on 23 September 2011
I came to Gai Jin having read James Clavell's outstanding Shogun a while ago. Comparing Gai Jin against that sets the bar exceptionally high but the comparison is inevitable as both are by the same author, epically long, set in Japan in time periods well removed from the present day (albeit more than 250 years apart), and involve foreigners coming to, shaping and being shaped by Japan, ambitious Japanese noblemen seeking to overturn and replace a weak central government, and a central love story.
So far, so similar. Ultimately, and although Gai Jin is a very good book, it is no Shogun. Before saying why not, it's worth stating what is good about it. The book is full of strong characters (and as with his other books, gives an unusual and satisfying prominence to their thoughts), there are several good and inter-relating storylines, the writing flows intelligently but unobtrusively for the first three-quarters at least. The Japan and the encroaching wider world of 1862/3 are vividly and very realistically portrayed so one gets a real sense of the sights, sounds and smells, and opportunities, challenges and motivations - and the clash of cultures - of the time.
However, to pigeon-hole it as simply 'historical drama' would be wrong: it is bigger than that. The book is full of tension, politicking, human failings and nobility. At times it has the pace, violence and claustrophobia of a thriller; at others, it adopts a more leisurely approach and lets the characters rather than action lead the way.
The problems come with the narratives. None seems dominant and so none drives the overall story. There's not really a central character, nor does any have the dominance or charisma of Anjin-san or Toranaga in Shogun, which leaves the reader somewhat emotionally distant from the action. Also, at one point, after the different narratives have been well-balanced for the first three (of five) internal books, one storyline then dominates for over 100 pages and the overall momentum never really recovers.
The biggest problem, and the thing that left me unsatisfied, is that far too many storylines are simply unresolved. Expectations are raised about what will happen to various characters and their plans, hopes and aspirations but the book finishes before we find out. They are simply left hanging. In fact, only one of the major storylines is satisfactorily concluded.
All this sounds a bit negative so there needs a bit of balance. For more than 700 pages, this was a five-star book, extremely well written and with real, if not particularly sympathetic characters. Even though it then loses its way a bit and in fact never reaches its promised destination, the journey is still worth making.
on 21 June 2001
I recently came back to reading Gai-Jin after giving it up a few years ago as it was slow to get started. This time around I have definitely not been disappointed and my perserverence has been rewarded with a thoroughly engrossing read, filling me with knowledge and experiences of not only 19th century Japan, but also of Europe and imperial politics.
Don't read this book until you've read some other Clavell books, especially Tai-Pan and Shogun. Once you've read them definitely buy this one! They will give you some of the background and persuade you to carry on through some of the more pedestrian passages.
I see that the collective verdict of this instalment of Clavell's epic saga is rather mixed. To add my own two-penneth I would offer that this is first and foremost a drama set within a highly specific historical context, and one whose main purpose is to illustrate the historical forces in operation at that highly portentous moment. The diplomatic wrangling and the internecine intrigue all take place within a framework that is conditioned by the global sweep of events. The American Civil War, British Sea Power, the Tai-Pai Rebellion on mainland China, shifting fault lines in the European balance of power, plague, famine, and above all the relentless machinations of money and business. All these factors are bought minutely to bare on the fortunes of this small and terribly exposed enclave of European adventurers, that clings to the edge of the alien and implacably hostile world of Shogunate Japan. To my mind the fact that many of the plot threads of the individual characters in the story are left unresolved only serves to highlight the fact that all these people were caught up in a web of forces vastly larger than themselves. All had severely limited choice and scope for action, given the constraints of the times, and the manners and mores imposed by their respective social systems, whether European or Asiatic. Having an interest in the historical developments that unfolded from this era I would even argue that the implicit conclusion of the tale is the Japanese naval victory against the Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905, which marked the decisive arrival of Japan upon the world stage. Or even the vast misery inflicted by the Japanese adventures first in Korea and then in China and Manchuria that culminated in atomic devastation, and the ultimate defeat of the whole samurai worldview that is elaborated so engagingly in this and its sister novel, Shogun. Indeed, this is history at its most entertaining.
