'dog or a duck, like the garlic eaters' (Koreans). I believe this change still exists at some basic level, try finding a sensible debate on prostitution in Britain, for example. On a left-leaning notice board I use, many people assert that all prostitutes must be slaves of people traffickers or victims of child abuse. The orient has changed, however, and the middle classes of most countries mimic British attitudes of the 1930s attitudes while working-class people often show the liberal tendecies of the forbears. In Thailand, several of my friends are ladyboys, most from the poor north-east of the country, and never had a problem with their parents, while one from a comfortable Bankok suburb was beaten by hers every time they caught her wearing feminine clothes or makeup.

Another thing I like about Clavell's stories - every major character is plotting against everyone else. This leads to rather interesting storylines with plenty of twists and turns. While characters may be aligned with the principles of a movement or country, they aim to secure whatever personal advantage they can within it.

The historical setting of Gai-jin is particularly interesting. The Americans had forced a trading agreement allowing a foreign enclave in Yokohama in Japan against a fiercely nationalistic attitude of the Japanese Shogunate. More sensible members of the body wanted to acquire western weaponry to enable them to remove the same westerners militarily, while within the samurai class, some, known as shi-shi, were carrying out guerrilla operations to bring down the Shogunate, restore the power of the emporer and expel the foreigners there and then. The latter was, of course, rather foolish for as skilled as the samurai were with swords and bows, the westerners had repeating rifles and naval cannon.

Moreover, the samurai had another hatred, their own mercantile class, to whom they were heavily indebted and bore the seeds of their social decline. While the samurai were keen to get guns, the merchants were equally interested in the far more sophisticated western finance techniques.

The westerners just wanted to trade, though on unfair terms and their main commodities going out to the Far east were drugs and guns. Which are now havily infecting our own inner cities. As the Japanese characters of these books would no doubt say, 'Karma, neh?'


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