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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

In Deep River, author Shusaku Endo follows the paths of four Japanese people on a tour of India that, for each of them, is a pilgrimage. They are all on a journey to accomplish something they believe will help them come to terms with loss, and they come together at the city of Varantha, on the banks of the Ganges River.

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Osamu Isobe lost his wife to cancer, and he embarks on the journey to find a girl whom he believes to be his wife reincarnated. Mitsuko, who was his wife’s nurse, is a lonely atheist woman who goes on the journey to India for a different reason. She learns that a ex-priest she treated badly in college is now working with the poor in India, and she vows to find him and, in some way, make amends. Numada is a children's author who goes in search of a myna bird who he believes died in his place. Kiguchi is a soldier who hopes to memorialize his comrades and accept the loss of a friend who saved his life and then died in the Burma War. Though each character in the story embarks on the journey for a different reason, they share the common quest to overcome loss and obtain personal contentment. Though their quest is complicated by events surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, they each experience a spiritual awakening on their journey and arrive at the Ganges River with a fuller understanding of the meaning of life.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

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 own relation to animals, to whom he has since childhood been able to express his deepest feelings with an ease and eloquence unknown in his otherwise reasonably satisfactory relationships with his fellow human beings. It is the special place of animals and of the world of nature in Indian culture that has led him to join the tour. He is disturbed by his discovery in this setting of a nature from which all trace of sentimentality, Eastern as well as Western, has been drained, but this is the nature in which he is at last ready to participate.

The fourth tourist to assume major importance in the novel is Mitsuko Naruse, a radically discontented divorced woman, whose presence in India is part of a continuing spiritual quest she has never been willing to acknowledge to herself. Having rejected the religious traditions of her own culture, she has also been outspoken in her expressions of contempt for the Christianity to which she was exposed while a university student. Yet she constantly compares herself to characters in novels by French Catholic novelists she has studied: Julien Green’sMoira (1950) and François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927). Moreover, she has never overcome her obsession with btsu, an awkward and often absurd Catholic man she has known since their university days. Her ridiculously easy seduction of the naïve and inexperienced young man at that time was not merely a sexual escapade. She delighted in stealing this amen-sayer from the Christ to whom he thought to dedicate himself. Yet a few years later, while on her honeymoon in France, she met btsu again and realized that her victory had been less than complete. At this point, btsu was studying for the Catholic priesthood. Although he was troubled by the overpoweringly European aspect of this Christianity he studied, especially by the Europeans’ tendency to regard as non-Catholic those features of his faith that are non-European, he had come to realize that Christ would never let him go.

Back in the novel’s present, Mitsuko hears that btsu is in India. A consequence of his inclusive Christianity, which finds room for the pantheistic spirit of the East and affirms that Christ is to be found in all religions, is that btsu, while remaining Catholic and a priest, must live outside the structures of the institutional church. He enacts his imitation of Christ in accepting the duty, in Hindu India usually left to the Untouchables, of carrying the dead to the Ganges. Mitsuko arrives at an acceptance of her spiritual seeking as she joins masses of Indians in immersing herself in the same Ganges. Other important characters include Enami, the tour guide—who is often exasperated by the realization that while he can guide tourists from place to place, he can rarely guide them to an appreciation of the Indian sense of the holy—and Mr. and Mrs. Sanjo, honeymooners who embody the shallowness and materialism that exasperate Enami.

Deep River is set in the days leading up to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and her violent death serves as a climactic event in the novel. Her death may symbolize India’s failure to contain its complexities and contradictions, including the tensions existing among its religious traditions. Beyond its obvious human and historical importance, this symbolic dimension lends the event a profound resonance within the novel. Endō’s concern here is to a significant degree with the struggle to accept and embrace complexity and contradiction in personal, cultural, and religious terms and with the search for a principle of unity gentle and generous enough to make itself felt without necessitating the suppression of all that is complex and contradictory in the natural and human worlds.

For the Catholic Endō, that principle is most fully embodied in Jesus Christ, but not in an exclusively European understanding of Christ. Endō, who was led to Catholicism by his mother, emphasizes the maternal nature of Christ. He thus readily recognizes in the Hindu goddess Chāmundā—“ugly and worn with age,” who “groans under the weight of the suffering she bears,” yet “as she pants for breath . . . offers milk to mankind from her shrivelled breasts”—an image supporting btsu’s claim of the presence of “Christ” in all religions. As Enami points out, this goddess bears little resemblance to Holy Mother Mary of Christian Europe. Yet Mitsuko comes to recognize the resemblance of the goddess to the Christ from whom she had thought to steal btsu: a Christ who “hath no form or comeliness” and who “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows,” in the words Mitsuko first encountered on the day she began her pursuit of whatever in btsu she was pursuing.

Thus Chāmundā, while by no means Christianized, offers a parallel within Eastern religion to a significant aspect of Christianity and of Christ. Chāmundā then becomes part of a pattern of resemblances and similarities that, along with the linear/spatial motif of the journey/tour/pilgrimage, lends unity to the novel as a whole. btsu, whose heterodoxies of behavior are imitations of Christ, is also part of this pattern, as are the loving and nurturing wife who is resurrected in the heart of Isobe, the animals that have offered consolation and more to Numada, and the dead soldier whose flesh gave life to Tsukada. Gaston, the clownish Frenchman, is part of this pattern as well, linked to btsu both by the selflessness of his actions and by his willingness to appear a fool in the eyes of the world. The pattern then extends more ambiguously to the spiritual seeker Mitsuko, whose work as a hospital volunteer establishes a link between her and the Christlike Gaston.

In bringing his characters to India, Endō explores what is for him largely unfamiliar territory. This allows him to recontextualize some of the polarities familiar from his earlier work, including East-West and Buddhist-Christian. India is the Other Place, the apparently chaotic alternative to the fixed cultural categories that constitute the intellectual baggage of these tourists, as of all tourists. It is those characters who can open themselves acceptingly to the unfamiliar integrity underlying the apparent chaos who manage to ascend to the status of pilgrim. In the Ganges, the sacred river in which Mitsuko finally immerses herself, the novel finds its ultimate unifying symbol.

btsu is presented throughout as a provocative commentator and spiritually centered character, but it would be an oversimplification to regard him, as some reviewers have done, as a spokesman for the author. The extremity of his isolation makes him not quite a complete embodiment of the author’s vision, which includes a longing for community. Perhaps this is merely to say that Endō remains triumphantly a novelist.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXII, May 19, 1995, p. 34.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVII, September 29, 1995, p. 45.

Los Angeles Times. May 22, 1995, p. E4.

The National Catholic Reporter. May 26, 1995, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 28, 1995, p. 1.

San Francisco Chronicle. July 9, 1995, p. REV9.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 28, 1994, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 29, 1995, p. 4.

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