The Pure Land

The Pure Land

by Alan Spence

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A “lively and epic . . . thoughtful and vivid” historical novel based on the true story that inspired Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon (Publishers Weekly).
The year is 1858. Thomas Glover is a gutsy eighteen-year-old in Aberdeen who grasps the chance of escape to foreign lands and takes a posting as a trader in Japan. Within ten years he amasses a great fortune, plays a huge role in modernizing Japan, and, on the other side of the law, brings about the overthrow of the shogun. Yet beneath Glover’s astonishing success lies a man cut to the heart. His love affair with a courtesan—a woman who, unknown to him, would bear him the son for whom he had always longed—would inform a tragedy so heartrending that it would become immortal.
“Part thrilling adventure, part lyrical reflection, and characterized by Spence’s pure vision”, The Pure Land spans the feudal and the atomic ages, East and West, global history and the private passions of the Scottish merchant-turned-Nagasaki tycoon and hero (Sunday Herald). The result is “a page-turner of the first order. Not merely an engaging and vivid historical novel, but also a meditative work of art that is as finely honed as a samurai’s sword” (The Times, London).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802197801
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 401
Sales rank: 3,611
File size: 547 KB

About the Author

Alan Spence is an award-winning poet and playwright, novelist and short-story writer. He is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, where he is also Artistic Director of the annual WORD Festival.

Read an Excerpt



Nagasaki, 1945

If Tomisaburo hadn't seen for himself, he would not have believed. This was the terrible end of everything; annihilation, nothingness. One single blast had laid waste half the city, destroyed it in an instant, reduced it to rubble and dust. His house was on Minami Yamate, the southern hillside, overlooking the bay. It was far from the epicentre, lay sheltered in the lee of the hill. That simple fact had saved it from destruction.

He'd been seated at his desk, looking out at the pine tree in the garden, the tree that had given the house its name, Ipponmatsu, Lone Pine. The tree pre-dated the house, had been there before his father chose the site, laid the foundations. The first western house on the hill, stone built. If it had been made of wood and paper, would it have burned to ashes in that searing wind?

He'd been looking at the pine tree, that was all, trying to empty his mind. Not think. Or think of nothing. Mu. The pine tree in the garden. The week before, he had opened the Diamond Sutra, turned the pages, looking for meaning. Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere. The poet Basho had written, Learn of the pine from the pine. Learn how to pine. Everything these days was a meditation on transience, impermanence. He was an old man. It had been cruel of the kenpeitai, the not so secret police, to interrogate him. Because of his background they'd thought he was a spy. This was his fate, his karma, to be caught between two worlds. Neither one thing nor another. Neither fish nor fowl. Now the Americans were coming. They had wrought this horror. There was no hope.

The flash had lit the sky, white light, momentarily brighter than noon. He'd closed his eyes, an afterimage of the pine tree burned on his retina. Then the noise had filled the heavens, huge and thunderous, so loud it hurt. He'd covered his ears as the whole house shook and every window shattered and the hot dry wind rushed in, ripped through everything.

Not thinking, a man in a dream of himself, he'd stood up, shaken shards and particles of glass from his clothes. Not thinking, he'd brushed his sleeve with his hand, felt the sting as the blood welled up in each tiny cut on his fingers, his open palm. Not thinking, he'd stumbled outside, tried to take in the enormity of what had happened. It had suddenly grown dark, like a winter afternoon, but the wind that blew was still warm. Smoke from a burning building cleared and he looked towards the city, but it was gone. Everything to the north was obliterated, every landmark razed. Nothing vertical still stood, except here and there a factory chimney, the skeleton frame of a warehouse. Everywhere small fires burned and flared, adding their smoke to the grey pall overhead.

Not thinking, a man in a dream, he walked towards the devastation, one foot after another, laboured and slow, over uneven ground, scattered detritus. His teeth ached, and his back, and his knee joints. Some of the particles of glass had landed in his thin hair, cut his scalp. But all of this might just as well be happening to somebody else, was as nothing compared to what he saw around and before him. This was beyond imagining. It could not be. But it was.

A Shinto temple had disappeared but its red wooden torii gate stood miraculously intact. A gate to nowhere. He walked through.

Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere. He looked out at everything, numbed.

