HARPOON by C.W. Nicol


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Forsaking the Eskimo Arctic of his first novel, The White Shaman, 1979, Nicol forages here in a warmer, more civilized turf explored by James Clavell in Shogun. But while Nicol's lush rendering of traditional Japan and its turbulent response to Western interlopers rings with authenticity (the author lives in Japan), his plot knots up and then unravels in ways foreign to the slicker, more canny Clavell. Beginning with a sound-and-fury depiction of a Japanese whale hunt, Nicol struts his historical stuff with verve--and overdoses of purple prose. Observing the hunt in the town of Taiji is Matsudaira Sayadori, a samurai with a daring plan: to create a navy manned by whalers to combat Commodore Perry's fleet, then (it is the mid-1850's) lurking off the Japanese coast. Sayadori admires the skill of a young harpooner, Jinsuke; some months later, after Jinsuke loses his arm and his self-confidence to a shark, Sayadori hires him to spy on the Americans. When Jinsuke is captured by rival samurai and dropped in the sea to drown, he is rescued by an American ship that ferries him to China. There, tagged with the wonderful name of Jim Sky, he takes work on another American vessel and for 10 years sails and whales the Americas. Meanwhile, after several political upheavals related in a dry, history-book manner, Sayadori is forced to become first a ronin (rogue samurai) and then a revolutionary who plots to rid Japan of the now-entrenched Caucasians. When the shogunate, main support of the samurai, is overthrown, a last, great samurai army converges. An aging Sayadori finds transport to the army with--Jinsuke!, who has returned to Japan as captain of a ship. Sayadori dies nobly in battle; Jinsuke moves to Canada. Of great sweep and some emotional power, but overwritten and underplotted: the tales of Jinsuke and Sayadori don't parallel so much as diverge and finally overlap, resulting in a disjointed, bumpy epic.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Putnam