Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This novel moved me especially, because its Estonian setting and characters touched nostalgic chords, bringing back memories of my time in the Baltic states.  Even if I'd never set foot in that part of the world, though, Purge would have knocked me flat. It's bowled over the critics, too, having been translated into 38 languages and winning over a dozen prizes so far.

My comment about nostalgia might suggest that this novel paints a pleasant, picturesque image of Estonia. Quite the opposite: it's almost unrelentingly grim. And lyrically gorgeous at the same time. 

Zara is a young woman, lured from her home in Vladivostok to "the West" by the promise of money. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she is huddled, with split lips, shattered fingernails, and torn but expensive clothing, beneath a tree. She managed to escape the two Russian mafia goons who were pimping her services to anyone willing to pay for them. She had become just another "Natasha" -- a Russian prostitute, ubiquitous from Vladivostok to Tallinn.    

Aliide is the elderly Estonian woman who finds Zara huddled under the tree in her yard. She is at first tempted to leave the girl there, assuming that she is a decoy for gangs of thieves. Post-Soviet Estonia is a bit disorderly, crime-ridden, and poor. Aliide has her own woes -- she is often tormented by local youths who know of and resent her past as a Soviet collaborator. And so the two women's stories unravel, and in time, we learn that they are in fact related. It wasn't by mere coincidence that Zara appeared under Aliide's tree, but it wasn't for the reasons that Aliide had feared. 

Estonia, like its neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was batted about like a tennis ball during the years of WWII. The Nazis invaded. Then the Soviets invaded. Some  threw their lots in with one, some joined forces with the other. Always nationalists resisted the foreign control and were ruthlessly persecuted. During the Soviet years, Russians moved in. They married Estonians, had children. They spoke Russian, Estonian, or both. And, all walls having ears, all conversations were overheard and were potentially deadly, leading to brutal interrogations or deportation to Siberia. This was the environment of Aliide's youth. She learned quickly to distrust men in "chrome-tanned boots". No matter what language they spoke, or where they came from. Men in boots are bad news.   

But then came the dissolution of the USSR, and a wild west mentality prevailed. Freedom! For some, yes, for others, no.  The trafficking of Russian and eastern European women became a plague, and Zara's experience gives us an excruciating front-row view of modern slavery. 

I did say that Purge was almost unrelentingly grim. The blessed relief comes from Oksanen's descriptions of the Estonian countryside, of Aliide's various pickles, preserves, teas, and home remedies, of the birch groves and pine forests, wild mushrooms and berries. Even the dripping, dreary Baltic gloom comes across as poetry.
The rainy yard was sniveling gray; the limbs of the birch trees trembled wet...
Aliide quickly recognises that Estonian is not Zara's mother tongue. All sorts of people speak the national language, but for very different reasons, some more benign than others. One must learn to classify non-native speakers as to their risk factor.
The village priest was a Finn who spoke Estonian. He had studied the language when he came here to work, and he knew it well, wrote all his sermons and eulogies in Estonian, and no one even bothered to complain about the shortage of Estonian priests anymore. But this girl's Estonian had a different flavour, something older, yellow and moth-eaten. There was a strange smell of death in it.  
To survive in Soviet Estonia, Aliide learns to trust her uncannily sharp sense of smell and her wits. Trusting other people is out of the question. It's ironic how communism in this instance, in this novel, amplified the drive for self-preservation regardless of the cost to others. 

As I read Purge, I pictured my friend, Natasha, a Russian-Estonian woman a few years older than I. Natasha lived in Tallinn, and I remember her shuffling around her apartment, drinking coffee from a chipped and stained mug, making salads of potato, boiled egg, sour pickles, and whatever else she could pull out of her refrigerator. She had good appliances, because her son had "some Russian business associates" of which we could not speak, and he made sure she had nice things. Natasha sometimes reminisced about the Soviet days, when one could walk home from the factory in the wee hours and not worry about crime. She grumbled about feeling persecuted as a Russian-Estonian. Even at her most cheerful (usually after copious amounts of wine), Natasha exuded a certain sadness. I just heard from a mutual friend in Finland that she has gone to Spain, where the weather is more agreeable and she no longer has to deal with Estonia's political past. I hope she finds some peace and contentment there. In one way, I would like to talk with her about this novel, but in another, I don't know that I have the fortitude. Let Sofi Oksanen tell Zara's and Aliide's stories; let Natasha be in peace. 

