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Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show

[ Fiction ]

Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show

By Richard Wiley

A sword-swinging page-turner infused with a heady mix of Japanese etiquette, American ideals, and Machiavellian philosophy, written by a PEN/Faulkner Award winner.

James A. Michener Fiction Series, James Magnuson, editor
Not for sale in British Commonwealth, except Canada

2007

$24.00$16.08

33% website discount price

Hardcover

6 x 9 | 296 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71470-0

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay and "opened" Japan to trade with America. As entertainment for the treaty-signing ceremony, Perry brought a white-men-in-black-face minstrel show—and thereby confirmed the widely whispered Japanese belief that trade with the American "barbarians" could only lead to cultural ruin. Yet the pawns in this clash of cultures—the minstrels, Ace Bledsoe and Ned Clark, and the Japanese interpreter, Manjiro Okubo—are just slightly more curious than cautious. Within the minstrels Manjiro sensed "the subtleties of spirit that reside in all good men." When Ace and Ned are unwittingly made part of a Japanese plot to undermine the American presence, Manjiro helps them escape into the countryside. Pursued by samurai, torn between treachery and loyalty, Manjiro and the minstrels (along with family, friends, and lovers) make their way across Japan, fleeing a showdown with the samurai that gradually becomes inevitable.

Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show is the long-awaited prequel—more than a decade in the making—to Richard Wiley's PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel, Soldiers in Hiding. A sword-swinging page-turner infused with a heady mix of Japanese etiquette, American ideals, and Machiavellian philosophy, Wiley's latest novel sparkles as it shapes history into an enlightened drama of the earliest moments of globalization.

  • Prologue
  • Part One: Edo
    • 1. Dutch Learning
    • 2. Oh, What I'll Find There I Don't Know
    • 3. Accident upon Accident
    • 4. Whitman Sampler
    • 5. Approach of the Outside World
    • 6. Tell Him I'm in Mourning!
    • 7. He Didn't Care about the Neighbors Anymore
    • 8. Don't Get Up on My Account
    • 9. A Word Overheard Is a Word Forgotten
    • 10. The Pavilion of Timelessness
    • 11. Where Has My Heart Gone?
    • 12. A Fly in the Ointment
    • 13. Three Tulips in a Boat
    • 14. Under the Falling Wisteria
    • 15. The Experiment of America
    • 16. Rumors
    • 17. Fine Mornin', Ain't It?
    • 18. Commodore Perry's Anxiety
  • Part Two: Odawara
    • 19. Everything Wrong Everywhere
    • 20. Saved from the Realm of Absolute Calamity
    • 21. "Kambei"
    • 22. Angelface
    • 23. Hired for a Bad Cause
    • 24. Whoa, Nellie
    • 25. Come to Me, My Dear, Come
    • 26. I Guess There's Hooligans Every Damned Where
    • 27. Twenty Questions
    • 28. Allergic to Pain
    • 29. Einosuke's Anger
    • 30. Japan's Conundrum
    • 31. An Earlier Walker than His Uncle
    • 32. Extra Circumspect, From Now On
    • 33. Behold, Your Defeated Lord
    • 34. We Can't Have This
    • 35. Is It Easier to Go or Be Left Behind?
    • 36. Incense or Prosthetics
    • 37. Irony Provides Relief
    • 38. A Fetish without Many Followers
  • Part Three: Shimoda
    • 39. Keiki and the Planting, Ueno and the River Trout
    • 40. The Wind and Intransigence
    • 41. Hide This in Your Wagon
    • 42. The Omen of the Crows
    • 43. I Have Not, Particularly, Saved Myself
    • 44. Life Is Short. Fall in Love
    • 45. Strength and Flexibility
    • 46. I Am Taking You Home
    • 47. Knowable People
    • 48. Not Selling Chestnuts
    • 49. Outraged Periods and Exclamation Points
    • 50. It's a Poor Life Anyway
    • 51. Alas, We Are Defeated
  • Afterword

"It's like a city. Like more than one. It's like little cities near each other with nothing in between 'em but the dark," said Ned.

"There's water in between them," Ace pointed out, "and all manner of fish just under the surface, easy to catch. I do believe a man could scoop them up with his hands if he was quick enough. If you want to get a dinghy we could row out and give it a try right now."

Ned leaned way over the ship's railing and looked down, his face clouding up. "We'd get throttled twice for a trick like that," he said. "First by the fleet's high muckamucks and then by the Japanese. Neither one of 'em want us goin' where they can't keep an eye on us, Ace. How many times have we been told?"

