Shogun by James Clavell - Recommended Book to Read January 26, 2016 13:59
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Shogun is a totally compelling novel which I first read as a teenager – and have since re-read so many times that the cover has fallen off my copy!
Shogun is set around the year 1600, when the major seafaring empires of Europe were busily dividing up the world between themselves, while Japan is still a firmly feudal nation.
It’s a story of a spectacular culture clash, between an Elizabethan English navigator, who’s shipwrecked while attempting to circumnavigate the world, and an ancient, isolationist, xenophobic and almost incomprehensibly “different” Japanese society, ruled by Samurai.
Author James Clavell spent time as a Japanese prisoner of war during the Second World War, and although he tells the story of a POW more directly in another acclaimed novel of his (King Rat), it is in Shogun where I believe his experience of an utterly alien Japanese culture is best reflected.
The characters, their differing cultural backgrounds, motivations, subsequently confused interactions, and inner thoughts, are superbly crafted. As are the environments and settings that Clavell describes. You can almost taste the meals that these characters eat!
When it comes to the complexity and Machiavellian nature of feudal Japan’s politics, you’re left with a uniquely clear perspective on the “wheels within wheels” turning away, and how each individual’s own ambitions fit into the bigger picture.
One memorable chapter sees you, as the reader, step inside the head of a character who has, up until now, been portrayed as the epitome of calm, considered and deliberate action. By the end of the chapter you’re left in a cold sweat, short of breath, with a tight chest, and honestly stressed on his behalf, after being walked through the monstrous machinations he’s been hiding behind a façade of impenetrable composure.
That’s not to say that the book lacks action, excitement or titillation. There are vicious skirmishes and individual conflicts, as well as exquisitely detailed battle sequences. Those looking for a samurai vs ninja hack & slash fest won’t be left disappointed. There’s also plenty of sex (hooray) and it’s a surprisingly funny read; there are several laugh-out-loud moments.
But it’s the ever-present alien attitudes to death, sex and personal honour, and the Englishman’s gradual integration into the Japanese society and way of thinking that fascinates me most.
I came away from reading Shogun with a vastly sharpened appetite for Japanese history, culture and knowledge of Bushido.
It’s one of my favourite books of all time. Read it. You can thank me afterwards.