Deep River Summary
by Shūsaku Endō

Start Your Free Trial

Download Deep River Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Deep River Summary

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.

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.


(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...

(The entire section is 2,217 words.)