War and the Human Spirit
My love for history dates back to high school. I’ve always thought you could learn a lot from the people of the past. Most lived far more precarious lives than we do. They suffered and died and frequently triumphed. Our own lives are better because of their struggles. No wonder I turned to history for my novels.
So far, I’ve written about three different historical eras on opposite sides of the world. My mystery series takes place in eleventh century Japan, during the Heian Age. Human losses in mysteries are more or less confined to murder victims and their families, but here, too, history is a player and affects human affairs.
More than lives are lost when armies collide and cultures tumble. Such events throw huge shadows over coming generations. In the HOLLOW REED, nearly two centuries later, the Heike Wars bring an abrupt end to a flourishing culture. THE SWORD MASTER also belongs to that period. For my unpublished European novel, THE LEFT-HANDED GOD, I chose the eighteenth century and the war between Prussia and Austria.
Wars change the world and people in unpredictable ways. Armed conflict takes on its own persona and sweeps human beings up in its path.
Circumstances force moral choices on men and women that they would not make in peace times. The need to survive overshadows all else.
As a novelist, I’m fascinated by the way people cope during desperate times because their actions reveal and shape character. In my most recent novel, THE SWORD MASTER, Hachiro is caught up in the turbulence of an empire’s collapse. Orphaned by early violence, he struggles to live a meaningful life in the midst of overwhelming chaos.
Hachiro stands at an historical crossroad. A world of peace and culture, of extraordinary architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature disappeared. Two centuries earlier, a woman, Lady Murasaki, wrote the first novel, while men attended universities and wrote and spoke Chinese, the language of government, as well as their native Japanese. They were civilized, non-violent people who left protection against enemies to mercenary armies. And therein lay their downfall.
By the end of the twelfth century, two powerful military clans took up arms against each other. When their contest was over, cities lay in ashes and rogue soldiers had looted and destroyed treasures. A child emperor was drowned, and power passed from emperors to shoguns. A military culture replaced the courtly one. Women lost their status and rights. In 1185, Japan entered the age of the samurai, and subsequent centuries are marked by continuous bloody struggles between warlords.
Yet, even in this harsh climate, the human spirit survived. The warrior code encompassed high ideals along with its brutal practices. A samurai fights and dies without emotion, but in his spare time, he composes poetry, plants gardens, and paints landscapes and animals. Such an extreme cultural dichotomy is unknown in the West.
Hachiro, the main character in THE SWORD MASTER, embodies its spirit.
I.J. Parker, June 25, 2012