Picks and Pans Review: Gai-Jin
by James Clavell
The title of Clavell’s third novel in his continuing Asian saga is the Japanese word for “foreigner.” The literal translation is “outside person,” hardly a hospitable concept. As fans of the best-selling Shogun will know, for nearly 250 years Japan was closed to the world, foreigners forbidden from its shores. All this changed in 1853, when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and demanded that Japan open its doors to American trade.
It is against this background that Gai-Jin is set. The year is 1862, and the place is the foreign settlement in Kanagawa. The settlement is home to a small band of Western traders, military men and diplomats, an arrogant lot convinced of their cultural superiority and determined to bully Japan into Westernizing its ways. Into their masculine midst comes a penniless French beauty, Angelique Richaud, who’s in romantic pursuit of Malcolm Struan, the dashing young head of the same trading house that Clavell featured in two of his earlier novels, Taipan and Noble House.
The Japanese characters, living on the brink of civil war as the emperor’s supporters plot to overthrow the ruling shogun (military governor), are just as unappealing as the Westerners. They are portrayed as devious and murderous, with little respect for the sanctity of life or rule of law.
East meets West only rarely in Gai-Jin and the two plot lines—the foreign love story and the Japanese political turmoil—seldom intersect. Like Clavell’s previous novels, Gai-Jin is strong on plot and weak on characterization. Also like the earlier works, its historical and cultural references are engrossing and presented in entertaining detail. We learn, for example, that in Japan the sexiest part of a woman’s body was the nape of the neck. Scholars may have some quibbles—the word gaijin, for instance, probably didn’t come into use until around 1875—but the broad portrait is accurate and as colorful as an ancient Kabuki play. (Delacorte, $27.50)