Gai-Jin


Very rarely, there comes a novel so vast in scope, so rich in historical details, so vibrant, so engrossing, that you basically lose track of everything else around you. James Clavell's international bestselling masterpiece Shogun was one such novel. Indeed, it made for the ultimate reading experience. Awesome doesn't even begin to describe the book.

Unfortunately, Tai-Pan, the second installment in the Asian Saga, did not live up to the lofty expectations generated by its predecessor. Though it was a good and entertaining read, it failed to capture my imagination the way Shogun did. Which is why, I reckon, it took me so long to finally read the third volume.

Gai-Jin was released in 1993. And though chronologically it is the third book in the sequence, it was the last to be published before Clavell's death. The tale unfolds about two decades following the events of Tai-Pan and it chronicles the story of Malcolm Struan, the eldest son of Culum and Tess Struan.

Here's the blurb:

The heir to the magnificent English trading company, the Noble House…the direct descendant of the first Toranaga Shogun battling to usher his country into the modern age…a beautiful young French woman forever torn between ambition and desire…Their lives intertwine in an exotic land newly open to foreigners, gai-jin, torn apart by greed, idealism, and terrorism. Their passions mingle with monarchs and diplomats, assassins, courtesans and spies. Their fates collide in James Clavell’s latest masterpiece set in nineteenth-century Japan—an unforgettable epic seething with betrayal and secrets, brutality and heroism, love and forbidden passions.

Malcolm Struan is a protagonist based on the real-life Jardine tai-pan William Keswick. The Noble House is based on Jardine Matheson and Co., a major Scottish trading company which was known as the Jardine Matheson Holdings at the time of the founding of Hong Kong. As was the case with both Shogun and Tai-Pan, the narrative is filled with a wealth of historical details. Once more, the author managed to imbue Gai-Jin with an encyclopedic knowledge pertaining to the culture and history of 19th century Japan. The novel starts with a fictional rendition of the Namamugi Incident. The main theme explored throughout the book has to do with the hostility Westerners faced everywhere in Japan, hence the title. Gai-Jin means "foreigner" in Japanese. The multilayered political intrigue is based on the Namamugi Incident and its aftermath, which will lead to the subsequent Anglo-Satsuma War. Political and social upheavals in England and elsewhere in the Empire also have repercussions throughout the tale. In terms of worldbuilding, even though it is almost as dense and sprawling a novel as Shogun and Tai-Pan, which turned out to be a vast, dramatic, and marvelously crafted works of fiction, Gai-Jin doesn't work as well as its predecessors. The plot and the characterization are subpar, and no amount of historical details can save this novel.

In the past, James Clavell had a veritable knack for creating memorable characters. As is usually the author's wont, a panoply of points of view from several characters, great and small, add layers upon layers to a very complex story. Trouble is, this time around the characterization is particularly weak and comprised of a lot of lame protagonists. The recipe that worked so well in other books fails rather spectacularly in Gai-Jin. The main characters suck for the most part, which makes this novel a slog to get through. Angélique Richaud, especially, who begins as a clueless dumbass bimbo, and becomes a devious force to be reckoned with in the space of a chapter or two. It often felt as though Clavell wasn't even trying to come up with authentic and genuine men and women. Rampant sexism aside, which was a sign of the times, the storylines are decidedly flat and lackluster.

Weighing in at 1236 pages, Gai-Jin is another huge book. One would have thought that previous Clavell titles would have suffered from occasional pacing issues. And yet, there was enough suspense and unexpected surprises to keep you hooked from start to finish. No doubt about it, Gai-Jin is another door-stopper work. Sadly, it is often tediously boring and uninspired. Truth be told, at least a third of the pagecount could likely have been excised without losing anything important as far as the plot is concerned. Things do get better in the last 200 or 300 pages, but it's a case of too little, too late. By then the harm is done and there was no way to save this book.

As was the case with Tai-Pan and King Rat, the ending is anticlimactic. The lack of resolution leaves you hanging high and dry, which makes for a big disappointment.

Gai-Jin is by far the weakest of the four Asian Saga installments that I've read thus far. An unworthy sequel, to say the least.

The final verdict: 6/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

1 commentaires:

Christian Anderson said...

I read Shogun and it blew me away. One of my favorite books of all time. I loved it so much that I gave James Clavell too much credit. I liked Taipan and I made it through Noble House though it was a slog. Gai-Jin was my breaking point. I was about a third of the way through before I realized I needed to abandon ship.