Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review (and some reflections): Cloud of Sparrows - Takashi Matsuoka

Samurais = check
Ninjas = Check
Geisha = Check
Zen monks = check
Cowboy gunslingers? =check

Zen allusions, sword duels, sword vs gun duels, gun vs shuriken, ancient Japanese culture = check!

What more can I, who grew up watching anime, ask for?

I was so used with the grand number of characters any long novel has (like that of Game of Thrones) that I was unimpressed with the humble number of characters listed in the 400 page book's cast of characters.

That, however, did not matter. Matsuoka offers a league of extraordinary heroes: An enigmatic lord whose plans surprise and baffles those around him(and the reader-myself), a legendary but lunatic swordsman, a gunslinger with an equal reputation and a motley crew of geishas, ninjas, monks who may or may not be what they seem to be.

And this is perhaps the only book that features a unique style in shifting point of views. Time and again, Matsuoka would get into the head of any of the characters. He does this really often, but he does so instantly, without signals, but gracefully without confusion on who was thinking or talking. 

Divided into three books, divided into chapters divided into short sub chapters, the novel is about Lord Genji's rumored prophecies and his clan's struggle to survive despite inner turmoil and battle against outside attacks from century old enemies. This is staged at a turning point in Japanese history where foreigners and their ways of thinking threaten the samurai and their code. Thus differences and similarities are magnified e.g. those between Zen and Christianity or between unequivocal words.

Ending this with some spoilers: quotable quotes and reading comparisons.

"What does 'banzai' mean?

It is an ancient way of saying 'ten thousand years.' The true meaning is more difficult to explain. I suppose you could say it is an expression of deepest sincerity, deepest commitment. The speaker is expressing his willingness to trade eternity for this single moment"

"Kawakami went into the cottage alone. It was not much more than a simple shed in one of the smaller gardens of the vast castle. Yet it provided him with the greatest pleasure in life.


Extended Reading:
The novel is often compared to James Clavell's shogun novels. Having read Shogun, I would say, that while Clavell's offers political intrigue, Matsuoka takes on philosophy, art and religion.

Not to take anything away from Shogun, it still is one of the best and most action packed reads despite bordering on 1300 pages, but I found that Matsuoka offers more details into individual encounters like scenes and dialogues. 

Fast, fun, facts and fallacies?

(bought this book from: Bookends Baguio)

1. Just how am I a junkie into Zen thought/philosophy? If I would be forced to choose any religion, then I would choose Zen(if it can be considered one).

2. What is with the samurai? That many (most men) find the warrior and the code so enticing?
Is it the artful tension between what is barbaric and what is civilized? - the blade and the killing it follows, the patriarchal status quo set against a supposed art of anything, or the supposed minimalism of movement/emotion that what could be beneath is actually an even greater emotion - the emotion to subdue, or an art that is too wasteful or a costly ceremony?

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