Structuring Absences

From 1990 to 1992, I lived in a world without television. The first year was in Leeds, living in student digs, getting up to speed in Chinese and Japanese. Then, I was in the Far East in the days before the internet, when a simple question and answer to distant correspondents was a two-week round trip by aerogramme. Snippets of news drifted in, spied in arcane newspapers, mentioned in letters from home. Isaac Asimov died. So did Freddie Mercury. And entirely without my realising, the Soviet Union collapsed. I got home to discover that the Cold War was over, the map had been redrawn and Red Russia had been swept away.

Which is why, perhaps, I feel a certain affinity for the hapless sometime hero of David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – the Dutchman who finds himself at the edge of the world, in Dejima, that foreign field that was the easternmost terminus of the great Dutch trading empire. Dejima, as prominently featured in last year’s The Secret of the Sword, was a fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbour, where foreign devils from Europe were quarantined by the Japanese. In Secret of the Sword, it was the finish line, the protagonist’s symbol of ultimate escape. In Thousand Autumns, it is a prison in all but name, from which de Zoet yearns to fly free. It all depends on which side of the bridge you’re on.

I have heard Mitchell called an acolyte of Haruki Murakami. Is this because he is the only Japanese author reviewers have heard of, or because they see in Thousand Autumns an echo of Murakami’s parallel narratives and structuring absences? Mitchell’s book is obsessed with those moments where the world can change with the tick of a clock, and in the long, seemingly eventless periods where nothing busily happens, even as the storm gathers. There are parallels, seemingly inadvertent, with today’s financial crisis, as de Zoet discovers his money is worthless, and, yes, there are echoes with the early novels of Murakami, such as Hear the Wind Sing, in which the text would curve oddly around an unspoken gravity well, daring the reader to deduce what it was.

Jacob de Zoet is on Dejima, under duress, stuck with an unpleasant multinational band sailing under Dutch flags. Moreover, he is there at a crucial moment in history, when the world order of the 18th century crumbles suddenly into the world order of the 19th. Overnight, literally, at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century, the Dutch East India Company, that association of wily merchants and privateers who had fought against Coxinga and wheeled and dealed in the China Seas, was suddenly no more. Within a generation, the Dutch in Asia were replaced by the British, commencing a whole new era in Asian history. Mitchell’s text is swimming with period dialogue and concepts, knee-deep in Dutchness, as the world de Zoet once knew is revealed to disappearing forever.

And there is a romance, of sorts. There are many women in de Zoet’s life, although we only see one close up, and she is somehow beyond his reach. Sometimes, one wonders if the Thousand Autumns is not a single novel but a file containing three abortive attempts to begin. De Zoet himself is marginalised after the first third; his Dejima frustrations forgotten as Mitchell’s story takes on more fantastical elements, eschewing his pin-sharp reconstruction of Dejima for tantalising speculations about the monastery of a fictional wacko sect. Elements come to the fore of a Tokugawa-era Handmaid’s Tale, as Mitchell slaps the reader with the realisation that a heretofore minor character is far more central than one thought. It is, in a sense, a remarkably Japanese experience, confronting the idle reader with the abyss of meanings unexplored. To the attentive real-world linguist, every day in Japanese feels that way, drama or not.

But this is Mitchell’s theme throughout, a surgical metaphor of trauma and healing, hinted in the opening gore of a troubled birth, and picked at throughout like a scab. None of us ever really knows which character we are truly playing, or in whose story. What De Zoet believes to be his own failings as a traditional hero are later revealed to be crucial links in a chain of events that change a number of lives. And in the final, moving time-lapse sequence, encompassing decades in a page like some prose version of the end of Zardoz, we see de Zoet getting the only reward he can expect in this life, but maybe not the next.

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Mad in Taiwan

In the last week I have been interviewed by Chinese TV, press-passed my way behind the fences and up into the rafters at the boat launch, and chased down the street after two rival Goddess of the Sea processions with a stills camera. I’ve walked along a beach interviewing an eminent professor, and poked around an illegal temple to Coxinga, literally built on the shifting sands of the Taiwan Strait. I’ve also notched up many hours of talking headness, wittering to camera about Coxinga’s rebellious life and explosive conclusion.

