As good weather returns, I enjoy taking long walks. They usually end on a terrace or in Lafontaine Park, near the north-western hill overlooking “Duck Lake” as we, Plateau residents, like to call it. Almost everyday, I pass in front of a shop called Départ en mer. It occupies a half-basement, on the shaded side of the street and, to my knowledge, it has always been there. I occasionally stop in front of the window to look at a sailboat model or to watch a bit of a video. The shop specializes in navigation supplies, which may be of interest to collectors, decorators or whoever seeks nautical style clothing.
That’s where I once noticed a large-size, laminated poster representing an ocean liner being tugged into a harbor. An early 20th-century advertisement meant for transatlantic cruising aficionados. It just so happened that one of the first scenes of an unfinished novel (that has already eaten up seven years of my life) takes place in 1929, aboard an ocean liner. The scene introduces the Reeves, Frank a banker from Boston and his wife. Since the writing of my novel was stretching itself to the point of undermining whatever confidence I still had left in my ability to finish it, I bought the poster as some sort of a literary lucky charm and symbolically hung it in my entranceway corridor.

In my novel, a tacit bond establishes itself between the American banker and a British diplomat whom I call James Charles Bennet. As I sat preoccupied with that nascent plot, the poster hanging above me brought to mind James Clavell’s famous novel: Shogun. In it, a Japanese daimyo is trying to prevent English sailors stranded on the shores of his domain from leaving. He has his motives, otherwise it would be just as simple to have the English captain and his crew put to death. But the complexities of life are hardly ever that simple to resolve, something that Clavell, a veteran of World War II, understood well.

Shogun was published in 1975, thirty years after the nuclear attack on two Japanese cities. At that time, the threat of yet another nuclear war divided the planet in two clans, keeping it into the perpetual winter of the Cold War, with each faction being well aware of its power to provoke the extermination of the human race. At least, that’s what the Cuban crisis of October 1962 led us to believe.

In 1975, while an industrious Japan was slowly getting rid of the « made in Japan » label as synonymous with « cheap stuff », the reader couldn’t help but feel a certain nostalgia as he buried himself into the heart of Japan such as it existed before Commodore Perry’s ultimatum in 1852. The bulky novel was a huge success and was followed by a TV series. I must confess that I, since then, devoured every translated Clavell’s novel, thus bringing my modest contribution to the decline of French-language literature.

A Community of Look-Alikes

Throughout history, individuals and groups alike have been denied humane treatment for the simple reason that their appearance was different from others. Hunchbacks and midgets, red-haired, blue-eyed and dark-skinned people or whoever displayed strange mannerisms, wore unusual clothes or held different beliefs.

According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we love most what resembles us most. A friend is an alter ego, someone in whom I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses, limitations and passions. A reflection of myself, whose sufferings and happiness can be shared. Still according to Rousseau, seeing in the setbacks of others the possibility of our own setbacks would be the motive behind any kind of generosity, behind any altruistic gesture. And it is, for that matter, noteworthy that the strongest friendships are those forged through hardship, whether it be in situations of conflict or survival.

If Man Were a Wolf to Man…

It is possible to quantify the degree of friendship existing between two individuals or between the members of a group. It suffices to bring a variation in the danger one is exposed to and then observe to what extent our guinea pig is ready to take a risk, physical, financial or other, in order to help a friend. The stronger are the bonds of friendship within a group, the more efficient the group will be. Knowing that, if he were in danger, he doesn’t risk being abandoned, every member of the group will be ready to take greater risks to help his people. In the animal kingdom, the strongest bond of friendship is found in packs of wolves.

Back at the Ranch

Clavell depicts Japan as little concerned with, and even contemptuous of death. A too densely populated territory and the constant threat of famine might be an explanation to such an attitude. But above all it may be that the Japanese, being accustomed to extremely restricted living spaces, soon understood the fundamental importance of order if social cohesion was to be maintained. In such conditions, they had no choice but to become social beings having to make do, in their daily lives, with nothing but the protection of thin wooden laths to guard their privacy. The death of an individual didn’t matter, what mattered were work and the strength of the clan (the code of the samurai, the Hagakure insisted on that point). That is a far cry from the humanistic values that were to take root in Western (and Japanese) culture towards the end of the 16th century.

However Captain Blackthorne, an experienced sailor, knows how to navigate the troubled waters of his own emotions. As pilot of the Erasmus, a Dutch warship, his mission was to fight the Portuguese and Spanish papists. Having sailed around Tierra del Fuego, Blackthorne faces hostile forces in the middle of the Pacific and flees west to find himself shipwrecked on the coast of Japan.

Powerful Lord Toranaga is a daimyo who, despite his pretension to the contrary, secretly nurtures the ambition of becoming shogun, the shogun being the undisputed master of Japan (the character of Toranaga being the personification of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great unifier of Japan).

The Bond of the Third Heart

At first sight, Clavell’s novel relates the ascent of a future shogun with, in the foreground and for the “soap opera effect”, the relationship between an English sea captain and a Japanese courtesan. However, the novel’s plot is really about the realization of the fundamental affinity between the Japanese warlord and the English pirate, an affinity that will weave between the two warriors an indestructible friendship, as a tacit understanding builds itself around an unutterable ambition. From the very beginning of the novel, one senses Toranaga’s fondness for Blackthorne. Why is that so?

Their respective cultures are too far apart for the two men to understand each other. Their first encounter, besides the language barriers, takes place under the pressure of the Portuguese. Blackthorne must save his own skin while Toranaga has to deal with the catholic daimyos. There is no time for explanations, even less for rumination.

Toragana, whose privacy depends on a paper divider, knows how to keep his feelings to himself; his joys and sorrows are sparingly distilled. If it were otherwise, the atmosphere would soon become unbearable to those around him. The Japanese have six faces and three hearts, writes Clavell. A deceitful heart in their mouth to show in public; another heart in their chest that only friends and family get to know; and at last their real heart that nobody knows and that remains hidden in an undisclosed location.

The Cornerstone

The novel’s entire plot turns around the coveted title of Shogun which only Toranaga (played by Toshirō Mifune) doesn’t seem to covet. At least, that’s what his mouth says, what is plain for all to see. Nonetheless, he cherishes this ambition in –as we say – his deepest heart, his third heart. Blackthorne (played by Richard Chamberlain) will unknowingly pierce that secret. How so? In saying out loud in the course of their very first conversation what Toranaga must forever keep a secret:

— Therefore the Netherlands – your allies – are in a state of rebellion against their lawful king?
— They’re fighting against the Spaniards, yes. But…
— Isn’t that rebellion? Yes or no?
— Yes. But there are mitigating circumstances. Serious miti…
— There are no “mitigating circumstances” when it comes to rebellion against a sovereign lord.
— Unless you win.

Toranaga looked intently at him, burst out laughing and said something to Hiro-matsu who nodded.

— Yes, Mister Foreigner with the impossible name, yes. You named the one mitigating factor. Another fit of laughter, then his good mood vanished as suddenly as it had begun.
— Will you win?

Clavell doubly underlines Toranaga’s concern. Winning is the one and only mitigating circumstance, then he bursts out laughing. The English sailor is, in a certain way, Toranaga’s “shadow”. But that is another story.

The Moral of the Story

To find out what is hidden in your deepest, most secret heart, you must be able to recognize what it is that touches it.

Mots-clé – 

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