In 1992, I was in New York’s airport waiting to fly home from Germany. I had spent about 5 months studying abroad and I was headed to my parents home in San Jose, California.
I had a 6 hour wait for my connecting flight. I looked around and I counted 7 copies of “Gai Jin” written by James Clavell. Mostly white men were reading this book, deep in the story and doing their best to drown out the world with this story. Only one of them looked up and saw me spying on them. An older business men, he shot me half a smile.
“Good book?” I asked.
“There is so much I don’t know,” he said and continued reading. That was it.
In researching this piece, I looked up Wikipedia and they claim the book came out in 1993. I beg to differ (plus my copy in my basement dungeon/library was printed in 1992). The book was everywhere in December of 1992.
My dad read everyone one of Clavell’s books. In the 1970s, you were cool and smart and thoughtful if you finished Clavell, who would crank out phone book size novels with the cover art only being a drawn sword or a broken I-Ching coin.
It was only in University that I started to read him. He was a welcomed changed from all of the assigned text I was given as an English Major or the theology I had to get through in my ultra-conservative Christian school.
Clavell knew how to tell a story. In fact, he knew how to tell many of them all at the same time. There’s a phrase Stephen King uses called “The Ticking Time Bomb” in forwarding a plot. It’s the idea that there is always a problem in the story and story needs conflict. This problem- the bomb- must always have a countdown, alway be ready to explode. And the audience must never forget the clock or they’ll stop reading. For Clavell’s books, they were a time bomb shop in the mall….all about to explode.
When I was reading his books, I couldn’t help but sound half-mad. “Oh they’re great! You’ve got to read the first 200 pages to get hooked.” My friends-who I was shoving a 2,000 page novel in their face, would just grimace and shrink away. Looking back…I think I lost a lot of friends trying to get them to read Clavell.
But he was more than just a good storyteller. He was a bridge-maker: from white men in the west to the world of the east. And this bridge making was his legacy.
James Clavell was born in Australia in 1921 to British parents. He then served in the Royal Navy during World War 2. Trained in desert warfare, he quickly took to the east when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
His first voyage was lost and he was lost to sea, only rescued by a Dutch boat fleeing to India. He was dropped off near Singapore and joined a group of British soldiers to fight the war. During one of his skirmishes, he was shot in the face. Wounded, he was taken as a POW camp. During that time, he lived in a camp where hundreds died and only a few dozen survived.
Throughout his life, he never talked about his PTSD. Instead, he would talk about how a sardine can keeps popping up in his pocket or in his car. Even as one of the wealthiest novelists, he still would find a can of sardines near him. Whenever he experienced stress or would remember his war days, the can would magically appear. Never remembering that he purchased it or stored it, the thing would pop up.
After the war, he married an actress and began to write for movies. “The Fly”, “To Sir, With Love”, “The Great Escape”, and the “The Last Valley” all have his name on the screenplay. However, it was during the 1970’s that his large tomes popped up as bestsellers in airports.
“King Rat” was his book about being a POW, a much more grim and realistic telling than the edited and modified version of his script we saw in “The Great Escape”. However, as a POW, was not where he found his fame.
His blockbuster- “Shogun”- was about a British sailor taken in by a Feudal Japan Lord. This book chronicled the episodic adventures as the sailor sought to escape, leave this ancient world to his 1660’s England.
A side story- everyone watched the mini-series when it came out. There’s a scene, in the third episode, where a ninja tries to kill Richard Chamberlain. The day after that episode, my elementary school was a buzz because a ninja was on tv! A ninja! We had no idea what people were talking about or what was going on…we didn’t care! A ninja!!
Back to this blockbuster- it was his break-out story.
What was shocking about this story was that the main character wasn’t a white saviour, the “Connecticut Yankee” that outsmarts all of the ancient people of King Arthur’s court. No, he’s an observer. The plot of the story is too much for him, so he rides the wave and swims around the ticking time bombs. He attempts to help, but he makes it worst and all of the Japanese characters shake their heads, grumbling, “Were you paying attention!?!”
It captured the imagination of a whole generation who had no clue about Feudal Japan. Clavell taught culture, but it was always because the plot required one to do so.
This was his 2nd book. His first, Taipan, was about the trading company, Nobel House, in China. It did modestly well until “Shogun” became a blockbuster and businessman had something else to read in airports.
“Noble House” and “Whirlwind” came out, fleshing out the world of this company with thousands of pages of intrigue, culture, story, and characters. Again, you learned about China and Iran while running through the plot.
His last Noble House book was “Gai Jin”, the beginning of this British company’s business in Japan as it worked from his home base out of Hong Kong.
These novels coincided with the mania for mini-series, so they all got adapted (except “Gai Jin”). A spouse would read the book and then the other spouse would watch the mini-series.
The company, Noble House, was all set in Hong Kong and was British run, slowly being turned over to those who lived and loved in China. The great ticking time bomb was that Hong Kong would return to those native and Britain would lose control. This, of course, was to take place in 1999. However, Clavell died in 1994 and never wrote the conclusion to this story of when the company ceased being British.
In the 1970s, if you were white and a male, it was clear you would be the main hero and chief problem solver of any novel set in China, Hong Kong, Japan, or Iran. And yet, this is the farthest thing from Clavell’s books.
Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty moments of sexism, exceptionalism, imperialism, and other such blind vices to the mind of a mid-20th century man. However, there was this aspiration in his novels to understand, cooperate, intersect with the surrounding culture. None of his characters were ever experts of the place they lived; they kept learning as the plot drove them to do so. As a result, the story was the best teacher for those learning where they lived.
I keep thinking about the changing world of Canada. In Edmonton-my home- there are growing populations of different ethnicities and cultures. We’re no longer experts, no longer able to say that one way is the way and the way of culture. Instead, there’s a story going on- taking us through the variety of time bombs- that might be teaching. Maybe. And that depends on if we’re reading the story right.
In the meantime, cheers to James Clavell. Thank you for telling us so many good stories!