When the Devil Holds the Candle, by Karin Fossum

By the time I'd finished with Thomas Mann's novellas, I needed a bit of easier -- if not lighter -- reading, so I resumed my foray into Nordic Crime.  When the Devil Holds the Candle is the third of Fossum's Detective Sejer series to be translated into English and the third that I've read. Books #1 and #7 of 10 in the series have not been translated, which begs the question, why not?  Is there some aspect of them so Norwegian as to defy translation?

Detective Inspector Konrad Sejer made his appearance quite late in this story, and when he ambled onto the scene, I struggled to remember him from Fossum's two earlier novels. I confused him other Scandinavian detectives who have more striking character traits.  Compared to the Swedish and Icelandic detectives I've been following -- chain-smoking, junk food-munching, vodka-swilling, depressive divorcees -- Sejer is an altar boy. He allows himself one cigarette per day. He is widowed, not divorced, and his children appear to be well-adjusted and to love him. He frets that the behavioural psychologist he's now dating occasionally acts outrageously, and he regrets that he didn't make more of an effort to teach his 80kg Leonberger dog more manners. In short, he's not a highly memorable character. The instant I realised this, I remembered a radio interview with Karin Fossum that I'd heard some months ago. Konrad Sejer is uninteresting by design. Ms. Fossum doesn't want us to focus upon the detective -- she's much more interested in the people who commit the crimes, and the impact of their actions on society. Honestly, Kollberg the dog, although he does little more than knock Sejer over and drool excessively, is a more distinctive fellow.

The fact that her detective is unremarkable and her "criminals" so ordinary are actually what makes Fossum's work so intriguing. It's fascinating to read about psychopaths, but honestly (and thankfully), they commit only a small fraction of homicides. The devil in Karin Fossum's neighbourhood is much more mundane, and in that way, is actually more disturbing. I put her criminals in quotes, because I'm not even sure they deserve to be in prison. Even when they break the law in this novel, it's only by accident, by coincidence, that their actions have serious consequences.

Andreas and Zipp are two young men, barely out of their teens. Best friends, under-employed or unemployed, always on the lookout for enough money to buy a few beers. Andreas sees a young woman pushing a baby in a pram one night, her handbag resting on top of the baby. When he jumps out and grabs her bag, she loses her grip on the pram, and it goes over an embankment. Zipp tries but fails to stop it. Both boys flee as the woman scrambles down to retrieve her baby, who is screaming but otherwise not visibly hurt. A couple of days later, the baby dies, and until an autopsy shows the head injury, the doctor is ready to write it off as a crib death.

Later, the boys stalk an older woman as she walks back to her home on a dark street. Andreas follows her into the house and menaces her with a knife, demanding money. They struggle, she gives him a shove, and he falls down her cellar stairs. His neck broken, he lies in a paralysed, tangled heap on her cellar floor. For days. The old woman, it turns out, is a slightly off-kilter and very fearful person. She's not a sadistic lunatic -- she does keep Andreas warm and fed -- but his attack has only exacerbated her paranoia and reclusiveness.  No surprise there. He taunts her for holding him hostage, but she quite sanely reminds him that he is responsible for the present situation, which is most unpleasant for all concerned.

Zipp, meanwhile, is blundering his way through police questioning, not wanting to admit involvement in either crime, although he also wonders why Andreas never emerged from the old lady's house. Andreas' mother, a divorcee, is building a veritable sales pitch for her missing son, asserting to the police that he's a choirboy, really, and not an irresponsible juvenile delinquent. Like most mothers in such a situation, she repeats like a mantra, "I know my son!"  Her ex-husband makes no such claim: "He's my son, but I don't really know him. Sometimes I think there's no-one inside him to know."  I have the sense that most cops would say these statements ring perfectly true:  The defensive mother who says she knows her son and knows that he is incapable of doing wrong (she doesn't, and he isn't), and the weary father who says he no longer has any clue who his son is (and yet he probably sees the boy far more clearly than his ex-wife.)

