James Clavell | Critical Review by F. G. Notehelfer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
This section contains 856 words
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Critical Review by F. G. Notehelfer

SOURCE: "The Wild West of the Far East," in The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, p. 13.

Notehelfer is an American educator, historian, and critic who specializes in Japanese history. In the following review of Gai-jin, he asserts that despite Clavell's gifts as a storyteller, Clavell treats Japanese history in a stereotypical and sensationalistic manner.

Few eras of Japanese history were more violent, turbulent and politically exasperating than the 1860's. Caught between a dying old regime and the revolutionary forces that sought to create a new Japan, the country seethed in what appeared to be a chaotic series of intrigues, plots, coups and counter-coups. To make sense of all this was a formidable task. As The New York Tribune's Japan correspondent, Francis Hall, lamented, "To foretell what will be is impossible; to be sure of what has happened is not always attainable." Better to be a "rainmaker" in South Africa, he added, than a "seer" in Japan. "Tycoons, Mikados, supreme councilors, regents, governors, nokamis, daimios friendly and daimios hostile," he wrote, "have flitted before our eyes with all the changefulness of the magic lantern's phantasmagorfs."

James Clavell's new novel, Gai-Jin (meaning "foreigner"), concentrates on this period. As in the case of Shogun, Mr. Clavell revels in the turbulence of political death and rebirth. Here are all the "phantasmagorfs" mentioned above, and a few more: a boy shogun in the clutches of an imperial princess; a conniving member of the Tokugawa house bent on becoming shogun himself; the lords of Satsuma and Choshu, committed to destroying the shogunate; hordes of samurai whose hatred for uncouth and greedy foreigners is combined with loyalty to the Emperor. As the narrative progresses, ronin assassins, conspiring shishi (men of action), gunrunners and gun buyers mix with beautiful and obliging women whose world of willows and pillows perpetuates the ever-alluring stereotype of the Asian woman. Not that there aren't modern touches. There's a female shishi who throws a knifelike shuriken at the future shogun—killing not the lord but his ever-protective mistress. What the 19th-century Japanese would have done with a female shishi boggles the mind! But then, what would the 16th-century Japanese have done with Mariko, the heroine of Shogun?

Gai-Jin is not without interest. Many of the period's colorful characters are here in thin disguise, and so are many episodes from the early days of Yokohama. Mr. Clavell's novel opens in 1862 with a fictionalized version of the assassination of a British citizen, Charles Richardson, by samurai traveling with the rebellious lord of Satsuma on the great national highway known as the Tokaido. It ends with the British bombardment of Kagoshima in 1863, a seminal event on the road to the Meiji Restoration, which brought feudal Japan into the modern era. What we have in between is something the Japanese might compare to a manga—a kind of comic-book portrait of Yokohama and its people.

Take the heroine of the novel, Angelique Richaud, a nubile 18-year-old French beauty who accompanies the fictionalized Richardson (called John Canterbury) on the Tokaido, only to see him murdered. Witness the following scenes: Angelique is raped (while under the influence of laudanum) by Canterbury's shishi assassin, who sneaks into her room while the good doctor, Babcott, operates in the room below on Malcolm Struan, her husband-to-be and heir to the trading company known as Noble House; some days later, the same man rapes Angelique, again at knifepoint; she becomes pregnant and, despite having aborted the child, looks on these two encounters as the most fulfilling sexual experiences of her life. If this isn't an ero manga (erotic comic) of the type popular in Japan today, what is it? I'm reminded of a feature published some years ago in Mad magazine projecting what the West might have been like if peopled by characters from the silver screen. The conclusion, I remember, was that the West would have been even wilder. In Mr. Clavell's novel, Yokohama, which some called "the Wild West of the Far East," presents the same gap between fiction and reality.

Such reservations do not detract from what is a well-told story, but I feel obliged to mention them because Mr. Clavell prefaces his book with the remark that his tale "is not history but fiction," adding that works of history "do not necessarily always relate what truly happened." Mr. Clavell also tells us that he has "played with history—the where and how and who and why and when of it—to suit my own reality and, perhaps, to tell the real history of what came to pass." As one who has played with Yokohama's past, I am intrigued that when scholars like Francis Fukuyama declare the end of history, novelists like James Clavell take up the mantle to tell us the "real" story of what happened. I wonder if Charles Richardson (John Canterbury), Ernest Satow (Jamie McFay), Sir Rutherford Alcock (Sir William Aylesbury), Dr. William Willis (Dr. George Babcott) and some of the other men of Yokohama are turning over in their graves. Certainly Mrs. Borrodaile (Angelique Richaud), who accompanied Richardson on that fateful ride on the Tokaido, must be jumping up and down.

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This section contains 856 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by F. G. Notehelfer
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