The Final Martyrs

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The fact that Shūsaku Endō is a Christian in Japan, a country in which Christians have always been a small minority, is the most important single influence on his Silence, 1969), a novel about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the early seventeenth century, Endō has been called one of the most accomplished writers in Japan. Stained-Glass Elegies, Endō’s first collection of short stories, originally published in 1965 and translated in 1984, primarily focuses on spiritual issues of guilt, commitment, and ego-denying love. This second collection continues those preoccupations, featuring stories mostly written between 1968 and 1985.

Although basically realistic, the pacing and style of Endō’s stories may be somewhat unfamiliar to readers accustomed to the minimalist realism of the Chekhov tradition or the magical realism of the Kafka tradition. Endō’s stories seem more old-fashioned; they are somewhat leisurely and ruminative, most often characterized by the steady voice of an older man narrating a simple story or recalling a past event. There are no cryptic ellipses here to make the reader wonder what is being left out, nor are there any uneasy departures into alternate realities that make the reader wonder just exactly where he or she is. Because these stories move casually along with no strong, motivated direction nor an emphatic sense of closure, they may seem less structured than most Western short stories. As much as they seem to be merely realistic vignettes, however, they are in fact heavily weighted with theme, usually the theme of spiritual struggles, particularly from within a Catholic perspective.

The title story is perhaps the most conventionally moral in terms of its exemplary generic type and its straightforward structure and theme. Told in simple narrative fashion, it is set in the nineteenth century during one of the times of persecution of Japanese Christians. The central character is Kisuke, a giant of a man who is clumsy, ineffectual, and easily frightened. On July 15, 1867, at the start of what is known as the fourth persecution at Uragami (a district near Nakasaki), Kisuke’s village is raided by government agents to seek out and punish anyone who has violated the prohibition against Christianity. Those who are captured are tortured to make them recant their religion. Although most hold firm, Kisuke’s cowardice makes him quickly give, and he trudges away from the village, transformed into a Judas figure who has betrayed his savior. Unable to bear the guilt of his actions, two years later, Kisuke, now a beggar, returns to the prison where his friends are kept, for he has heard a voice telling him that all he has to do is go with the others; even if he is afraid of the torture and runs away again, it is all right. Kisuke’s return, in spite of his terror, reaffirms to the others that they have been right to uphold their faith, for it indicates the power of Christian forgiveness; Kisuke’s friend tells him that it is all right if he apostatizes again, that Jesus is pleased just because he came. Thus, Kisuke becomes one of the most loved of the final martyrs, because he came back even though he was the most frightened.

Several of these stories are somewhat autobiographical, in that the narrator is a novelist like Endō himself who explores the motives and mysteries of those around him. For example, “Shadows” is in the form of a long unsent letter written by a novelist to a Catholic priest that he knew in his youth and has only recently seen again. The narrator tells the priest that he is one of the important narrative figures in his fiction and that although he has written about him three times previously, the works have been failures because he did not have a firm grasp on who the priest really is. The epistolary story is an exploration of the writer’s memories of the priest to try to discover what fascination he holds for him. The narrator’s central concern is the fact that the priest became involved with a Japanese woman and thus betrayed not only his faith but those, such as the narrator, who looked up to him as an idealized image. The story ends as it begins, with the narrator’s having seen the priest recently in a restaurant, and having watched him quickly and inconspicuously cross himself before eating his meal. After all his efforts to recall his relationship with the priest and to discover his essential nature, the narrator ends by saying that the one gesture is all that he really understands about the priest now. Given the mystery of faith, perhaps this is all that he can know.

In his first collection,...

(The entire section is 1891 words.)