And then we have Fossum's cops, Sejer and his colleague, Skarre. Another author would have given them superior acuity and skill, the instinct to put disparate pieces of the puzzle together, but these two Norwegians are good, decent, ordinary crime-fighters. They are dealing with a missing person report, but as they point out to Andreas' frantic mother, young men of 20 or so frequently take off on junkets here or there, and he is, after all an adult. They are dealing with the mother of the dead infant, but she arrives at the station several days after Andreas' disappearance and only slowly recalls enough information to connect her bag-snatching with Andreas and Zipp. Zipp bungles his interviews but adamantly denies any knowledge of either case. In the end, when circumstances have played themselves out, Sejer and Skarre can only look back and put the pieces together in retrospect, and even then, there are gaps in what the characters will ever know.

If this book lacks real heroes or villains, or tidy closures, that's just Fossum's art imitating life. She's not interested in Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lecter. Pre-meditated murder? Not in her book. Life just gets out of hand for these folks. Still, Fossum's characters are compelling in their ordinariness -- I had no desire to set the book down, even though I never expected a thrilling or surprising conclusion. I still wanted to follow them through.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, by Thomas Mann

Bookface has been wrangling with unpleasant immigration issues lately. She's investigating a number options, which include uprooting herself, her belongings, and her two cats and shipping the whole lot to a different country. This particular option has all the appeal of a sinus infection. A normal person would reach for some David Sedaris at such a moment, or the Buddha, or Harry Potter or hobbits. Bookface decided that this was the perfect time to curl up with Aschenbach, who loitered in Venice during a cholera epidemic. I believe it's called wallowing.

This is a 1988 Bantam collection of Mann's novellas, translated by David Luke, Lecturer in German at Oxford. The contents, in chronological order, are Little Herr Friedemann, The Joker, The Road to the Churchyard, Gladius Dei, Tristan, Tonio Kroeger, and Death in Venice. I was re-reading the last two; the first five were new to me.

The first 20% of the book is Luke's introduction, a predictably academic dissection of Mann and his work. At the end of it, however, he explains his motivation to put out his own, new translation of these stories. This section gave me pause and triggered some reflection on the role of translation. I first read Thomas Mann's work in German. Later, years after college when my German had rusted to the point of inoperability, I re-read it in English, always in translation by Helen Lowe-Porter. I wrongly assumed that her translations were ubiquitous because they were the gold standard. No, the American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had decided to grant her the exclusive English translation rights. David Luke maintains that Lowe-Porter's translations were sub-par, listing some of her errors, which ranged from simple lexical misunderstanding -- by confusing two similar German nouns, she described something as 'rootless' when it should have been 'savourless' -- to meaning-altering gaffes. I hadn't realised that a translator might get exclusive rights to an author's work, and after reading David Luke's translation (permissible now that Lowe-Porter's rights have expired), I don't think one should.

Many of these novellas explore one of Thomas Mann's favourite themes (and one of mine, as well):  the rational, disciplined, Apollonian aspects of the self vs. the passionate, creative, Dionysian ones. Mann, like many of his characters, came from such a split-personality home:  His father was a Lutheran German senator, and his mother a Catholic Brazilian. Tonio Kroeger probably best exemplifies this dichotomy (although Aschenbach, choosing to renounce his highly-structured German life to stay in cholera-stricken Venice to observe beautiful young Tadzio is another). Tonio struggles his life long to find a comfortable space between these two worlds and ends by concluding that there isn't one.
He went the way he had to go; rather nonchalantly and unsteadily, whistling to himself, gazing into vacancy with his head tilted to one side. And if it was the wrong way, then that was because for certain people no such thing as a right way exists. 
Mann often repeats key phrases throughout a story, but then again, we often crash into the same obstacles again and again throughout our lives, repeating our patterns and missteps. Tonio, years later, finds himself once more at the same impasse.
Begin all over again? It would be no good. It would all turn out the same -- all happen again just as it has happened. For certain people are bound to go astray because for them no such thing as a right way exists.
Moreover, one cannot escape one's demons by retreating to a hermit's cave. Give oneself over to the sole pursuit of intellect or spiritual discipline, and the demons will likely follow. The narrator in The Joker realises that he cannot split off the Dionysian half of himself and leave it behind.
One might almost suppose that a man's inner experiences become all the more violent and disturbing the more undisturbed and uncommitted and detached from the world his outward life is. There is no help for it: life has to be lived -- and if one refuses to be a man of action and retires into the quiet of a hermit's solitude, even then the vicissitudes of existence will assault one inwardly, they will still be there to test one's character an to prove one a hero or a half-wit.
This character decides, however, that since he doesn't easily fit in with the rest of society, that he shall go his own way, move to another country, live very modestly (in a manner unbefitting his social class and education), and live a lifestyle which he himself has defined. It doesn't take long for him to understand the impact of his isolation; to compensate, he amplifies the benefits.
But after all, an absolutely fascinating book has just been published, a new French novel which I have decided I can afford to buy and which I shall have leisure to enjoy, sitting comfortably in my armchair. Another three hundred pages, full of taste, blague, and exquisite artistry! Come now, I have arranged my life the way I wanted it! Can I possibly not be happy? The question is ridiculous. The question is utterly absurd...
Ouch. That hits close to home. If I were back in my country of origin, working 50-hour weeks and enjoying all the perks that come with that paycheck, I'd fit in a lot more smoothly with my neighbours. Then again, I wouldn't be sitting around reading Thomas Mann, either. We make choices, and there are pros and cons to every one of them. Blague, by the way, is a joke, a bit of nonsense. In my former life, I certainly wouldn't have had time to blog about blague. Probably wouldn't have even taken the time to look it up.