The writing style of Gai-Jin is not great, for which I would consider knocking off a star. I don't remember the writing for Shogun grating quite so often. But it is almost as if there is so much pressure to get the complexities of the plot, and the even greater complexities of the historical background, out onto the page that the quality of writing is reduced to a secondary priority. Considering the density of historical detail that has gone into the creation of this huge, bulging tapestry, I cannot do anything but give it an admiring five stars.
on 4 May 2001
After the fabulous and hard hitting Tai-Pan comes Gai-Jin. The saga of the Noble House of Struan continues with the grandson of the mighty Tai-Pan. Set in Japan this novel is full of Politics, Sex and Violence, with a full cast of really believable characters. The story is well written and takes all points of view in this tale. The book is easy to get lost in and makes you hungry for more of the same. After reading this book once you will be sure to read it a second time and still be amazed at the twists and turns of the plot. More of the same is needed!
on 23 January 2011
This starts like an extraordinary book, and stays so until about two thirds. Then the prose becomes incredibly annoying, imprecise, repetitive; the characters become one-dimensional. It really feels like it was written by a third party from a sketched plot. Clavel sadly passed away the year after this was published. He may have lacked the time to properly finish what should have been his masterpiece. As it stands I just couldn't wait to get it over with.
on 10 June 2000
For such a lengthy novel, this story makes very compelling reading, and as a reviewer said, "seldom does a page fail to advance the plot or develop a character in some way." The characters are very well brought to life, and there are (one or two!) twists in the plot. The idea seems to be that fundamental human behaviour transcends time boundaries (and cultures) In other words the familiar themes of pride, jealousy, love, lust and hatred are universal.
This is all very well, but "why 1 star?" i hear you ask. Well, because at the end of the day this is a STORY, and as such requires an ending. Having devoted a heck of a lot of hours to these 1300 pages of dense and small print, you can imagine my frustration when the writer seemed to get bored, and dash off an abysmal excuse for an epilogue. No, I'm not a complete idiot, i don't need everything spelled out to me, but i don't consider it clever or 'literary' in any way to leave several complex sub plots dangling precariously in mid air. A great shame.
(I'd welcome any correspondance from like/unlikeminded people.)
on 27 August 2007
I have just finished this book and wanted to see what other people had thought about it.
i was completely enthralled with all of the characters in this novel, the story lines, sub plots, everything about it compelling me to carry on reading it.
i have to admit that yes, shogun was a better book. i would certainly recommend reading Shogun and Tai-pan first, without this you would not fully understand the context of the book.
as to the reviewer that commented on the ending; i do believe that in the previous books all ties were not neatly tied up, i am now hungry to read the next in the saga, as clavell will, no doubt , provide us with information about the characters as he has done with characters from previous books in Gai-jin.
if you are looking for a book that is decently written and something to transport you away from eveyday life then look no further as this is all that you will need.
on 16 August 2008
I've been reading this for months and I've finally given up about two thirds in.
Gai-Jin (meaning 'outside person', or 'foreigner' in Japanese) is based on an actual 1862 event, known as the Namamugi Incident, in which a British national was killed, and two others wounded, by samurai on the Tokaido highway near Kanagawa for not showing the proper respect for passing Satsuma daimyo (Satsuma is a province in the south of Japan, and daimyos were local heads of government in Japan's then feudal system) . In retribution the British navy bombarded the Satsuma capital of Kagoshima. These short-lived hostilities (known as the Anglos-Satsuma War) contributed to Japan's decision, after witnessing the easy destruction of Kagoshima by the British, to modernise its army and also to trade more freely with the Western powers.
The Namamugi Incident forms the opening of the novel, and the rest of it is taken up with its consequences. However, on a wider scale, the book tells the story of the opening up of Japan consequent to Commodore Perry's arrival, in 1858, with the black ships and the 'unfair treaties' that were then 'forced' on the weakening Tokugawa shogunate. Even though little time passes and not much action takes place in the book, it captures the many strands of all the influences which caused Japan to reluctantly open to the world, frozen at almost a single moment in time. These events, ultimately, lead to the collapse of the shogunate and the whole feudal system in 1867 and the Meiji Restoration in 1868, though the novel doesn't cover events up to that point (just as Clavell's earlier Shogun doesn't cover any of the actual Tokugawa shogunate, only the events leading up to its formation).
