Book Break: Shogun

Cross another book off the Fiction Writing Reading List that I posted last summer: James Clavell’s Shogun. I have a vague recollection of Richard Chamberlain in a TV miniseries adaptation in the 1980s, but I’m certain it’s from the advertisements and not actually watching it. (Maybe Mom watched it? Maybe I’m thinking of The Thorn Birds?)

This book is sprawling, convoluted, vulgar, and violent  and engaging for most of it’s 1,000-plus pages. What made it most interesting to me is its point of view (or ultimate lack thereof) with regard to the cultures clashing throughout the story. Set in feudal Japan in the 1600s, the novel gives us an arrogant, foul-mouthed, and cunning English Protestant protagonist; surrounds him with a narrow-minded and ever fouler-mouthed Dutch Protestant crew; and strands them in a strict (and mostly Shinto/anti-Christian) samurai culture that is deeply enmeshed in trade with the Catholic Portuguese and rushing headlong toward civil war. Initially, it is a very anti-Catholic read; although the Protestant characters are not particularly virtuous or sympathetic characters, the initial perspective is theirs, and their biases shine through.

The British pilot is removed from the group because various samurai see value in his knowledge and his ability to antagonize the Catholics by his very existence in Japan. Gradually he gains favor, and ultimately influence, among the samurai, and becomes conflicted as he begins to see value in their way of life (and of course, falls in love with a well-known samurai woman who has converted to Catholicism).

That’s the gist…but lest you think this is Last Samurai or “Dances With Blue-Man Group” rehash, understand that A) Shogun came first, and B) no one group emerges as the noble savage. All are savage, and ultimately, the only group shown without nobility is the Dutch Protestant crew. (Clavell shows does a tremendous job writing in multiple languages and using “dialects” (written in English) and curses or other interjections to distinguish between Portuguese, Latin, “gutter Dutch,” and Japanese.) The hero never goes completely samurai, never loses his English-Protestant bias against priests and the papacy, and is always “in it for the money”—but he comes to love at least one Catholic convert, respects at least one priest, and has his life saved by another priest. He is a married father of two in England, and as such, is an adulterer; he equally enjoys Japanese views on sexuality and is horrified by them because so much is permitted in the name of pleasure. He enjoys the order, the cleanliness, the beauty of Japanese living, but not the brutality and bigotry that enforce it. Love and life here are regarded as meaningless, replaced by duty and death — as he is immersed in this culture, he begins to use it to his advantage, but it also begins to re-shape him.

Beneath this story is a violent political thriller that uncoils slowly only, to be completely understood at the very end — and perhaps not even then. According to Clavell, in a small crowded country with paper walls, politeness is paramount; everything is planned (and counter-planned, and counter-counter-planned); everyone hears and everyone knows, but no one speaks until it is to their devastating advantage. The result is a fascinating book that seems overlong at times, but not monotonous. He wrote six novels in what came to be known as his Asian Saga; Shogun was the third written, but is set the earliest in history. Rumor has it he had other Asian novels planned at the time of his death, and I have no doubt there’s a great book to be written exactly where this one leaves off.

Strength In Weakness

A few years ago, I briefly joined the kids in studying Chen-style taijiquan — the original “tai chi,” an ancient Chinese grappling art rarely taught in the West. During a “push hands” class, I was partnered with a diminutive older woman. We stood toe-to-toe, our right hands extended and connected, back-of-wrist to back-of-wrist; I would shift my weight forward (toward her) and rotate my hand to push her hand toward her; when she could shift no further backward, she would redirect my push in a circular fashion, rotate her own wrist, and push back into me in the same fashion. We did this continuously, until our quads were burning and droplets of sweat ran down our forearms, and the longer we went on, the faster her redirect, until it felt (to me) barely controlled. I shrugged inwardly — she was a more experienced student than I — and tried to maintain a slow and steady pace.

Our instructor, Jose, approached and watched us a moment, then gently reminded her to move in a more deliberate and controlled manner. “I’m trying,” she replied, “but he’s pushing like hell!”

Jose shifted his knowing gaze to me and smiled. “I paired you with someone of a different size on purpose,” he explained. “One of the most difficult parts of taiji for men — especially large men — is learning to sense the other person and knowing their own strength, learning to be gentle. Anyone can be hard, but it’s often difficult for men to be soft.”