Most people think of Thomas Mann's writing as grimly serious, but he's not without a sense of humour. Likewise, many focus on the homoerotic aspect of Death in Venice. Scholars acknowledge that Mann likely felt stronger emotional connections to men than to women, but there is no evidence that he ever had a physical relationship with a man. On the record, at least, he was a loving and dutiful husband and father of six children. A few of his stories, though, include laughably effeminate characters, and I suppose that may be a symptom of the author working through some gender-related struggles. Herr Knaak, Tonio Kroeger's dancing instructor, is nearly a parody, with his flamboyant movements and melodramatic pronouncements. In Tristan, Herr Spinell is an absurdly frivolous man who fancies himself a writer. If Mann was using this character to poke fun at himself, he was poking with a scimitar. Herr Spinell loves beauty. Nearly swoons over it, in fact.
"What beauty!" he would then exclaim, tilting his head to one side, raising his shoulders, spreading out his hands and curling back his nose and lips. "Ah, dear me, pray observe, how beautiful that is!" And in the emotion of such moments Herr Spinell was capable of falling blindly upon the neck of no matter who might be at hand, whatever their status or sex... On his desk, permanently on view to anyone who entered his room, lay the book he had written. It was a novel of moderate length with a completely baffling cover design, printed on the kind of paper one might use for filtering coffee, in elaborate typography with every letter looking like a Gothic cathedral. Fraulein von Osterloh had read it in an idle quarter of an hour and had declared it to be "refined", which was her polite circumlocution for "unconscionably tedious".  Its scenes were set in fashionable drawing rooms and luxurious boudoirs full of exquisite objets d'art, full of Gobelin tapestries, very old furniture, priceless porcelain, rare materials and artistic treasures of every sort. They were all described at length and with loving devotion, and as one read one constantly seemed to see Herr Spinell curling back his nose and exclaiming: "What beauty! Ah, dear me, pray observe, how beautiful that is!"
Contrast this fellow with Aschenbach, the protagonist of Death in Venice. Aschenbach is a very serious and renowned writer. He has not renounced Teutonic self-discipline, and at late middle age, he is nearly at the point of total exhaustion when he finally decides that a change of scenery would do him good.
Not that he was writing badly: it was at least the advantage of his years to be the master of his trade, a mastery of which at any moment he could feel calmly confident. But even as it brought him national honour he took no pleasure in it himself, and it seemed to him that his work lacked that element of sparkling and joyful improvisation, that quality which surpasses any intellectual substance in its power to delight the receptive world. 
Once his ship has moved beyond sight of land, Aschenbach begins to get in touch with his senses; his intellect begins to loosen its grip.
The horizon was complete. Under the turbid dome of the sky the desolate sea surrounded him in an enormous circle. But in empty, unarticulated space our mind loses its sense of time as well, and we enter the twilight of the immeasurable. 
Once in Venice, the battle proper between Aschenbach's intellect and senses really begins. He knows the city is battling a plague; his common sense tells him he must leave. On the other hand, he is relishing its beauties, not least of which is the exquisite Polish youth, Tadzio. He has spent his whole life in a cerebral straight-jacket and having got free of it, he gorges on aesthetic pleasures. Occasional pangs of guilt prick him, but he convinces himself (with the help of Mann's repetitive phrases) that he needs and deserves this change, the threat of plague be damned.
He let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness... Because of a forbidden longing deep within him that ran quite contrary to his life's task and was for that very reason seductive, a longing for the unarticulated and immeasurable, for eternity, for nothingness. To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection? 
When rigid self-discipline and relentless work ethic have driven a man for so many decades, though, it's not easy to let go, no matter how obvious it is that one is at the point of collapse.
Aschenbach did not enjoy enjoying himself. Whenever and wherever he had to stop work, have a breathing space, take things easily, he would soon find himself driven by restlessness and dissatisfaction -- and this had been so in his youth above all -- back to his lofty travail, to his stern and sacred daily routine. 
At least, I suppose, Aschenbach had the beauty of the sea and Tadzio in front of him, the last things he saw before dying quietly in his beach chair.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

