“I came here with no friends, an old typewriter, and look what I achieved. It would have been impossible to achieve this in England.”
So said James Clavell, an Australian immigrant to America who learned the fundamentals of the American outlook on life in a horrific Japanese prisoner of war camp. In over four decades as a novelist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, director, and producer, Clavell added one lushly romantic, gripping story after another to his accomplishments. What’s even more surprising in this day and age, his heroes were often businessmen.
An English-educated Aussie, Clavell was born in 1924 as Charles Edmund DuMaresq de Clavelle. He became a captain with the British Royal Artillery in Southeast Asia during World War II. This position landed Clavell at the infamous Changi Japanese prisoner of war camp near Singapore for half of World War II, where he “collected material” for what would become his first novel, King Rat (1962).
Clavell had planned to be a Naval officer, like his ancestors going back at least to John Clavelle who fought at Trafalgar. But a motorcycle accident left him with a limp and out of the navy. After a stint as a salesman, he wrote a TV pilot that brought him to the U.S. in 1953, and launched a long career in the movie industry. His first screenplay was the 1958 version of The Fly. Watusi followed, along with Five Gates to Hell, which Clavell wrote, directed, and produced.
His remarkable range as a writer-director first revealed itself with Sidney Poitier’s 1967 film hit To Sir, With Love (also made into a TV movie in 1974). The Poitier film was nominated for three major awards, including the Directors Guild of America’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement. He penned the screenplay for The Great Escape, a factually based movie of Allied prisoners’ daring plans to get out of a Nazi prisoner of war camp, which starred Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson. Clavell’s script was nominated for the Writers Guild of America’s award for Best Written American Drama in 1968.
Clavell finally won an award, a 1981 Emmy, for his TV mini-series Shogun. (I remember being so excited about seeing it that I ran out and bought my first color TV!) A later novel,Noble House, also was made into a mini-series starring Pierce Brosnan and Tia Carrera, along with many notables like Denholm Elliott and John Houseman.
But Clavell remains best known for his work as a novelist, which began during a Hollywood writer’s strike in the early 1960s. Almost twenty years after his release from Changi, he had just started talking about his experience when his wife said, “Why don’t you write a novel about it?” Unsure how to write novels, he seized upon Othello’s resentful, envious Iago as an inspiration, and King Rat’s first line spilled out. “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard.’ And so, once I started, it came out in a tremendous rush.”
King Rat (1962)
In a 1986 interview, Clavell said that his experience in Changi was “as close as you can get to being dead and still be alive.” King Rat recounts life—so to speak—in this place between life and death:
- Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies…[C]loser, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was—an obscene forbidding prison…[N]ow, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men… These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.
As are all his later books, King Rat is excellently plotted and highly suspenseful, its characters sharply and colorfully drawn, the details exact and realistic. What makes it singularly fascinating is Clavell’s picture of how different men faced this gruesome experience.
Clavell vividly depicts the squalid conditions and brutal treatment meted out by the Japanese. Preserving their dignity and refusing to be cowed by their captors are the British officers’ primary motives—in the face of awful enfeeblement from chronic dysentery, malaria, and a host of other ailments. Repeated conflicts between the Allied soldiers and their Japanese keepers, resulting in incomprehensible prisoner punishments, dramatize the clash between Anglo and Japanese values.
Also, through Peter Marlowe, a British flight lieutenant and stand-in for Clavell, the author explores British discomfort with the American entrepreneurial spirit, embodied by the book’s title character, Corporal King:
- They always shared what they could find or steal or make. Max and Dino were a unit. And it was the same throughout the world of Changi. Men ate and trusted in units. Twos, threes, rarely fours. One man could never cover enough ground, or find something and build a fire and cook it and eat it—not by himself….Only by mutual effort did you survive. To withhold from the unit was fatal, for if you were expelled from a unit, the word got around. And it was impossible to survive alone. But the King didn’t have a unit. He was sufficient unto himself.
Marlowe comes from a purely military English family. He knows almost nothing about trade and business; his life has revolved around duty and honor. So he finds “the King” fascinating. He’s not sure what to make of the American’s expert trading with the Korean guards and Chinese suppliers, offering Mount Blanc pens and diamond rings in exchange for the food, clothes, and medicine the prisoners desperately need. Without envy, but with growing wonder, he tries to understand King’s outlook and learn from it.
Is his wheeling and dealing in this “lifeboat” situation taking unfair advantage of the others? Or is King a life-saver, able to motivate others and cleverly acquire what they all need to survive? Is it wrong that he believes in making a profit in the process?
While Marlowe ponders the King’s ethics, he comes to respect the man’s ability to seize opportunities and make things happen while everyone else struggles on the edge of survival. “‘Damned if I know how you do it,’ Peter Marlowe said. ‘You work so fast.’ The King replied: ‘You got something to do and you do it. That’s the American style.’”