He leaned out farther still, staring down at the black and silent sea. "I do wonder if they're strange tastin' though, them fish I can't quite see. It's another world under the ocean, Ace. Another world in Japan, too. Another world pretty much everywhere we ain't been."

Ace put his hands on Ned's shoulders, drawing him back until both his feet were firmly planted on the ship's planks once again. Both men stood at the port railing of the Pohatan, the flagship of the East India fleet, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry. Seaward and across a short expanse of bay they could see the low-burning lanterns of the Susquehanna and the Lexington, two of the "little cities" Ned had been talking about. There were dots of liquid light from other American vessels, too, farther down the inlet, bobbing yellow like rays of fallen stars tangled up on buoys.

"Yessir, like houses across a dark prairie," Ned said, "like little homes away from home. It gives me the urge to get back where I belong, Ace. I hope we ain't here too long. There's surely another blue-eyed woman, waitin' somewhere to meet me."

He would not have been able to say it this way, but what Ned was after with the images he was making was an apt enough metaphor for Ace to want to pound into a lyric later on. Ned thought Ace had the rarest of gifts when it came to music, while Ace thought of music as a path to something else, to a calling that he couldn't quite hear yet. And when he only nodded, lost in those thoughts, Ned yawned and went below, for the wind was high by then and it was cold.

***

Once he was finally alone Ace held his right fist up, blocking out the lights from the Susquehanna and the Lexington, then extended the top two fingers of that fist, to block out the wan half moon, as well. He had, indeed, thought to write a song about this armada of American sailors, strung out across a vast and lonely world, some of them true naval men, some adventurers or solitary wanderers like himself. But the images Ned had made were obstacles to his imagination, not a help to it, so he soon gave up. He crossed to the ship's landward side, where the quality of light was duller, where dark Japan offered up images of its own. Now he could see parts of a village and more lights moving in the forested hills, as if men on horseback were carrying lanterns. Now again, in the dimmest possible way, quite as if a finger had scratched it on the velvet curtain of the night, he believed he could also see the paper doors of a farmhouse, mournful and low, a whole family of farmers sleeping behind them. Or perhaps awake and staring back at him, curiosity about the coming world pouring from their narrow eyes.

At eleven o'clock, sounded out in high-pitched eighth notes on the ship's triangle, Ace went astern to read in a book of essays that he prized above anything else and had brought on deck with him. But he found instead a group of sailors, sitting and listening to one of their number sing "Buford Holden," a ballad Ace had written for this current minstrel show they were about to perform for the Japanese. The sailor had a decent voice, and knew the lyrics well enough, but in other ways he got the song all wrong. "Buford Holden" was a freed slave who, while heading north on a railroad train, imagined the glory of the cities he would see, and how grandly he would be welcomed when he arrived in the free states. When Ace sang the song it was ironic, abolitionist to its core, but the sailor seemed to miss the point entirely, lauding instead the natural beauty of the American landscape.

So though Ace was intent on reading, he started singing along behind the sailor, to try and correct the misconception of the song.

Oh, what I'll find there I don't know,
Wide boulevards? Big houses, all in a row?
Or maybe I'll find myself on Commerce Street,
Where the bosses will shake my hand.
"Glad to have you, Buford," they'll say . . .

As he sang Ace could see Buford Holden's face reflected in the window of that northbound train.

"Philadelphia!" sang the sailor, quickly abdicating the main part to Ace. He became, instead, the conductor, passing through the third-class car, a man who by then had called out the names of so many cities that Buford had grown confused, forgetting even those he had previously memorized. Ace provided the litany of towns.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? Philadelphia, New York?
I used to know them all by heart so why not now?
Baltimore, Ohio? Boston, Maine? New Bedford,
That one I know!
New Bedford's in Connecticut!
Wide boulevards? Big houses, all in a row!

"Buford Holden" was a long song, a melodrama, really, that followed Buford into the heart of the same northern ambivalence that Ace had always felt. But there were several possible stopping places in the song and tonight, with his book still beckoning, Ace chose this one. The plaintive quality of his tenor voice left its own imprint on both the sailor and the night.

Ace went to the rail again, to calm himself before reading, but in the quiet that followed something caught his attention from shore. It wasn't singing, yet it had the depth and clarity of a good human voice.

