Review: The Tatar Whirlwind, Ryotaro Shiba

I managed to finally finish Mr Shiba’s ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ on Friday — given that I started the book in late September/ early October, this seems like a very long time. All of this time can be explained reasonably well though, and it is also a factor bringing out the best and the worst in this book.

I’ll start with the thought that this is an incredibly detailed work. The setting is early seventeenth century Japan and China where we observe the journeys of an “emissary” of the Hirado domain to the to-be Qing dynasty. As is typical of the author, a large part of work seems to have gone into the research to make the book historically accurate as well as linguistically coherent. The number of Chinese (and Jurchen, and Korean) characters that come up in the book is quite considerable, and insofar as possible there is an overview of what the person was and how his life was spent up to the point where he (or she) was encountered in the story. This leads the writer off on a number of spirals, but I find them rather interesting — plus, the additional detail only adds to the value of the work.

The main setback of this novel is that the translation is incredibly poor — at least compared to the excellent standard set by Juliet Winters Carpenter in translating ‘Saka no ue no kumo’ and ‘Saigo no Shōgun’, this book as seen in the words of Joshua A. Fogel is nowhere near what I was expecting. Namely, what I find is that though paragraphs themselves are still coherent and have a nice flow, the same is often broken between paragraphs by a change of thought that is too abrupt.

As a bigger problem, this book was originally published as a serialized novel. The translator does not seem to have gone through very much effort to get rid of the marks of serialization leading to rather severe repetitions only a few pages over from when some things were mentioned originally. While I see the wish to remain true to the original version, I do have to say that some things could be cut by common sense. I find it hard to believe that the book read well to Mr Fogel in English in the present state.

The above is also why it took me that long to read: I found it easiest to actually try to forget some of what had just occurred since no doubt it would be mentioned again, so that picking ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ up after a few days since I’d last read it turned into a viable reading method. This doesn’t sound like the best of ideas, but I had no wish to return to the book too soon — until the ending was in sight and the story quickened up quite a bit.

Once interesting device Mr Shiba has used in this book a bit more than in previous ones is explaining what his characters are saying. Yes, he does that elsewhere where the meaning is hidden, but quite probably since we’re now dealing with China and the Chinese culture, there is far more of the hidden language taunting/hinting than before (as a bad example, this would not be unlikely to happen in the book: one character says to the other: “This spring is beautiful, is it not?” as an implication that the other was cowardly and ran too fast to see the budding leaves — mind you, this  “example” I’ve concocted entirely on my own so as I said before it is a severely lacking although in the same general category).

If the above hasn’t made you want to not read it yet, I’d say go ahead: the historicity of the work makes it worth going through for anyone interested in Mr Shiba’s work or the period in Northern China.

About the author


  1. Hi, thank you for reviewing Mr Shiba’s works available in English translation. As it happens, this book is not widely available and expensive. I might venture to read it in its original language.

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