Shūsaku Endō

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Shūsaku Endō Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2253

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 away “with her head bowed down the long, silent corridor,” but “even after she was gone, the afterimage of her retreating figure remained before” Suguro’s eyes. She died three years later.

In several other stories, the narrator or protagonist is not identified by name but is referred to simply as “I,” “he,” or “the man.” In these cases, however, the text strongly suggests that the unidentified person can be no one other than End’s persona Suguro.

“The Day Before” and “The Shadow Figure”

In “The Day Before,” the narrator is hospitalized, and it is “the day before” his third and most serious operation. He has sent his friend, Father Inouye, to Nagasaki, to fetch back an antique fumie, a copper engraving of the crucified Christ on which Christians were obliged to stamp their feet as proof of their apostasy, which had been used during the persecutions at Urakami during the second half of the nineteenth century. While the narrator is waiting anxiously to view the image of Jesus before facing his operation, a peddler of pornographic photographs drops into his room seeking to interest him in buying sex pictures. Also, having read a Catholic tract about the fourth siege of Urakami, the narrator tells the story of the apostate Tgor, who was ashamed of his treason but could not help himself.

“The Shadow Figure” is written in epistolary form. A Catholic novelist explains his attitude toward a former Spanish priest whom he has just seen (without being seen) for the first time in years. He knew this priest well when a schoolboy because the priest was his mother’s spiritual adviser. His mother revered the priest—a handsome, impeccably dressed, vigorous man—and considered him a model for her son to follow. After the writer’s mother died, however, the priest became the lover of a Japanese woman—much to the writer’s disillusionment—and married her. Hence the priest was defrocked and became separated from the Christian community.

End’s persona Suguro is the protagonist of his novel Scandal. Here, Suguro finds his reputation as a Catholic novelist is on the line by virtue of allegations that he is in the habit of indulging in sordid sex. At first, he thinks that some unknown enemy is seeking to scandalize him, but after visiting Tokyo’s pleasure quarters in an effort to discover the impostor, he concludes that his supposed double is none other than himself, his face of innocence having masked his inner depravity.

“Despicable Bastard”

End’s short stories that do not present or suggest the author’s surrogate Suguro include “Hiretsuna-kan” (“Despicable Bastard”) and “Kusuteki kokai” (“Incredible Voyage”). In “Despicable Bastard,” the bastard and contemptible fellow is Egi. He is a university student in Tokyo during World War II and lives in a dormitory occupied mostly by Christians. The classes at the school are not being held because the students are being required to work in a war factory that is under military discipline. Egi is a noncooperative type, a slacker and a goldbricker. Not respectful enough to satisfy a military police officer, he is beaten and his knee is wounded.

Every year, the Christian students organize a program at the leper asylum in Gotemba. Part of the program consists of a baseball game with the healthier lepers. Egi is asked to take part in the game, but he does so with considerable trepidation. He is particularly fearful of being infected because of his wounded knee. Having gone up to bat, he hits a fair ball and rounds first base to find himself trapped between first and second. Egi stops and fearfully awaits the tag of the ball in the hand of the leper. The leper baseman’s eyes, however, flicker plaintively, and the patient says softly: “Go ahead. I won’t touch you.” When Egi was by himself, he felt like crying. By contrast, this story echoes Gustave Flaubert’s legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaler who, having granted a leper a kiss, found himself face to face with Jesus.

“Incredible Voyage”

“Incredible Voyage” is generally a Rabelaisian parody of science fiction, but specifically it is a parody of a 1966 American science-fiction film called Fantasic Voyage. Like the film, the story is set in the twenty-first century, after it has become possible to miniaturize any object to microscopic size. As in the film, a team of doctors and a boat are miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a patient needing critical surgery. In the film, the patient is a scientist important to the defense establishment, and the complication is that one of the doctors is a traitor. In the story, the patient is also the fiancé of one of the doctors, and the complication is that in exiting after the operation, the doctors mistakenly get into the girl’s intestines, where they discover that her attendants have neglected to give her an enema prior to her operation. The story is therefore broadly and coarsely humorous.

“The Final Martyrs”

The title story of End’s collection The Final Martyrs is a moral exemplum told in a simple narrative fashion. Set in the nineteenth century during a time of persecution of Japanese Christians, the story focuses on son Kisuke, a giant of a man, who is clumsy, ineffectual, and easily frightened. When his village is raided by government agents seeking to punish anyone who has violated the prohibition against Christianity, Kisuke’s cowardice makes him quickly recant his religion, an act that transforms him into a Judas figure who has betrayed his savior. Unable to bear the guilt of his betrayal, two years later, Kisuke, now a beggar, returns to the prison where his friends, who held firm to their religion, are kept, for he has heard a voice telling him what he has to do to be with the others. Kisuke’s return, in spite of his terror, reaffirms to the others that they have been right to uphold their faith, for it reflects the power of Christian forgiveness. Thus Kisuke becomes one of the most beloved of all the final martyrs, because he came back even though he was the most frightened.

“The Box”

“The Box,” a mystical treatment of Christian eschatology, focuses on a central symbolic object and takes place in a world that is at once both real and in the realm of desire. The central theme is stated emphatically when, after relating an anecdote about talking to his plants, the narrator says that humans and animals are not the only ones that have hearts and language and faculties; even things humans think of as simple objects—sticks and stones—have some kind of power living inside them. The story begins when the narrator, a writer, finds an old wooden box in an antique shop containing a Bible with some postcards and a photograph album. The narrator evinces a writerly curiosity about the postcards addressed to a Mademoiselle Louge and some photographs of an old deserted road. He learns that the woman has been tortured by the Japanese military police for not agreeing to spy for them. When the narrator notices that the return addresses of the postcards are actually references to passages in the Bible, which are in turn allusions to the war and peace efforts sent to Mademoiselle Louge and then passed on to others, he believes the postcards have taken on a will of their own, waiting for someone like him to reveal their truth. He explains that this is why he speaks to plants, for he thinks that plants must talk to each other and that trees and rocks and even postcards are saturated with the thoughts of people.

Although End holds himself a Catholic and clings stubbornly to his Christianity, his faith is flavored with intellectual doubt and is neither doctrinaire nor fanatical. He is ever humble and compassionate. Without arrogant pride, he realizes that all humans are to some degree a compact of good and evil and that they all need forgiveness, whether its source be Jesus or the universe.

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Shūsaku Endō Long Fiction Analysis