The crew from Marc Pingry Productions was based in the super-swish Tayih Landis, a film-makers’ dream of a hotel with wireless internet throughout, a producer-proof business centre, bellhops eager to cart around a truck full of camera equipment and the best breakfasts I have ever had. And a gym, and a pool. And insulated beverages in the tea house that allow us to periodically say: “Let’s go and drink from the furry cup.” It also had a convenient six-floor shopping centre next door, for all those handy last minute runs to grab a hacksaw, three rolls of gaffer tape, a CD of devotional music dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, and a crate of beer.

With 5am calls and midnight finishes, I am lucky I saw any of the city at all. But for a workaholic like me, it was the best possible way to see Tainan. Get up, drive to location A, shoot two set-ups, drive to Location B, repeat, back to the hotel for breakfast. Then out again for the next shoot… rinse, repeat, from location scout to shooting, to equipment hire, to scriptwriting.

Our fixer Johnson Hu was on hand to drive the van, argue with the natives, run for iced tea and twirl a boom mike. Thanks to him, I had the most wonderful Coxinga fanboy experience. I got to see the beach where Coxinga’s troops came ashore, to poke around the halls at the place where he died, and to clamber over the ruins of the castle he took from the Dutch. I was also pushed in front of a crowd at an academic forum on Chinese marine history, where I spoke about Coxinga’s Japanese relatives, some of whom witnessed key moments in 19th century history, and one of whom opened the first coffee shop in Japan in 1889.

We’re still in an ongoing debate about what this documentary should be called. A Hero’s Legacy? Sailing into History? The Master of the Seas? Defiance Deified? Ship Floats? Since the reconstruction of the 17th century boat is the centrepiece, I have suggested Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Junk? But I don’t think anyone is going with that.

The people in Tainan have built a replica of the Taiwan Boat, the junk that made the long trip from Taiwan to Hirado in Japan. There is a lively and incredibly entertaining debate underway about what a replica should be, how faithful it should be in order to satisfy historians; how practical it should be to satisfy health and safety; how durable it should be to satisfy the money-men. The camera crew are back in June to film the re-enactments of Coxinga’s life, and I’ve had so much fun I’m ready to volunteer to carry sandbags if it’ll get me back there.

But no rest for the wicked. Off to Sweden today to discuss the career of Major General Peng Liyuan, the Chinese soprano who looks ever so good in uniform. And back in London next week for meetings about my next book: I’m not done with maritime China yet…

Coxinga

Throwing stuff in a suitcase for tomorrow’s trip. I’m off to Taiwan for a week’s work on a National Geographic documentary about Coxinga. We shot some footage in London a year ago, but this is the big one: much delayed, much rescheduled, but finally we’re off to the place he made his home.

There’s some historical consultant stuff to do for the re-enactment scenes, and then I am a talking head, discussing my long-standing interest in the man otherwise known as Zheng Chenggong, the leader of the resistance against the Manchu conquerors of China. His father was a former smuggler who became one of the richest men in the 17th century world, and an admiral in the dying days of the Ming dynasty. Coxinga was the half-Japanese son, raised as a Confucian scholar, groomed for a quiet existence as a minister, who was barely 20 years old when the Manchu invasion of China turned his world upside down.

Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty was the first history book I wrote, back in 2003. When I first pitched it to my agent, she had to ask twice whether it was fact or fiction – the story is that fantastic. But his life has obsessed for even longer than that – I first wrote about him in 1992, as part of a course on “Pre-Modern Japanese Foreign Relations” that I took at university in Japan. So you could say it’s taken 18 years to get to this point. And there are still stories to tell about him, so many stories…

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

The Pirate King

Yesterday was a hot holiday Monday in London, so naturally I was standing in front of a galleon on the South Bank, talking about Chinese pirates. There’s a film crew in town making a documentary about Coxinga, the pirate king of Taiwan, who led the resistance against the Manchu occupation in the 1600s. The director wanted pictures of me doing quintessentially London things, so I suggested playing tinny music from my cellphone out loud on the train until someone punched me. Instead, he plumped for walking beside the Thames, until we were moved along by Tower of London security.

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