This book was a gift from a friend. It's my first exposure to Malcolm Gladwell; I remember that his earlier books, Blink and The Tipping Point, sparked a lot of discussion, but I've read neither. What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell's essays for The New Yorker, for which he is a staff writer.

The title essay, exploring the life and work of "dog whisperer" Cesar Millan, is actually one of the weaker ones in the book, but its title illustrates what motivates Gladwell. A more conventional journalist might focus on the trainer, perhaps on the dog owners who hire him, and finally, a bit on the dogs themselves. Gladwell wants to know why Millan is so successful from the dog's perspective. In other words, what does the dog see?

Gladwell excels not so much at offering blazing insight into the events and trends of our times but rather glimpses into the minds of those involved. In the preface, he admits a lifelong fascination for what goes on inside others' heads.  Developmental psychologists employ the term 'other minds problem'  to describe that early childhood phase when toddlers struggle to realise that what fascinates, delights or infuriates them may not be universal. Gladwell adds that "as adults we never lose that fascination," but I would disagree on that point. I know too many people who seem never to have developed the slightest curiosity about what makes others tick. It seems they tackled the 'other minds problem' as toddlers and promptly gave up on it, never again considering that others' minds might function differently (or more energetically) than their own. Malcolm Gladwell, on the other hand, burrows into other psyches with the fervour and intelligence of a terrier, and his findings are a delight to other curious, nosy people.

If someone told me, "Listen, you should read Gladwell's 23-page essay on women's hair dye," I might imagine a history of women's hair alterations, an expose on cosmetic company malfeasance, or the latest discussion of whether blondes really have more fun. With a reptile smile I would agree to put it onto my list [of things I will never, ever read]. But Gladwell writes for The New Yorker, not Seventeen. If The New Yorker has published a piece on hair dye, it's unlikely to announce that Frivolous Fawn is all the rage this season. He interviewed the female ad execs who cooked up two of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time: Clairol's Nice & Easy ("Does she, or doesn't she? Only her hair-dresser knows for sure") and L'Oreal's Preference ("Because I'm worth it!"). Where did these lines come from? What about them resonated with consumers at the time? What did they say about the ad-women, and women in general? I have no interest in hair dye; I've never used it and don't intend to start now, but I found this essay riveting.

Ilon Specht, the woman working on the L'Oreal campaign in 1973, was totally fed up with being the only woman in her male-dominated field, her ideas being trampled and countered with copy that treated women as objects. She recounted her inspired rage.
"I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it."
Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: "I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the color. I expect great color. What's worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal. Because I'm" -- and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest -- "worth it."
Gladwell notes, "An astonishing 71% of American women can now identify that phrase as the L'Oreal signature, which, for a slogan -- as opposed to a brand name -- is almost without precedent."  Why do we remember it? I remember the jolt when I first saw and heard those ads in the early 1970s. It was the first time I'd heard a woman assert that she was worth anything at all, that she had the right to expect anything, or that how something felt to her should matter in the slightest. Shirley Polykoff, the older woman who concocted Clairol's ad campaign was equally defiant in a different way -- as a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, she insisted that America was about the right of self-definition, and whether or not women dyed their hair was no one else's damned business.