Jodi had told me for years that that I didn’t know my own strength and that I should be more careful when “handling” her or the kids — but this lesson drove it home. We resumed the exercise, and I tried to empty myself. I could barely feel that we were connected, which made it difficult to respond to my parter’s movements. I found I needed to be infinitely more attentive to my partner. Jose was right: It was hard to be soft.

A week or so later, I was partnered with a man closer to my own size and build, in a similar exercise, except this time the circular hand motions were more vertical in orientation, and the one whose hands were beneath the other’s was supposed to bear the weight of the other’s arms. This requires the other person to empty himself and let his weight (or at least, the weight of his arms) be carried — another act that does not come naturally to men. Both of us tested the other by periodically stopped our circles and watching the “empty” person continue to circle on their own, a sure sign that he was not truly “empty.” This time we were forced to be more attentive to ourselves.

It is easy to find the power in our strengths — to rely on our size or our natural aptitudes and bulldoze our way through the problems that confront us. This past Sunday, Fr. Mark of Our Lady of the Black Hills Catholic Church preached on the topic of meekness, in part using the definition “strength under control,” and indeed, the New Testament of the Bible is rife with the apparent paradox that we are strong in our weakness.

I’ve struggled with this concept myself and, in the past, have made my peace with it in the sense of Clint Eastwood’s line (above): “A man’s got to know his limiations.” But a few weeks back, our associate pastor at St. Michael Catholic Church, Fr. Meyers, helped my understanding in a profound new way. In a three-minute homily at a Saturday morning Mass, he said that each of us has a tendency toward one of the seven deadly sins — I believe he referred to this as our primary fault — which can also be the means of our salvation. (I’m certain I’m oversimplifying and not doing this topic justice.)

This resonated with me. I know that I struggled, early in my marriage, with lustfulness and learning to better love my bride, and I know that coming to terms with the Church’s teachings on married sexuality has transformed my marriage, my faith and family, my entire life. Despite a number of strengths as a husband, father, and man, I had a basic weakness and misunderstanding that kept me from being all I could be in all three of these areas. Not only did I come to understand my limitations, but my weakness was turned to strength.

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 12, verses 7-12), says:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, 3 a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, 6 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

May we all be blessed with such a thorn, and find the strength in our weaknesses.

Trevor’s Ambitions

We spoke to Trevor last night about his ambitions — we had friends over, and they were asking the kids what they aspire to be when they grow up. Trevor said he wants to be an “army man, a police officer, a cowboy,” or (and here he smiled a little, shy smile, like he was showing us a glimpse of his soul) a “hobo swordsman.”

We questioned him further. Most questions were met with a small, inscrutable smile. He was infinitely patient with us. Apparently, if you grasp “hobo” and grasp “swordsman,” you’ve pretty much grokked his life plan. He likes trains, likes blades, and true to the hobo spirit, appears little concerned with a roof, or food, or money.

The world doesn’t have enough — or perhaps any! — hobo swordsmen, don’t you think? A story is emerging: Zatoichi-meets-Kwai Chang Caine-meets-The Twilight Samurai: a vagabond dressed in threadbare clothes, with only a sword to his name, riding the rails, righting the wrongs …

I already have the cover of the graphic novel sketched in my mind. I can write; who can draw?

If you haven’t seen The Twilight Samurai, check it out. One of my favorites. More heart and fewer arteries than typical samurai movies.

True Word Fu

I’m working on a freelance piece right now for a martial arts journal, and its brought me into contact with a remarkable man and book — retired Marine Major Bill Hayes and My Journey With The Grandmaster.

The link above takes you to a reader review of the book that is spot-on (at least with regard to what I’ve read so far). But secondarily, it’s made me rethink my writing. Years of writing to achieve — to earn a grade or a paycheck or praise or what-have-you — have made it more difficult to write authentically. I’ve written as a marketer, fund-raiser, speechifier, you name it — always with an agenda, because that was the job — and it’s now hard to write simply as me.

Hayes’s book oozes authenticity and intimacy. In recent years I’ve learned that my dad wrote quite a bit as younger man. When you read what he wrote back then, you feel as though you’re glimpsing his beating heart. And I see something similar in Hayes’s unadorned words. He says what he means, simply, so that no meaning and no love is lost.

I need to get that level of honesty back, and it struck me that there are parallels between this authenticity in writing and the way he describes his abilities (and his opinion of his abilities as a young Marine and martial artist) before and after he began traditional training with the grandmaster on Okinawa. The old masters, he says, never have an agenda. They are who they are, and they do what they do.

To paraphrase a certain fictitious master: I have much to unlearn.