(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the course of a career spanning more than forty years, Shūsaku Endō has confirmed his position among the major Japanese novelists of his generation. If he remains less recognized than he ought to be in the United States, the availability of much of his work in English translation justifies the hope that he will find a growing audience. The work for which he is probably now best known to American readers is Silence(Chinmoku, 1966; translated 1969), which has made its way onto college reading lists.

American readers, and Westerners in general, will discover in Endō one of the most accessible of Japanese writers. This is no doubt largely attributable to the formal lucidity of his work, but it may be attributed as well to certain of his characteristic thematic concerns. Endō, who studied in France during the early 1950’s, has focused frequently in his fiction on the relationship of East and West. One of his strategies is to place a Western character in a Japanese setting, as in Wonderful Fool(Obakasan, 1959; translated 1974) and Silence; another is to send a Japanese character to Europe, as in Foreign Studies (Ryugaku, 1965; translated 1989). In The Samurai (Samurai, 1980; translated 1982) he combines the strategies. The Western reader who first becomes acquainted with Endō in one of these novels will encounter much that is readily recognizable in the world brought to life by the novelist, even though the author’s Japanese perspective may defamiliarize this material.

Western readers, whatever their personal religious orientation, will find a further basis of recognition in Endō’s Christianity. As Endō would certainly agree, historical Christianity has evolved primarily as a Western religious tradition; indeed, Endō would insist, Christianity holds a place close to the heart of Western culture itself. Endō, the Japanese Catholic, repeatedly explores the meaning of Christianity to the East and the challenge of the East to Christianity.

In Deep River, Endō repeats, extends, deepens, and finally transcends the concerns that have informed his work in the past. The new novel marks both a summing up and a turn toward new directions. It blends the familiar and unfamiliar, reaffirming his work’s significance to those already familiar with it, while thoroughly challenging complacent notions that anyone has adequately defined that significance. Above all, this work by a novelist in his seventies may be seen as a sign of renewal.

The primary setting of this novel is neither the familiar Japan nor France, though both play important roles, but India. The principal characters are Japanese tourists enjoying (or, in some cases, enduring) a guided tour. For those characters whom readers are encouraged to care most about, this guided tour will become a spiritual pilgrimage, in the course of which each will achieve some sort of epiphany.

One of the tourists, Isobe, has come to India after the death of his wife of thirty-five years, a loss that has brought him to painful awareness of his many inadequacies as a husband. Spurred by a hope expressed in her dying words, he now seeks his wife’s reincarnation. Not a religious man, he is unable to free himself from skepticism, even as he searches. Yet he is finally shocked into a full realization of the depth of the love he never adequately articulated during his wife’s lifetime: a recognition that, through however many reincarnations, she would always be the woman he would choose.

Another tourist, Kiguchi, is a veteran of World War II, a survivor of the “Highway of Death” traveled by Japanese soldiers in Burma. His goal is to offer, in the birthplace of Buddhism, some sort of memorial service for those who fought on both sides. This gesture is motivated in part by Kiguchi’s memory of Tsukada, the comrade who placed his own life at risk by refusing to abandon Kiguchi during the terrible days of war. Although Tsukada survived the war, he was tormented for the rest of his life by the guilty memory of having kept himself alive by eating the flesh of another human being. At the end of his life, Tsukada found a measure of peace in confessing his action to a clownish French Christian named Gaston, described as bearing a striking resemblance to the comic actor Fernandel, who was working as a volunteer in the hospital where Tsukada spent his last days. (Readers of Wonderful Fool will recognize in Gaston the protagonist of that novel.) Now Kiguchi seeks harmony and closure. He will be baffled by his discovery of the almost total suppression of Buddhism in India, but the recitation of a sutra by the side of the Ganges brings him a kind of serenity.

Numada, another tourist, writes animal tales for children. The basis of his art is his...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)