Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

The Pure Land

by Alan Spence

The Pure Land by Alan Spence, based on the true story which inspired Madame Butterfly, is part thrilling adventure, part lyrical reflection, and characterized by Spence’s pure vision.” —Anne Donovon, Sunday Herald

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date November 07, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5882-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

An epic historical novel based on the remarkable life of the man who inspired Madame Butterfly.

The Pure Land resurrects the dramatic life of Thomas Glover, the Scottish businessman who helped overthrow the shogun and whose tumultuous love affairs inspired the opera Madame Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon. Alan Spence has transformed this true story into an unforgettable hundred-year saga that culminates in the annihilation of Nagasaki. The Times of London calls it “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 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 form a tragedy so heartrending that the story became immortal.

The Pure Land gracefully spans the feudal and the atomic ages, East and West, global history and private passion. Alan Spence has produced a modern epic, at once a rattling good adventure, a devastating love story, and a journey of the spirit.

Tags Historical


“”The Pure Land is a bodice-ripper for men . . . [It] generates . . . narrative momentum . . . I thought it was fun to read.” —Mary Brennan, The Seattle Times

“A muscular historical novel . . . A colorful, empathetic, melancholy-tinged portrait of a Victorian colossus.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This fictional account of Glover’s life cleverly combines a narrative of material progress with an Oriental sensibility, showing how Japan’s entry into the technological world contained the seeds of its ultimate destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story rattles along, grounded in historical research and filed with emotional truths.” —John Harding, Daily Mail (UK)

“A driving, swashbuckling tale ” As in The Leopard a whole era is evoked through emblematic moments.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Lively and epic . . . Thoughtful and vivid, the novel adds rich detail to a life known mostly in broad strokes.” —Publishers Weekly

The Pure Land by Alan Spence, based on the true story which inspired Madame Butterfly, is part thrilling adventure, part lyrical reflection, and characterized by Spence’s pure vision.” —Anne Donovon, Sunday Herald (UL)

“Fast-paced and exquisitely written, never verging on the mawkish or hovering upon the sentimental, The Pure Land is a ripping yarn of the finest quality.” —The Scotsman

“Carefully researched, wonderfully written, and very moving . . . A work of real integrity and consummate art . . . Spence has a subtle, yet oddly physical, appreciation of the culture and people he portrays. . . . A page-turner of the first order . . . 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)

“Astonishing in its breadth, depth, and ambition. It’s a beautifully written modern epic.” —Irish Independent

“Absorbing . . . Glover’s relationships with women map out the emotional landscape of the book and Spence illuminates his guilt and raw grief over Sono’s death with great skill and clarity. Glover’s unusually sensitive and respectful treatment of his wives and lovers adds an unexpectedly tender dimension to a complex character. The final section of the book, a dream-like meditation on finding the pure land, is as deeply, sincerely spiritual as anything Spence has written. His imagination is given full rein but this never clouds his instinctive understanding of the contradictions of the human condition. It is a glorious finale to a very fine novel.” —Sunday Herald (UK)


The Gateless Gate
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.