A horse crushed under the cart it had been pulling.

Two young men on their knees, dead where they had fallen, their legs tangled in electrical wires.

Three charred corpses, seated on an iron bench where a bus stop had been.

The post office, gone. A shop that sold incense, gone. The pleasure quarter, gone. His favourite teahouse, gone.

The further he went, the worse it became.

Bodies and bits of bodies strewn on the road, trapped in burned-out cars, floating in the harbour, the water a murky rust-red.

A man's shadow, burned on a white wall; the man gone, incinerated in an instant. A young mother, alive, with a baby to her breast; her face and arms, the baby's head, all burned; only the breast unmarked, white. The desperate need to hold on, to go on living, even in hell.

People crawling over wreckage, scorched and blinded, their clothes in shreds, crying crying for water, and as if to mock them, a grimy rain starting to drizzle down.

A statue, in the middle of an open space. No, not a statue, the body of a monk, burned black, seated in meditation, accepting this too, this too, even to the last. Awaken the mind.

Tomisaburo's own mind was empty, his heart dead. Perhaps he himself had been killed in the blast, was now a disembodied spirit, doomed to wander this place of the dead, the realm of the gaki, the hungry ghosts. He tried to remember a prayer, but the words wouldn't come.

Then he realised his own face was burned, and stinging from a trickle of tears. He watched, detached, a few of the drops fall, make tiny grey beads in the dust at his feet. He turned and started the wretched trek back.

* * *

All this was how long ago? Days that felt like years. With the windows blown in, the house lay open. He had swept up the broken glass, gathered up the books and papers scattered on the floor. More than that was beyond him.

There was nowhere to buy food, no food to be bought. He survived, day to day, on a handful of cooked rice, a few pickles. It was enough. He had little appetite. He allowed himself an occasional sip of Scotch whisky from the last bottle he'd kept aside, for use in case of emergency. In case of emergency! The irony of that was galling.

It was hard to get reliable news about the situation. Reception on his radio was almost non-existent, drowned out by crackling static. Neighbours would pass by his gate, respond tersely to his questions. He was half-western; that made him partly to blame. Hadn't the kenpeitai taken him in for questioning?

No smoke without fire.

In any case, the news had been unreliable for so long. All they'd been fed was propaganda and rumour. Now it was worse. The Nagasaki bomb had followed the one on Hiroshima. Now there would be more.

The Americans would bomb Kyoto, then Tokyo, unless the Emperor surrendered. And that was impossible, for the Emperor was infallible, divine. The nation was prepared for a speech from the Imperial Palace, calling for The Honourable Death of The Hundred Million, mass suicide. It was magnificently insane. He felt tears well up again, blurring his vision. The pine tree wavered. The scorching wind, the toxic rain, had shrivelled it, stripped it bare. It stood stark against the grey of the sky. He had gone out one more time, headed towards the city, but once again had turned back, hopeless. Thousands had been taken, or had dragged themselves, to Michino-o station, to the makeshift medical centre. Only a few hundred had been treated and had any hope of survival. The rest had died, would die.

I would never have believed death had undone so many.

He had read that long ago, in another life. Dante's Inferno.

So many.

He turned again to his copy of the Diamond Sutra, seeking guidance, light in the darkness, trying to understand. The verse read, Shiki soku ze ku.

Form is Emptiness.

* * *

The signal wasn't clear, but there must have been a surge in the power supply, just enough for the message to come through. The Emperor himself was addressing the nation, his voice formal and frail. Surrender was total and unconditional. He was no longer to be regarded as a god but remained the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. He would no longer command political power. Henceforth government was to be by an elected House of Representatives. The armed forces, and the people as a whole, were to lay down their arms. Japan herewith renounced war and the maintenance of military forces forever.

The announcement was followed by a sombre recording of the national anthem, then the airwaves fell silent. Tomisaburo slumped to his knees, his face in his hands, stayed like that a long time.

Eventually he hauled himself up, sat in front of his desk. He felt sick in his stomach, his joints creaked, his bones ached. But his mind was clear. Sooner or later they would come for him. It might be the kenpeitai, intent on retribution; or it could be the Americans, to make him collaborate, help them take over. It mattered little.

Civilisation was at an end. The barbarians were at the gate.

