As the weather warmed, I started taking long walks through Parc Lafontaine. I loved sitting on a grassy incline, that overlooked a small man-made pond that the locals were fond of calling Duck Lake. After an hour of contemplation, I continued my walk toward rue St-Denis passing in front of Départ en mer. The shop specialized in navigational accessories that could be of interest to collectors, interior decorators or anyone looking for marine-style clothing. As for myself, I’d usually peer through the windows to observe the model sailboat they had on display as well as video clips that were being played on a small monitor.
On this one particular day, I spotted a new addition to the shop. It was a large, laminated, early twentieth-century poster ad of a cruise ship arriving at the port. The ad was designed to attract enthusiasts of transatlantic cruises. It immediately reminded me of the opening scenes of my unfinished novel, which to date had eaten away ten years of my life.
The novel opens aboard a transatlantic ocean liner. The date, June 1920. We are introduced to Frank Reeves, an American banker, and his wife, Jill, who hail from Boston, as well as a diplomat named Charles Bennett. As an intrigue between Frank and Charles ensues, the story’s length expands to the point where my confidence and ability to complete the novel comes into question. So, I decided to purchase the poster for inspiration and as a literary good-luck charm. I symbolically hang it in the hallway entrance of my apartment.
But the poster also has a secondary effect on me. It brings to mind the novel, Shogun, by James Clavell. The novel’s premise revolves around British sailors stranded in Japan and held captive by a Japanese daimyō, a powerful feudal lord. He could have them executed but decides to spare their lives for his own peculiar reasons. Such complications are not easily resolved as Clavell, a WWII ex-combatant understands and makes clear in his novel.
Shogun was published in 1975, thirty years after the first atomic bombing of the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The possibility of future nuclear attacks split the world into two parts, two superpowers, Russia and the USA. It also signalled the beginnings of the Cold War. More importantly, the possibility now existed that these nuclear weapons could bring about the extermination of humanity, as was almost demonstrated during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
In 1975, an industrious Japan eliminated the ‘made in Japan’ label on their exports which had become synonymous with cheap products. So, it was with a certain amount of nostalgia, that a reader of Shogun, would plunge themselves into the heart of Japan that existed prior to Commander Perry’s 1852 ultimatum. Perry’s ultimatum forced Japan to begin trading with the West, causing the decline of the shogun, the supreme military leader at the time, followed by the loss of power and prestige of the Samurai. Clavell’s novel became all the rage upon its release, with a TV series produced a few years later. I devoured all of Clavell’s work, making my own small contribution at the time to the decline of French language-based literature.
The Community of Like-Minded People
Throughout history, groups and individuals have been denied humane treatment because they were different based on their beliefs, the colour of their skin, their ideas, and religion.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, pointed out, that our friends are people like us. A friend is another me. He is someone in whom I recognize my strengths and weaknesses, my limits and my passions. A mirror-being whose suffering or happiness can be shared. According to Rousseau, the recognition of others’ misfortunes could be a motivation for any altruistic action of generosity. It is also remarkable that friendships forged in difficult times, especially in times of conflict or survival, prove to be the strongest.
If a Man was a Wolf to Man
It is possible to quantify the bond of friendship between two individuals or members of a group, just by varying the danger involved; observing how willing they are to take on physical, monetary or other risks to help a friend. The stronger the friendship, the more reliable the bond is. Knowing that one will not be abandoned if they find themselves in danger, that each member is willing to take greater risks to help each other.
The strongest bond of friendship among animals is found in a wolf pack.
Back at the Ranch…
Clavell offers up a portrait of a Japan that had very little concern regarding death, even contemptuous towards it at times. Japan at the time was densely populated, too densely perhaps, and famine was a constant threat. More importantly, the Japanese enjoyed limited personal space. Order was fundamental for social cohesion to persist. Under these conditions, the Japanese had become, even in their daily lives, social beings who made do with sleeping on thin wooden slats, in turn limiting their intimacy. The death of an individual did not matter. It was the work and the solidity of the clan that mattered—the Hagakure code (the warrior code of the samurai) demanded this. Today, we are far from the humanistic values that were rooted in the European and Japanese culture of the late sixteenth century.
Captain John Blackthorne, the main protagonist in Clavell’s novel is an experienced navigator, who knows how to negotiate the murky waters of his own emotions. Commanding a Dutch ship, the Erasmus, his mission is to fight the Portuguese and Spanish papists. After navigating through Tierra del Fuego, he encounters hostile forces in the Pacific, which forces him to flee westward, running aground on the Japanese coast. There he encounters, Toranaga, a daimyō who secretly and in spite of his own words, wants to become a shogun—the undisputed master of Japan. Cavell based Toranaga on, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became Japan’s first shogun. Tokugawa also created the first dynasty which unified Japan among the numerous daimyōs, warring at the time.
The Third Heart Link
Clavell’s novel details the rise of a future shogun, Toranaga, against the foreground of a rising love affair between Blackthorne and a Japanese courtesan—the soap opera effect. However, as the novel progresses, it is the fundamental friendship that takes shape between Blackthorne and Toranaga—weaving an indestructible bond between the two warriors. A silent agreement and understanding is established around their inexpressible ambitions. From the novel’s start, Toranaga’s attachment to Blackthorne is palpable. Why is that so?
The cultural differences between the two men are great, making it difficult to really understand each other. There’s also the pressure they feel from the watchful eyes of the ruling Portuguese, not to mention the language barrier. Furthermore, Blackthorne has to save his skin, Toranaga has to deal with the Catholic daimyōs. Neither has time to explain, let alone brood on their own tenuous circumstances.
Those whose intimacy is like a wall of paper know how to keep their feelings quiet and express their sorrows and joys only in dribs and drabs, otherwise, the atmosphere becomes unbearable to those around them. The Japanese have six faces and three hearts, » says Clavell. “A false heart in their mouths, which they show to the whole world; another heart in their chests, which only relatives and friends know; and finally, a real heart, which no one knows, hidden. Only god knows where.”
The whole novel revolves around the coveted title of Shogun, in that only Toranaga (personified on-screen by Toshirō Mifune) pretends not to covet. That’s what his mouth (his first heart) says, which he displays for all to see. Yet he cherishes becoming a shogun « in the depths of his heart », that of the third heart. Blackthorne (played in the 1980 movie by Richard Chamberlain) will unknowingly reach his third heart. How did the Englishman find his way? By telling Toranaga what must always be kept secret during their first conversation:
― That the Netherlands, your allies, are in a state of rebellion against their rightful king?
― They are fighting the Spanish, yes. But, uh…
― Is it not a rebellion? Is it or isn’t it?
― Yes, but there are extenuating circumstances. Serious ones.
― There are no mitigating circumstances when one rebels against his sovereign lord.
― Unless you win.
Toranaga looked at him intensely and then burst out laughing. He then turned to say something to Hiromatsu, one of his trusted aid, who nodded. Turning back to Blackthorne…
― Yes, Mr. Outsider with the impossible name. Yes, you’ve put your finger on the only mitigating circumstance.
Another crazy laugh. Then his good mood disappears as quickly as it had burst.
― Are you going to win?
― Winning is the only mitigating circumstance, Blackthorne replies, then bursts out laughing.
Blackthorne is in a way Toranaga’s shadow. But that’s another story.