What the Dog Saw includes two of Gladwell's essays about the Enron fiasco. Neither focuses on the Byzantine business structure or the accounting skullduggery -- plenty of other writers covered those aspects. In "Open Secrets", Gladwell explores the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. "A puzzle grows simpler with the addition of each new piece of information," he says, but "mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much."  (This is a theme he takes up in a few of the essays.)  He argues that the Enron failure fell into the mystery category. All the information was out there, published in annual reports, but it was so complex that nearly no one -- including many senior executives at both Enron and Arthur Anderson -- could understand it. He compares this to contemporary intelligence efforts to identify genuine threats from the mountains of data they receive. Sifting through reams of complex data is not impossible, though. It requires time, knowledge and perseverance. Gladwell notes that a group of Cornell business school students decided to do a semester-long case study of Enron when it was at its zenith.
The students' conclusions were straightforward. Enron was pursuing a far riskier strategy than its competitors. There were clear signs that "Enron may be manipulating its earnings." The stock was then at $48 -- at its peak, two years later, it was almost double that -- but the students found it overvalued. The report was posted on the website of the Cornell University business school, where it has been, ever since, for anyone who cares to read the twenty-three pages of analysis. The students recommendation was on the first page, in boldfaced type: "Sell."
This is only one of the essays that leads readers to ask, where does our information come from? To what extent should we trust it? When Gladwell speaks with doctors who specialise in reading mammograms, I came away feeling that women might better seek a Tarot card reading if they wonder about the state of their breasts. When a dozen doctors read the same mammogram and reach wildly variant diagnoses, you recognise both the limitations of the technology and individuality of the mortals who are interpreting it. It's very unsettling to realise what experts do not know.

The world is full of mysterious things, like Enrons and mammograms and pit bulls. They are not unknowable, Gladwell insists, but we need to look at them from different perspectives and not make unfounded assumptions. And there are more than enough mysteries and puzzles to animate his essays for the rest of his career. May it be a long one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Shogun, by James Clavell

Nicholas, the blind audio librarian at MAB, has been encouraging me to read Shogun. As I flipped through the titles on my Kindle at the airport, waiting for my flight to Phnom Penh, I decided it would be an entertaining travel read. Now I say it's simply a great read -- a rollicking story, some culture and history, a bit of romance, blood and death, samurais and ninjas.  (Silly me. I had thought ninjas were concocted by modern-day Manja authors. Clavell set me straight on this point and many others, too.)

Clavell based his characters, Toranaga and Blackthorne, on historical figures from the early 17th century -- a Samurai liege lord who rose to the rank of Shogun and a British ship's pilot who landed in Japan and over time became a Samurai himself.

An American friend has a son who has been living and studying in Japan for some years. He once expressed his frustration with the prevalent Western idea that Japanese (or all Asian, actually) culture is somehow inscrutable. It is comprehensible, he insists, if one makes the effort. As Blackthorne, the British pilot learns, it's a hellishly steep learning curve, then as now, but if you let go of preconceptions, approach it with respect and an open mind, you can begin to embrace Japan. Clavell is, I believe, a fine literary tour guide as he maneuvers his Englishman -- neither a willing nor entirely welcome visitor to the country -- through the minefield that was Samurai tradition.

Blackthorne and his ship-mates are excruciatingly bad travelers by today's standards. They assume that the "Jappos" are savage heathens, inferior in every way to Europeans, and that Japan is a small, inconsequential set of islands. Blackthorne is dumbstruck when he learns that the population of Kyushu alone exceeds that of all England and Wales. He bellows out his disbelief when he hears that the population of Japan exceeds 20 million. For heaven's sake, that's more than all of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire combined!

As an unusually intelligent ship's pilot, Blackthorne has traits and skills that appeal to Toranaga, the liege lord who decides to inculcate the Englishman into Japanese culture. Henceforth, he is known as Anjin-san (Anjin meaning pilot); over time, his displays of wits and courage inspire Toranaga to grant him the title of Samurai. Along his journey, Clavell gives us glimpses of Blackthorne's many misapprehensions and cultural missteps, as well as the sense that his mindset is gradually becoming Japanese. His greatest mentor is Mariko, the lovely, brilliant woman who accompanies and teaches him, and acts as his translator until his Japanese is at least functional.  She consistently confronts his cultural arrogance and quietly takes the wind out of it.