"London, England! Paris, France!" it said. And after a while. "Dutch, Amsterdam!"

Far from growing calmer, Ace's heart swelled. So he sent his own voice back across the water in a kind of offering. "Oh what I'll find there I don't know. Wide boulevards! Big houses, all in a row!"

The sailor came in behind him, a half a second late and harmonizing with his eyes closed.

"A government orchestra . . . They've brought a bronze orchestra with a group of government musicians on board."

"They don't call it an orchestra," said Manjiro, patiently. "An orchestra must have stringed instruments that one plucks as one does a shamisen or koto. Also, what you see glowing in the sun isn't bronze, Einosuke, but brass. Think how heavy bronze would be. And no one, not even the Americans, could get it to shine that way."

"Brass. Bronze. What possible difference could it make? It wouldn't surprise me if these braggarts made their instruments out of solid gold. But I swear, Manjiro, I don't know how you remember such trivialities. What do you think we should do now, send out a barge full of shakuhachi players to sail around them and educate their ears?"

"Their ears are educated, my brother," Manjiro said. "It's called 'Dutch Learning,' you know that. Don't make the mistake of underestimating these Americans. Their ears are educated, but in an entirely different way."

Manjiro, the younger of Lord Okubo of Odawara's two remaining sons a firstborn had died some years ago smiled at his older brother to cover the didactic nature of the speech he had made, but Einosuke was irritated and did not return the smile. He didn't need instruction from a brother who had spent the last five years of his life holed up in a Buddhist temple studying barbarian ways, from a brother who had surpassed him in the eyes of his government simply because he could speak a barbarian tongue. They had been arguing forever about "Dutch Learning," which to them meant anything that had not originated in China or Japan, but recently their arguments had grown harsher. Einosuke believed Manjiro to be in favor of everything foreign, disdainful of anything traditionally Japanese, and sometimes, though Einosuke's arguments always equaled Manjiro's in energy and skill, he imagined himself and his opinions as artifacts heaped upon a dung wagon, his brother the horse that would pull that wagon to the refuge depository! Harmony, Shinto rituals, the purity and beauty of the Japanese race itself—who knew what his brother might want to jeopardize next, or what foreign novelty he might embrace?

"Please, Manjiro, do me the favor of standing here silently for a moment and just looking at these ships, enjoying the day," he finally said. "I heard this morning that the points of the treaty are nearly ironed out. That means that you and Lord Abe will be boarding one of these vessels soon, forced to smile into foreign faces and listen to that bronze band. So why not give us a minute of peace, as a favor to your older brother, before all the real trouble begins?"

Manjiro pursed his lips and nodded. He said the word "brass" again, but was careful to utter it silently, quietly kissing with it the bright March air.

***

Einosuke's wife, who went by the name of Fumiko, was at the seaside also, along with their two daughters and their infant son, Junichiro. Manjiro loved his brother's children, and was devoted to his brother's wife, the eldest child of a chief retainer of the daimyo from Mito, a vastly larger and more powerful clan than that of Einosuke and Manjiro's father, Lord Okubo. Fumiko was well educated for a woman, and he secretly believed she shared his political opinions because they shared the same birthday, she was precisely Manjiro's age. She was beautiful, though the blackened teeth of a married woman, a tradition he disdained above most others, sometimes made her beauty seem distant now, and not only could she expertly use the tools of dignity and decorum, but she had a good sense of humor and fun. She kept Einosuke's heart light when its natural inclination was to sink in his chest, and she had managed to raise his daughters so that, at seventeen and twelve years old, they were good at learning, but had also retained an unbridled sense of childlike delight, even, most of the time, the elder one. Manjiro believed, in fact, that though Einosuke's political opinions were perfectly wrong, he had a perfect family. And now that the baby was born, now that his brother had a son, he could tell that Einosuke believed so, also.

It was cold that morning, but the sun was bright, so Fumiko and the girls walked under umbrellas, as if it were summertime. Fumiko had taken the baby out of his wrap and was letting Keiko, her seventeen-year-old daughter, hold him. It was her younger daughter's job to keep the umbrella positioned over the baby's head so that no direct sunlight shone into his eyes. This younger daughter's name was Masako, and when they reached the two brothers, Keiko was scolding her for doing a bad job.

"Masako is so infuriating!" she told her father and uncle. "She's moving the umbrella on purpose, trying to make him squint and cry so she can say it is my style of holding him, my way of walking that's done it, and carry him herself. She's tricky, father, and so obvious about it. You just wait, our baby brother's eyes will be permanently damaged if Masako has her way!"