For his part, the King recognizes Marlowe’s difference from the first moment. “His face was craggy, and though he was Changi-thin, there was a grace to his movements and a sparkle about him…[The King] listened to the rich laugh and knew it was a rare thing. When this man was laughing, you could see that the laugh came from inside. This was very rare. Priceless.”
By contrast, Lieutenant Robin Grey, provost marshal of Changi, despises Corporal King, the American who somehow manages to be healthy, well-fed, and clothed while everyone around him can barely hang on: “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.’ Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he had spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot.”
“Nobody gives me nothing,” King objects. “What I have is mine and I made it.” But Grey dogs the King incessantly, with bilious hatred for his rule-bending and his overflowing vitality—hoping, planning, scheming to catch him breaking this rule or that, so he can throw King in the Japanese jail and see him rot.
Unsurprisingly, Grey hates Marlowe as well. Coming from the lower classes, Grey personifies English class envy and social ambition, mistaking Marlowe’s self-confidence for mere upper class snobbery, yet secretly, jealously wishing to be like him. For his part, Marlowe despises the small-minded, vindictive, and senselessly bureaucratic Grey. “You’re such a goddam snob, Grey, when it comes down to it…[The Americans] think that one man’s as good as another.”
King Rat was made into a 1965 movie starring George Segal as Corporal King and James Fox as Peter Marlowe.
Clavell followed King Rat with his blockbuster Tai Pan (1966), the next in his “Asian Saga.” That series included Shogun (1975), Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin(1993). I also found a book called Escape, which appears to be the love story from Whirlwindas a stand-alone novel. Before he died in 1994, Clavell wrote two children’s books, The Children’s Story (1981) and Thrump-o-Moto (1986).
Except for the children’s stories and King Rat, these are all enormous novels, most over 1,000 pages long, and offering heaps of factual detail about the countries and cultures in which they are set. To achieve that level of accuracy, Clavell spent about a year researching each, reading histories and sociological accounts, and living in the settings. Many of his main characters are based on real people. The reader rips through Clavell’s stories, yet comes away educated and interested in knowing more about the cultures he reveals.
“I write short stories, they may appear big in size, but they’re four or five novels in one,” he explained. “In return for picking up one of my books, I’m trying to give [readers] value for their money. The goal of writing any novel is creating the illusion that you are reading reality and you are part of it.”
Tai-Pan follows the adventures of the British merchant Dirk Struan during the establishment of Hong Kong as a British Colony in 1841. By means of a blockade and other, more devious means, envious Chinese rulers had effectively curtailed the vast fortunes that British companies, using swift sailing ships, were amassing in China by trading Indian-raised opium. Inventively, the merchants enlist the British government and military to establish the empty, swampy, pestilent island of Hong Kong as British soil and a free trade port.
- As Struan walked along the main deck [of the 74-gun ship Vengeance], he glanced at the shore and excitement swarmed over him. The war with China had gone as he had planned…the prize—the island—was something he had coveted for twenty years. And now he was going ashore to witness the formality of taking possession, to watch a Chinese island become a jewel in the crown of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria…Hong Kong contained the greatest harbor on earth. And it was Struan’s stepping-stone into China….
Against the machinations of his life-time rival, Tyler Brock, Struan struggles to develop his business into the greatest trading company in the East. “In a company or army or fleet or nation there is only one such man—he who wields the real power…[Struan] was Tai-Pan of The Noble House.” “Tai-Pan” means “Supreme Leader,” and The Noble House is based on a real firm, Jardine-Matheson Holdings Limited, a multinational company based in Bermuda.
Struan not only navigates the South China Seas but the alien culture and cut-throat trading habits of the Chinese. Through him, his Chinese lover May-May, and their son Gordon Chen, the reader’s understanding of China and its relation to the West grows.
Clavell developed a fascination for the East, especially Japan, through his experience at Changi. Apparently, his family’s military background enabled him to respect the Japanese Samurai outlook and what some consider the ultimate warrior philosophy of Bushido, in which honor and duty reign supreme.
In Shogun, based on the real adventures of British navigator Will Adams, Dutch sailors searching for new trading opportunities and riches find themselves shipwrecked and then held captive in a small village on the main island of Japan. The sailors are squirreled away with low-caste prostitutes, remaining as filthy and vulgar as ever—all except the ship’s pilot, John Blackthorne, or “Anjin-san” as the Japanese call him. He is taken in by the Kasigi Samurai clan, where he begins his education in Japanese culture and values.
From the first, the Japanese are impressed by his moxie. Blackthorne is introduced to Yabu,daimyo or feudal lord of the region. An antagonistic Portuguese priest, Father Sebastio, translates while Blackthorne considers the situation:
- Look, the Jesuit’s very deferential and sweating a lot. I’ll bet the daimyo’s not a Catholic…you’ll get no quarter from him!