On the desk in front of him he had laid a short wakizashi samurai sword in its sheath, something his father had treasured. In the desk drawer was his father's revolver, loaded.

He had shaken the broken glass from the framed portraits of his father, his dear wife Waka. He was glad she had not lived to see this. He had placed the portraits on the desk, facing him, his father's gaze stern, Waka's gentle and sad. Already it was more than two years since she'd died, seemed like no time, though the days without her were slow to pass. How could that be? Life was short, the days long.

Beside the portraits were a few small things he'd kept since he was a child, things his father had given him for good luck; a bamboo token that had once been used as currency, a Mexican silver dollar, an origami butterfly of folded white paper. His father had achieved so much, had kept these little things to remind him how it had begun, had passed them on as mementos.

Tomisaburo's desk had a roll-top compartment, locked with a tiny brass key. He opened it and took out a package, wrapped in cloth. Carefully he unwrapped it, held in his hands the book that was his own life's work, twenty years in the making, an illustrated guide to Nagasaki's marine life. He had commissioned local artists to paint every species of fish and whale and shell in minute and intricate detail. At first the artists hadn't understood. They were Japanese, trained in depicting the movement of fish or bird, capturing some essence, the quick flick of life, in a few strokes of the brush. Painstakingly he had explained, had shown them drawings from America, anatomically exact, right to the number of scales on each fish. And finally they had produced the paintings, more than 800 in all, meticulously accurate but vibrant and alive. The book was a thing of precision and beauty. Not much to set beside his father's achievements, but he'd thought it important in its way.

As he turned the pages, felt the handmade paper, he realised he had never been happier than when he was working on this, inscribing each title in his own careful calligraphy. He peered at the illustrations till the light in the window started to fade. Then he closed the book, wrapped it again and locked it away, put the brass key in his waistcoat pocket.

He opened the drawer, took out the pistol, felt the weight of it in his hand, put it down again. He picked up the sword, started to ease it from its sheath, tensed as he heard a noise outside, the crunch of broken glass underfoot, heavy footsteps on the path to his door.

* * *

The two GIs picked their way through the ruined garden, the wreckage and debris, their guns at the ready. They'd been told they couldn't be too careful, they might still meet pockets of resistance, buildings might be booby-trapped. But it wasn't possible to move quietly, scuffing through rubble, the scatter of broken glass, shattered roof-tiles.

The house didn't seem too badly damaged. A decent size, solid built. Good location overlooking the bay. They might commandeer it as a base. There was no sound from inside. The occupants might have fled, or they might have been in the wrong place when the bomb fell, been obliterated. That would make things easier.

The sergeant motioned to the corporal to try the door. It was closed, didn't give. They could go in through one of the gaping windows, but why bother? On a count of one-two-three they booted in the door, smashed the lock and splintered the wood, kicked it open and stepped inside, guns raised.

Tomisaburo turned from his desk to face them.

'Take it easy, old fella,' said the corporal. 'Don't piss your pants!'

'And put down the bowie knife!' said the sergeant.

Tomisaburo sheathed the sword, placed it back on the desk. Then he bowed to the two men, spoke to them in his clipped, cultivated accent.

'Good evening, gentlemen. I apologise for not being able to offer you hospitality.'

'Jeez!' said the corporal. 'Where'd you learn to talk like that?'

'My father,' said Tomisaburo, nodding towards the framed portrait.

'No kidding! You're a halfbreed?'

Tomisaburo flinched, nodded. 'My father was Scottish.'

The sergeant lowered his gun, picked up the portrait. 'Handsome looking man,' he said.

'Indeed,' said Tomisaburo. 'And that was taken when he was very old. As old as I am now.'

His father in the portrait looked powerful and impressive. His white hair and whiskers were well groomed. He was formally dressed with a white tie and wing collar, a medal pinned to the chest of his black frock coat.

'Must have been somebody,' said the sergeant.

'Yes,' said Tomisaburo. 'He was.'

He indicated another photograph on the mantelpiece. 'That was taken when he was young, perhaps nineteen or twenty.'

The picture was tinted, sepia fading out at the edges. The background was indeterminate, a low building, the sea. The figure was full-length, the young man posing, cocky, hands on hips, seaman's cap jaunty on his head as he stared out so sure of himself at another world, another time, almost a century ago.