Keiko was like her father in that she had a forthright mind and an argumentative style, but spending too much time with Masako often made her forget her age. Of course Masako was guilty of moving the umbrella, everyone knew it, but she very calmly lied. "I am holding this umbrella properly and walking at a steady pace," she said. "Keiko is whimsical lately, she's thinking too much, that's the problem. She stops suddenly and tries to show him the American ships, which is ridiculous since he can't even see the bay. Keiko shouldn't be worried about the ships but should be walking properly and looking at the ground. She cares nothing for our brother's eyes, but only wants to show herself off. She's becoming worldly, father. I can't be the only one who has noticed it, any fool can see the signs."

If it could be avoided no one in the family ever wanted to argue with Masako, who used passion as if it were logic, and threw words around as if they were skipping stones. Masako would never quit, so their mother simply said, "Be quiet girls. At least while we're with your uncle, at least during our remaining time in Edo, let's try to have him think us well behaved. We don't want him to tell the Americans that we squabble all the time."

"Mother's right, Masako," said Keiko, "we mustn't let the truth get out. But wait, maybe we can use you as a weapon against the Americans. If they knew about your squabbling that would put an end to all these negotiations. If they heard about you they would turn their ships around and go home."

Masako handed the umbrella to her mother and squeezed in between her uncle and her father. "Tell her the medical truth, uncle," she said. "Tell her what awful things the sun can do to a baby's eyes."

She took a breath to start again but her father put his arm around her and cupped her chin and jaw. Keiko saw him do it and said, "Part of a father's job is quieting a mouth that will not quiet itself." But speaking again had been a tactical error, and because of it she was forced to hand the baby back to her mother and go stand by her uncle on his other side.

It was true that Einosuke and Manjiro had fought over what Japan should do about the Americans, they had argued about politics in general all their lives, but they were close and affectionate brothers in other ways. Einosuke was forty-one, Manjiro thirty-four, and as they strolled away from the shoreline, his daughters' argument somehow made Einosuke remember carrying Manjiro through another sunny spring, just as Keiko had carried his son today. It was in such ways, by honoring the elder daughter with the right to carry her baby brother before the younger one got the privilege, it was through such traditions as these that strong family bonds continued, that parents could give their children the opportunity to experience true responsibility and a sustained sense of joy. Einosuke didn't know what would happen when the Americans came, but he believed with all his heart that the world as they knew it would be irreparably changed, and was bereaved by the additional belief that Manjiro wanted it that way.

Einosuke's house was in a convenient area of Edo, not far from the castle where the Great Council met. For a decade Lord Okubo had leased the house, and last year he had finally bought it and invested in an expansion of its garden and in shoring up its foundation and cracked front wall. The house was still too small, especially now that Junichiro was born, and there were workmen coming daily, repairing the bath and kitchen, even at this most awkward time. Not only that but as soon as the family left for Odawara an entire second wing would be built.

O bata, their troublesome maid, met them in the entryway. She took the baby and bowed and waited until the adults, Keiko included, had passed into the garden room, before hurriedly pulling Masako aside.

"Well?" she demanded. "Did you see them? Did you see the American ships? The maid next door saw them yesterday and said that carved on the side of each one is the image of a foreigner's face! That can't be true, can it? Tell me, Masako, did you see such a thing?"

"They are big and ugly and stupid," said Masako. "They are dark and looming, all eight of them, and it seems to me that if you tried to make them move they would not go fast. But if they've got faces on their sides, they're not as ugly as the one on the maid next door."

O bata threw her hands to her mouth but laughter came out anyway, jiggling her breasts and snorting between her fingers, like the steam from one of the foreign ships. Masako was becoming rude these days! "Oh, Masako," she said, "I pity the man who marries you! When the investigators come I hope they don't ask the opinion of the maid next door!" She laughed again, then waited until Masako left before picking up Junichiro and slipping back outside. She was in love with the local fish seller's son, and, even under threat of firing, would not leave the young man alone.