“The daimyo says hurry up and answer his questions” [said the priest].
“Yes. Of course, I’m sorry. My name’s John Blackthorne. I’m English, Pilot-Major of a Netherlands fleet.”
“Fleet? What fleet? You’re lying. There’s no fleet. Why is an Englishman pilot of a Dutch ship?”
Blackthorne decided to gamble. His voice abruptly hardened and it cut through the morning warmth. “Que va! First translate what I said, Spaniard! Now!”
The priest flushed. “I’m Portuguese. I’ve told you before. Answer the question.”
“I’m here to talk to the daimyo, not to you. Translate what I said, you motherless offal!” Blackthorne saw the priest redden even more and felt that this had not gone unnoticed by the daimyo. Be cautious, he warned himself. That yellow bastard will carve you into pieces quicker than a school of sharks if you overreach yourself.
“Tell the lord daimyo!” Blackthorne deliberately bowed low to the platform and felt the chill sweat beginning to pearl as he committed himself irrevocably to his course of action.
Unbeknownst to the Anjin-San, he is caught up in the epic conflict of rival Samurai clans which resulted in the domination of Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate for centuries. The novel’s Toranaga is a thinly veiled, romanticized version of the real samurai Tokugawa, whose Shogunate remained in control from 1603 to the Meiji Restoration in 1865. As in all Clavell novels except for King Rat, a powerful, beautiful, brilliant love interest deeply figures in the plot. In this case, it is Mariko, a high-born Samurai lady turned Christian who interprets the Anjin-San’s speech while she captures his heart. In addition to valuing her translating skills, Toranaga finds her useful for her deep strategic wisdom, integrity, and bravery as well.
I came across Shogun after having made a brief study of Japan by reading such sociological classics as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot. Shogun helped me understand far more about Japanese culture and values than anything I’ve read before or since. Not only does Clavell jam-pack his novels with information, he is an unusually clever teacher, as well.
During the first part of the book, I thought the main hero was the Anjin-San. Only about half-way through did I realize that Clavell had educated me about Japanese values through the eyes of the Anjin-San so that I could understand and appreciate Toranaga. For example, in one of the first scenes, Blackthorne encounters the violently bizarre ways of the Japanese when Omi-san, the samurai in charge of the village, interviews him. A Jesuit priest interprets:
- “Wakarimasu ka?” Omi said directly to Blackthorne.
“He says, ‘Do you understand?’”
“What’s ‘yes’ in Japanese?”
Father Sebastio said to the samurai, “Wakarimasu.”
Omi disdainfully waved them away. They all bowed low. Except one man who rose deliberately, without bowing.
With blinding speed the killing sword made a hissing silver arc and the man’s head toppled off his shoulders and a fountain of blood sprayed the earth. The body rippled a few times and was still. Involuntarily, the priest had backed off a pace. No one else in the street moved a muscle. Their heads remained low and motionless. Blackthorne was rigid, in shock.
Omi put his foot carelessly on the corpse.
“Ikinasai!” he said, motioning them away.
The men in front of him bowed again, to the earth. Then they got up and went away impassively.
By page five hundred, I understood Omi-san’s motives implicitly. When I finally “met” Lord Toranaga, the central hero of the book, I could sympathize with him instead of despising him. Had I been introduced to him in the beginning, I think I would have been revolted by his actions rather than appreciate his integrity to his own code of values.
I was so swept up in the tale, which I often read while commuting to and from Manhattan, that I frequently found myself muttering Japanese words on the Penn Station platform. And I haven’t been alone. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review section, a writer said:
- Shogun is irresistible…I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one…It’s almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it is not only something that you read—you live it…possessed by the Englishman Blackthorne, the Japanese lord Toranaga and medieval Japan…People, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping you forget who and where you are.
Noble House (1981)
While his other novels dramatize the clash between authoritarian cultures and individualist, Anglo-world heroes, Noble House most directly depicts the conflict between individualism and collectivism. The madly raucous markets and remarkable culture of Hong Kong’s unfettered capitalism during the 1960s contrasts sharply with the devious, totalitarian world of the Red Chinese and ruthless Soviet spies. A rush on gold, a wildly swinging, unregulated stock market, and opportunities galore abound for Ian Dunross, the sharp trader-descendant of Dirk Struan (depicted in Tai Pan)—as well as for people at every level of Hong Kong society, from cleaning ladies to jockeys and military officers.
“Dunross juggles international concerns for profit and protects free enterprise from the Soviets and the British Labour Party,” literary analyst Gina MacDonald summarizes. “He supports dependents, friends, and relatives, assures ‘Old Friends’ status with the mainland Chinese, and fulfills obligations assumed by Noble House a century before.”
