Shūsaku Endō Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Shsaku End’s writings in general reflect his Roman Catholic beliefs and his peculiarly Japanese attitude toward the foreign religion to which he was converted at the age of eleven by virtue of his mother’s will. For years, a conflict simmered within him: Feeling betrayed by his mother, he also felt guilty because of his own arrogant but silent disobedience. For years, he also felt uncomfortable wearing his Western “monkey suit” while tramping about the “mudswamp” that he considered modern Japan to be. As time went on, however, his commitment to Roman Catholicism gradually crystallized and became hard-core, yet the hallmarks of his writings are wisdom, tolerance, and compassion.

End’s short stories have been collected principally in two volumes: Aika (elegies) and Juichi no irogarasu (eleven stained-glass windows). Van C. Gessel has translated twelve stories selected from these volumes into English under the title Stained-Glass Elegies. The protagonists, who are usually observers rather than actors, tend to be personae—that is, masks that the author himself has donned to disguise his own identity, whatever pseudonyms he has conferred on them. Most of End’s short stories treat of themes similar to those found in his novels: sickness, fear of dying, the changes brought about in a person from growing old, alienation from society, religious doubt and faith, treason, apostasy, good and evil, failure, disappointment, the gulf between Eastern and Western ideals, torture and physical suffering, Christian conscience and sin, the Christian life—especially of monks and priests—the Japanese view of Jesus, and the many Christian martyrs of the times of proscription as well as the trials of the kakure Kirishitan (clandestine Christians)—Japanese Christians who managed by a subterfuge to escape the prohibition edicts during successive waves of persecution. Apart from those persons who have followed Saint Paul’s admonition to become “fools for Christ,” there are no heroics in End’s fiction, and apart from the short stories that recall historical events of the seventeenth century, most of them are contemporary or recall the World War II period. Most of the stories are set in Japan, mainly in Tokyo and its environs, although one is set in the prefecture of Nagasaki, another in Manchuria, and a third in Lyons, France.

In a good number of short stories—at least seven or eight—End has created a protagonist named Suguro who is very much like his creator: He has been troubled by lung disease, has been hospitalized, and has had an operation. He has a dumpy wife whom he does not love but to whom he remains loyal. After the war, he studied in France. He returned home to become a Catholic novelist interested in the problems of contemporary Japanese Christians and in the historic sufferings of Christian martyrs during the periods of persecution. He is a keen observer of human life and of the characters of human beings, especially of troubled persons, for whom he has compassion in respect to their loneliness. He feels that the sad eyes of birds and dogs express these creatures’ sympathy for the human condition. Realizing that he himself is a mixture of good and evil, that every man has an evil Doppelgänger as a constant companion, he shrugs his shoulders at others’ sins, his Christ having urged Judas to do quickly what he was bent on doing; it is his Jesus who kisses the lips of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912).

“A Forty-Year-Old Man”

In the story “Shi-j sai no dan” (“A Forty-Year-Old Man”), Suguro is the middle-aged man who is hospitalized and operated on for lung disease. Depressed and fearing physical suffering and possible death, he is also racked by guilt, having committed sins of adultery and abortion. He is unable to confess these sins to a priest, and he is unable to communicate his feelings to other persons, neither to his wife, to whom he sticks despite his lack of love for her, nor to his sister-in-law, who has been his mistress and has aborted his child. He does think that he will be able to communicate with, and get solace from, a pet bird, so he requests that his wife purchase a mynah bird for him because such a bird has the ability to mimic human speech. Although such a bird is expensive, his wife fulfills his request. He tries to get the bird to say “Good morning” (O hay gozaimasu), but it cannot say this any more than he can confess his sins and ask God’s forgiveness. The ending of this story is an ironical tour de force.

“Retreating Figures”

In “Rashiroshi” (“Retreating Figures”), End, through his surrogate Suguro, seeks to evoke a tragic sense of life—a perception, according to Suguro, that becomes especially evident after a man passes into his fifties. On a sleepless night, Suguro recalls several casual acquaintances whom he knew only briefly before they departed; he never saw them again. One such person is Mrs. Horiguchi, a patient in the room next to Suguro when, fifteen years previously, he was hospitalized to undergo a third operation. She is a frail, pale-faced, middle-aged invalid of ten years and the wife of a famous Kabuki actor. She decides to leave the hospital to benefit her husband despite her doctor’s warning that absence of further treatment would soon result in her death. When she bids Suguro good-bye, he watches her walk...

(The entire section is 2253 words.)