"Lord Toranaga asked me to point out it’s unseemly to criticize without knowledge. You must remember our civilization, our culture, is thousands of years old. Three thousand of these are documented. Oh yes, we are an ancient people. As ancient as China. How many years does your culture go back? ... Our Emperor, Go-Nijo, is the one hundred and seventh of his unbroken line, Not even China can claim such a history. How many generations have your kings ruled your land?” 
Blackthorne rather abashedly points out that Elizabeth I, is the third in the Tudor line, and there were a few other lines before that...

Mariko-san is a bridge in many senses as she is a Christian convert, also acting as a buffer between the Protestant Blackthorne and the Portuguese Catholic clergy who are intent on trade and conversion in Japan. There are times when the Christian teachings conflict with the Samurai code of ethics and conduct. Unsurprisingly, Toranaga, the priests, and Blackthorne all wonder where Mariko's true loyalty is. Her answer, combined with the priests' refusal to ordain any of the Japanese novices, is a poignant message to missionaries: Conversion among peoples from very different cultures may be a superficial thing, indeed.

“I am only a ten-year Christian and therefore a novice, and though I believe in the Christian God, in God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, with all my heart, our Emperor is directly descended from the gods or from God. He is divine. There are a lot of things I cannot explain or understand. But the divinity of my Emperor is without question. Yes, I am Christian, but first I am a Japanese.”

The Japanese opinions of the Christian "barbarians" are far from unanimous. Some are converts, and others propose a protectionist policy of pitching all the foreigners out. The Taiko, the former ruler, had at one time tried to negotiate with the Pope some concessions that would allow the Catholic religion to fit a bit more comfortably with Japanese values. A few of the commandments were vexing, and some more than others.
This was one of the two great reasons the Taikō would not embrace Christianity, this foolishness about divorce—and the sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The Father-Visitor sent all the way to Rome begging dispensation for Japanese about divorce. But His Holiness the Pope, in his wisdom, said no. If His Holiness had said yes, I believe the Taikō would have converted, the daimyos would be following the True Faith now, and the land would be Christian. The matter of ‘killing’ would have been unimportant because no one pays any attention to that really, Christians least of all.

Blackthorne marvels at a story of a wife's self-sacrifice to save her husband's honour, remarking that she must have loved him very much. Mariko corrects him yet again.
 “Love is a Christian word, Anjin-san. Love is a Christian thought, a Christian ideal. We have no word for ‘love’ as I understand you to mean it. Duty, loyalty, honor, respect, desire, those words and thoughts are what we have, all that we need.”

Again and again, Clavell shows us the result of this staunch Japanese sense of duty. A liege lord can order a Samurai to commit seppuku, or forbid another from doing so. A wife's duty to her husband is clearly defined although secondary to her duty to their liege lord. Speaking of seppuku (more popularly known as hara-kiri, suicide by disembowelment), Clavell offers great insight into this ritual and the general indifference to violence among the Japanese.  He contrasts this beautifully with their revulsion for the meat-eating Europeans. When his staff is ordered to butcher and cook a rabbit for him, Blackthorne watches them go pale, vomit or faint. Gradually, he comes to admire their diet of rice, fish, pickled vegetables, tea and, of course, sake.  

Early on, the pilot learns to appreciate the Japanese bath, although he is forcibly dragged to his first one, convinced that he won't survive it. It was common knowledge in England, after all, that bathing was disastrously unhealthy. Much later, scrubbed and lounging in an immaculate house, looking at the tatami mats and shoji (rice-paper screens), he recalls his wife, Felicity, and their home. He remembers them, filthy and itching, lice-ridden and often ill, living in a squalid house with garbage strewn on the mud floor and animals roaming around picking at it. We are the barbarians, he finally realises. (Not so much has changed in the intervening 500 years. I still recall an Australian tourist, blithering drunk, with his feet in muddy trekking shoes propped up on a bar table, slurring something about 'dirty Arabs'. Can you find the barbarian in this picture?) 

Finally, the fact that Nicholas recommended this book so highly surprises me almost as much as the fact James Clavell ever wrote it, and for the same reason. Nicholas was born in Penang in 1952, but his parents and their generation lived through the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and, being Chinese, received the bulk of the Japanese brutality. Clavell himself was interned in the Changi prison in Singapore during the occupation; he wrote about that experience in King Rat. It says something, I think, about the Japanese culture, that even those who have suffered at Japanese hands still find it fascinating and worthy of study.