Not only relatives from previous stories, but even Peter Marlowe and Robin Grey from King Rat return as substantial characters. Clavell also introduces formidable American entrepreneurs Linc Bartlett and gorgeous Casey Tcholok, who figure in Dunross’s struggle against perennial rival Tyler Brock, descendant of the original Noble House nemesis.
Of the thirty intricate plotlines in Noble House, one leads to Whirlwind, Clavell’s novel of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Descendants of Dirk Struan are once again at the center of the strife as they desperately work to protect the people and property of their branch of the Noble House, S-G Helicopters, which services the oil fields. Simultaneously, trading descendants of Shogun’s Toranaga strive to gain oil and gas concessions in the Persian Gulf. “Whirlwind” is the code name for S-G’s escape plan, taken from “whirlybird,” English slang for helicopters.
Whirlwind can deeply educate the reader about world events as much today as it did after the Iranian Revolution. However, where Japanese and Chinese readers were astounded at how accurately and positively Clavell portrayed their cultures, Clavell was not able to make the culture, values, and Islamic mind-set of Iran as comprehensible and sympathetic.
Regardless, it is still a worthwhile tale and garnered Clavell a $5 million dollar fee, selling four million copies in the U.S. alone. As in all his novels, Clavell expertly creates a complex, multi-layered plot, combining action, romance, heroism, brutality, tumultuous historical events, and a great descriptive style—all in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century romantic novel.
Clavell brings together elements of Shogun and Tai Pan, as well as King Rat, in his last novel.
Gai-Jin opens in 1862 with the shocking attack on a group of Europeans by zealous ronin—rogue, clanless, displaced Samurai—near the European settlement in Yokohama. The roninoppose the massive social change wrought by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West in 1854, and fanatically uphold the static, highly structured society of the previous 300 years. They seek to expel the detested “gai-jin”—foreigners.
Malcolm Struan, heir to the Noble House, struggles to keep his leadership while steering his company on a treacherous but exciting voyage through Japanese society. He strives to take advantage of the enormous trade opportunities between Hong Kong, China, Japan, and the West. Ultimately, his fate rests in the hands of a beautiful young French woman, Angelique Richaud.
Amidst terrorism, espionage, romance, and trade, Gai-Jin depicts the Japanese quandary at encountering Western culture. Since the Japanese had long believed themselves descended from the Sun god, and the highest culture on earth, they are shocked to find out that the rough, uncivil, filthy Europeans are their technological superiors. But they don’t waste time. Many ambitiously learn from the West so they can again dominate—especially the Shogun, Toranaga Yoshi, descendant of the original Toranaga. The reader of Shogun has an advantage here, being intimately familiar with Japanese culture, values, and thinking, while readers of Tai-Pan and King Rat will enjoy the way Clavell interweaves elements and characters from those books into this one.
Clavell in Context
Modern in many respects, James Clavell’s work echoes British adventure classics likeTreasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Robinson Crusoe, and Two Years Before the Mast,but with greater depth of character and lavish historical details. He specializes in the clash of cultures, while his individualist heroes learn deeply from their encounters by independently experiencing and judging foreign situations and people.
Business people are heroes of every Clavell novel. For that reason, I wondered for years whether he had been influenced by that famous literary champion of capitalism, Ayn Rand, who romanticized the lives and careers of business people.
Then one day I came across an online auction of books from Rand’s personal library. Inside a copy of his newly published novel Noble House, according to the auction description page, James Clavell had written this inscription to the author of Atlas Shrugged:
“This is for Ayn Rand/ –one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks/ James C/ New York / 2 Sept 81.”
Further on the auction page, I found that Clavell’s editor had sent Rand a copy of The Children’s Story, also printed in 1981, with a note on the letterhead of Delacorte Press asking her to read the book and share her response.
So much made sense now!
Clavell’s genius at revealing the Eastern mind—and the similarity of some of his themes to Rand’s—has not gone unnoticed in academe. In 1996, Loyola University professor Gina MacDonald published James Clavell, A Critical Companion as part of Greenwood Publishers’ “Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers” series. Intended as a teacher’s guide for high school and college courses, the book analyzes his novels in multi-leveled literary detail and includes a well-researched biographical section. MacDonald even compares Noble House to Rand’s Anthem and notes that Clavell’s books are not only adventures and romances but novels of ideas as well—through their repeated exposition of clashes between the individual and the collective and the conflict between capitalism and authoritarianism. I found the book to be a valuable resource, and I hope that it is used frequently in schools, which would bring more readers to Clavell.
That is important because far too many contemporary books for young people revolve around dysfunction, personal disaster, and ineptitude—if they have much of a story at all. Wouldn’t projections of life as a thrilling drama, with conflict, struggle, and triumph, offer far better food for their inchoate souls?
Meanwhile, here’s hoping that someone in the movie industry turns Whirlwind or Gai-Jininto a film, helping to re-ignite broader interest in this marvelous author.