Knowing much because he sees more than the surface of things, William Knox tries his best to make sense of the people he encounters in Kyoto. What little is known about him is that he is an agnostic who regrets his agnosticism and even envies the missionaries’ faith, a widower in his early forties who yearns for someone to love, a highly cultured man with a sound understanding of geopolitical events, of history, and, perhaps most important, of basic psychology.
Frankly puzzled by the missionaries and their wives and by his Japanese neighbors, Knox learns much about them by simply listening to them talk about one another. His caustic wit and ironic sensitivity to the absurd enable him to deal with the claustrophobia, decay, and death he finds in Kyoto.
Knox’s antithesis, M. C. Welling, is a lost soul, a religious man of kindly instincts made desperately unhappy by the absence of his sustaining wife, by the stark failure of his mission to largely pagan Japan, and by the temptations offered by young Sanae, his Japanese student who wears tight blouses. Caught between his religious beliefs and his need for someone he can love both sexually and spiritually, Welling makes the mistake of being in the wrong place (a lonely country road) with the wrong person (Sanae) at the wrong time (just prior to her murder by strangulation). Not bright enough to understand how he could be accused of murder, he turns to William Knox for help. Knox advises him to flee Japan and he does, losing, in the process, his self-esteem and the esteem of his peers.
On the other hand, Asai, Welling’s Japanese student, never compromises his beliefs. He is always true to his inner beliefs, even, as it turns out, if it means dying for...
(The entire section is 709 words.)