Tuesday, June 7, 2011
In it, Clavell returns to the Far East after the disappointing Whirlwind, set during Iran's 1979 revolution, and more specifically returns to Japan for the first time since Shōgun. It was the last book he would write, passing away a little more than a year after it was released in 1993.
By 1862, some ten years after U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan into opening trade with Western nations, several have established business headquarters there as they try to move into Japanese markets. Among them are Struan's, the Noble House established in Tai-Pan, and their bitter rivals, Brock's. The presence of the foreign trade delegations and diplomats is a source of tension in isolationist Japan, which is undergoing political upheaval in the twilight years of the Toronaga shōgunate. Neither Europeans nor Japanese understand the other's culture, and the knowledge gap leads to an attack on four Europeans out riding one afternoon. One is killed, and two are wounded, one seriously. A woman riding with them escapes. The seriously wounded man is Malcolm Struan, grandson of Struan's late founder Dirk Struan, and the woman Angelique Richaud. During Malcolm's slow recovery, he and Angelique develop a relationship, which does not particularly please Malcolm's mother Tess, the tai-pan or director of Hong Kong-based Struan's in all but name since her husband is unable to lead the company.
In the meantime, Lord Toranaga Yoshi, the guardian of the boy Shōgun until he attains his majority, must deal with rebels who seek to overthrow the shōgunate and restore the emperor to real power. He also must handle his fellow council members who believe he, like his namesake ancestor, covets the shōgunate itself.
As always, Clavell weaves a story that knows when to canter, when to trot and when to gallop headlong down the road. He is much more in his element in the Far East than he was in the Middle East and that gives Gai-Jin a sense of confidence Whirlwind didn't have. The connection with history -- the roadside attack and other incidents in Gai-Jin are based on actual events -- grounds the book more solidly than Noble House, which didn't have real-world analogs to root in.
Although it's his best book since Shōgun, Gai-Jin lacks the former's punch and focus. Part of the problem are the historical tie-ins. The arc of Shōgun bent towards Clavell's fictionalized version of the Battle of Sekigahara that put Tokugawa Ieyasu in power as the Shōgun, or absolute dictator, of Japan. Both the story of the English sea pilot John Blackthorne and Toronaga, Clavell's stand-in for Tokugawa, were aimed at a climactic resolution.
The historical arc of Gai-Jin bends towards the waning years of the shōgunate, leading up to Japan's industrialization and the Meiji Restoration of imperial power, which can hardly match a battle for impact. The Japanese storyline of Gai-Jin lacks the focus of the Europeans' side of things, and may have been Clavell setting the stage for later books in the series. It would be hard to imagine him not being able to find a story in the middle of the events that themselves set the stage for Japan's role in World War II.
Either way, Gai-Jin is a long read that keeps the journey worthwhile through most of its thousand-plus pages. Clavell's ear for dialogue helps the story bear down and his understanding that the story must always move forward, especially when the book is a thousand-plus pages, makes Gai-Jin a good way to spend a couple weeks worth of afternoons in its company.