The others had walked through the house, stepping over workmen's tools, to settle into a long tatami room that overlooked the newly finished rock garden in the back. This room was warm in winter yet in summer it was shaded, and when the doors were opened the garden seemed to come up into it, making it a favorite of everyone. It had been Einosuke's idea to add the room first, before any of the other new construction, and his idea, also, that the rock garden below it should be a smaller but otherwise precise replica of the one at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Einosuke had not admitted that he wanted the garden for reasons other than aesthetic ones, but in fact it had been while viewing the original garden that he had finally found the resolve to change his life. Until that day, eighteen years ago now, he had been a carouser and a gambler and a regular visitor to pleasure quarters everywhere.

"It is difficult to judge his speed of travel," Einosuke said, "but I think father will be here sometime tomorrow."

"Father will travel slowly," said Manjiro. "He will bear his colors high."

There was something in that statement that both brothers recognized as true and false at the same time. Lord Okubo would indeed travel slowly, but not so much out of a sense of regal passage as because he abhorred coming to Edo. He was following the Shogun's decree, coming for his year of duty, but he didn't like the expense of it, nor did he want to hurry into the political turmoil that awaited him. Einosuke, on the other hand, was fond of Edo and did not look forward to returning to Odawara, even for the few months it would take to get the Edo house remodeled. He and his family had stayed in Edo for a decade, only occasionally visiting Odawara, and he was miffed that his father insisted upon their return to the countryside. His father had often said that Einosuke should return to Odawara in order to better learn how to run the estates once he became lord, but Einosuke suspected it was merely that his father wanted to be in Edo without him, to deal with the edicts concerning behavior toward foreigners wihtout his counsel.

The brothers looked at each other with rueful smiles. Once again their time alone together had been short. They both knew that their father's arrival would reconfigure things, making their relationship unrecognizable compared to what it was now. Unlike Manjiro's earlier visits, though, which might have been too short but had been harmonious, this time the brothers had shouted and argued bitterly every night. It was for that reason that Fumiko felt it important that there be no arguing on this, the last solitary evening they would have. She believed that harmony at the end of a visit was more important than harmony in its middle. She had instructed her daughters in the matter, but when Masako joined them in the garden room she was still under the influence of O bata, and her words came out wrong.

"Think of it," she said. "By the time our fat little brother is grown up there will be foreigners everywhere. Even when we move back to Grandpa's castle we will probably have foreigners living right next door."

Manjiro reached up and pulled his niece down next to him as she spoke. Whenever he was around these girls what he longed for most was not intercourse with the outside world but marriage and constancy, a family of his own. He hoped, in fact, that he might quite soon find both. "Your father and I discuss such things only so that we can make them clear," he said.

When Einosuke heard that he knew it was his responsibility, more than his brother's, to regret their long hours of discord. But when he tried to do it, to agree with Manjiro at least that far, he found he couldn't do it well. He admired Manjiro greatly, but at the same moment was angry with him, not because Manjiro held opinions of his own, but because he could not see the need for a united family view. In earlier days, when his role had been subordinate, he would not have dared speak to senior family members the way Manjiro seemed to have no trouble speaking to him now.

"If you are eating in tonight I must send O bata out to buy fresh fish," Fumiko finally said. "Are you eating in or are you eating out?"

There was a kind of code in this, a reminder delivered from wife to husband, not concerning Manjiro this time, but concerning O bata, the maid, and the fish seller's son. Fumiko nearly dismissed her earlier but had lately relented, just the night before allowing O bata to deliver her farewells to the boy in person, before going to Odawara with the family.

"Oh, we must eat in," Einosuke told his wife, "but Manjiro and I will buy the fish ourselves. That way we may speak together without the family spies."

Once outside, however, Einosuke and Manjiro argued about the Americans again, standing next to each other in the frigid night.

They were an hour late for dinner, everyone was upset, and when their father arrived the next day he, too, immediately started arguing, even before he had unpacked his bags.

Richard Wiley is Professor of English and Associate Director of the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His previous novels include Soldiers in Hiding (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award), Fools' Gold, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, Indigo, and Ahmed's Revenge.

"This absorbing and immensely pleasurable book achieves momentum through Wiley's fluid style, the lightness with which he bears his learning, and the vitality and wit with which he brings a vanished world to life."

Publishers Weekly

"Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show is world-class historical fiction. It takes us to a place, mid-nineteenth-century Japan, that's long ago and far away, and makes it contemporary and intimately familiar. It's a wryly told tale, full of wonders and surprises, written with grace and authority. Richard Wiley is one of the few American novelists with the will and the ability to penetrate a culture not his own with the requisite alacrity and intelligent respect. If there is such a thing as global fiction, Richard Wiley is writing it."

—Russell Banks