Aberdeen, 1858

The grey permeated everything. Even on a summer day, like this, the cold haar off the North Sea closed in, damped everything down. Glover stood, braced, on the sea wall, stared hard into the mist – no sea no sky just gradations of grey. He minded the old minister's voice, ranting in the dark kirk. And the earth was without form and void. That was the way of it right enough. The haar soaked into him like fine rain, made the nap of his jacket damp to the touch. Drops of moisture gathered on his hair, on his eyelashes. He blinked, his sight momentarily blurred. He rubbed his face with his hands, licked his lips, tasted salt. A ship's horn moaned low, close. Invisible sea gulls called and called. There were worlds out there. The church bell started to clang the four quarters before striking the hour.


He jumped down off the wall, skidded on the wet cobbles.


But he kept his balance and righted himself, ran as hard as he could past the docks and up the road, wheeled at the corner of Marischal Street on the second stroke, almost crashed into two young women, on their way to work gutting fish down at Footdee. Fittie. Their faces and arms were red. Warm flush of blood. They smelled of the fish, of their work. But he felt himself respond asthey flashed quick smiles at him, flirted. They laughed as he made to raise his hat to them though he wasn't wearing one.

On the fourth stroke his path was blocked by two scrawny wee boys, schoolbooks dropped at their feet, hacking at each other with sticks for swords, a fight to the death.


They put up their swords, startled, as he cut between them, mimed stabbing the pair of them with hardly a break in his stride.

On the seventh stroke of the bell he bounded up the worn stone steps to the door of the office. James George. Shipbroker. He got to his desk on the stroke of eight, bringing the outside in with him, a rush. The office clock, half a beat behind, finished chiming the hour as he sat down at his desk.

Robertson, the other junior clerk, looked up from his papers.

'Cutting it fine, Tom.'

'Timed it to the second!' said Glover.

He caught his breath, stretched, clasped his hands behind his head.

'Call this a summer?' he said, peering out the high window into the grey.

Robertson followed his gaze.

'Call it Aberdeen!'

Glover cracked his knuckles, dipped the nib of his pen in the inkwell, settled to work through the pile of papers on his desk.

By mid-morning the sun had started to burn off the haar. He stood up from his work and crossed to the window, looked out. Great granite buildings took shape, crenellated bulk rising out of the mist.

This city. Its solidity.

In the other direction, down the street, he could see the masts of the ships at anchor, gulls circling overhead.

'Have you dealt with those bills of lading, Mister Glover?'

He hadn't heard old George come in to the room. The voice was quiet, dry. Rustle of parchment.

Glover turned.

'Aye, sir. They're on my desk.'

'Well, Mister Glover. I would appreciate it if they were on my desk.'

George swished out the door again. Glover picked up the documents, caught Robertson's eye and mimicked the old man's soor prune face to perfection.

* * *

The air of the pub was a yellowing haze, a sepia fug, nicotine tinted, thick with the reek of tobacco.

Glover shouldered his way from the bar, through the hard drinkers crowded into the smoky den, made it back to his table holding steady the two mugs of beer.

Robertson shouted to him above the noise.

'I'd appreciate it if that pint was on my table, Mister Glover!'


Excerpted from "The Pure Land"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Alan Spence.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 THE GATELESS GATE Nagasaki, 1945,
2 THE KNOWN WORLD Aberdeen, 1858,
3 GURABA-SAN Nagasaki, 1859,
4 SILK AND TEA Nagasaki, 1859–60,
5 ALCHEMY Nagasaki, 1860,
6 RONIN Nagasaki–Edo, 1861,
7 NIGHT JOURNEY Nagasaki, 1862,
8 FLOWER OF KAGOSHIMA Nagasaki–Kagoshima, 1863,
9 BURNING BRIGHT Nagasaki, 1864,
10 BRIG O' BALGOWNIE Aberdeen, 1865–66,
11 DAIMYO Nagasaki, 1867–68,
12 MEIJI Nagasaki–Edo, 1868–69,
13 MAKI Nagasaki, 1869–70,
15 FORM IS EMPTINESS Nagasaki, 1945,
16 ONE FINE DAY Nagasaki, 2005,
17 THE PURE LAND Nagasaki, 1912,

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