Reviewers complain that nothing happens at the end of the novel, that it is an anti-climax after the 1,200 pages or more of time and effort required to get to the end. Up until shortly before I finally gave up, this seemed to me to be excusable, because the book builds the reader up for a big British-led invasion of Japan that never did actually take place. It didn't happen, but in retrospect it is amazing that it didn't, and that Japan resisted Western aggression, was never colonised, and built up an army powerful enough to defeat one Western power (Russia, 1905) and then go on to give America and Britain a run for their money in WW2 and then to become the second largest economy in the world. This thwarted everybody's expectations, so it isn't it right that the book thwarts the reader's expectations and simply diffuses at the end? But, of course, I don't even know what happens at the end, because I didn't get that far! Does it end in the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British? That would be a good ending, and fairly dramatic.
It's true that there isn't much development in the story, but Clavell delves deep into character and historical detail, focusing minutely on the spaces between the actual events (which are few and far between). After 800 pages little more happens than Canterbury is assassinated on the Tokaido and the British are demanding retribution from the shogunate, who claim that it is a matter for Satsuma rather than them. This stalemate just goes on and on. However, there are loads of interweaving subplots beneath this main historical story in which lots does happen, lots is thought and, perhaps most annoyingly for some readers, lots is said. All this explores in great detail the situation in Japan at this point in history and it is done with great understanding and empathy (though Clavell does occasionally get things wrong - for example talking about the use of incense in Shinto shrines. This mistake is minor but it undermines the reader's trust in his authority as a Japan expert).
Gai-Jin, much more than Shogun, is a novel with an ensemble cast. There are many 'main characters'', none of which has the reader's total sympathy or support and none of which are drawn with a totally unsympathetic hand. Some reviewers have complained that this gives the reader no one to 'root for'. I think this method is fine in this book. After all, in life, nobody is absolutely wrong and nobody absolutely right. It all depends on the moral standpoint of the onlooker. Here Clavell suppresses any moral standpoint, never judging the actions of his characters, simply portraying them. This is a great achievement, though some may criticise Clavell for being amoral as a consequence. I think the opposite. This great understanding and sympathy suggests that he is a compassionate man, able to understand everybody's actions as they are motivated by different and conflicting agendas, whether it is the shishi and their sonno-joi movement to expel all gai-jin and restore power to the emperor, a British official and interpreter wanting to advance himself, or a French girl trying to use all her sexual charms to win the hand in marriage of the richest man in all Asia.
Other complaints are of bad grammar, and these are valid, but the grammar is not bad enough to seriously distract the reader from the story, so this is relatively unimportant. The novel is certainly not badly written. Clavell again demonstrates his fluent and compulsive style. The pages turn and before you know it whole hours have slipped by. However, for me, not all the pages turned.
I just want to address two issues about Clavell's narrative method in the book. Narrative method 1 - exposition on Japanese culture is often presented as memory or flashback of a Japanese character. Seems clunky but these things do need explaining to the majority of the target readership. I cant think of a better solution. Narrative method 2 - the omniscient narrator is reporting a conversation, then (memory or not?) he switches to an earlier time and what went on there. One reviewer said there was sometimes a memory within a memory. Cant remember that ever happening. Also, it was said by the same reviewer that within one character's recollections, the view of another character was expressed. This would be a flaw if it was a memory, but maybe it isn't - maybe it's just omniscient reportage.
I would recommend this book, but certainly not over Shogun (and, from what other readers say, not over Tai-pan or Noble House). I probably won't ever finish it, as there's plenty of good stuff out there to read instead, and I gave this one a good shot. It's unusual for me to give up on a book (I also gave up on Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and On the Road by Jack Kerouac - can't think of any others), especially when I don't even think the book is bad, which is the case here. This book could really have done with some tightening up and cutting, as there's plenty of great stuff in it.
on 28 April 2016
I really enjoyed this when it first came out, I hope to enjoy it again, this story though to my understanding, is not as rooted in real history as Shogun is, but James Clavell is a very good and engaging writer, so I am happy to say that you should give this saga a go.
on 20 January 2002
A fantastic and latently erotic novel with superb characterisation and a multitude of sub-plots. Rather than the narrative being "slow" at times, I found the plot to be drip-fed and the suspense entailed was worth it. As usual with Clavell, the attention to detail is immense and the term "factional novel" could have been coined for his books. In my opinion, his Asian saga novels are the greatest adventure books yet written.