In Profile: James Clavell, a Legend of Historical Fiction
When the term ‘historical fiction’ crops up, it instantly conjures up heaving corsets, inferior versions of Game of Thrones (it is a certified fact that The War of the Roses is greatly improved by dragons), and Henry VIII wheezing about in Hilary Mantel’s fictional universe. Of course, there’s much fun to be had with English kings and royal intrigue, but it’s certainly not the most compelling and downright brilliant aspect of historical fiction.
A towering figure of historical fiction that combines great characterisation, deep historical insight and cultural understanding that rivals most foreign correspondents, is author and screenwriter James Clavell. Written between 1962 and 1993, the Asian Saga is a series of six novels that span from colonial Japan in 1600 (Shōgun) up to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 Iran. Clavell moves effortlessly through centuries of Asian culture, focusing on the legacy of the British Empire, and the political intrigues of commerce, war and the cultural clashes between East and West. Perhaps I’m confessing ignorance when it comes to the historical topics that Clavell covers, but reading about the tensions of Britain’s 100-year lease of Hong Kong, or the influence of Dutch merchants on colonial Japan stimulates the historical qualities of his work. The Western misunderstandings and naivety towards Eastern customs makes for great moments of comedy and some of the most duplicitous tea ceremonies ever put to paper. Switching from points of view of the characters, Clavell never shies from informing us of the cultural significance behind certain moments, as well as how that often completely pulls the wool over our Western protagonists.
Clavell’s massive historical scope is linked in multiple novels by the Struans, a Scottish trade family whose legacy is woven throughout the narrative. The Struans establish trade in British Hong Kong, centuries later its Struan produced helicopters that are stranded during the revolution in Iran. The Struans and all their relatives, lovers and business associates through the ages are all given their moments of intense strategy, desire and crisis that keep the narratives tightly woven during the doorstop-sized novels. Shōgun was also adapted into a delightfully kitsch and big-budget 1980s television series that captures the melodrama and grandeur of the novels and is also well worth a look.
It must also be pointed out that while Clavell was a great author, he also wrote the screenplay British classic The Great Escape and Sci-Fi wonder The Fly. Clavell’s military experience shines through a lot in the Asian Saga, but what is most fascinating is that Clavell was held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war – in one particularly notorious camp in Shanghai where 90% of the prisoners didn’t survive. It’s pretty rare to read a novel with the knowledge that the author is actually tougher than their characters.
For some truly brilliant historical fiction that runs for thousands of pages but rarely dwells, Clavell is a brilliant figure for the genre – no dragons needed.