Shsaku End has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene” by several enthusiastic Western critics. For a writer to be so compared with a successful, highly visible novelist such as Greene is frequently a heavy burden. Whatever the actual merits of a writer so described, a reader too often reminded of a resemblance to another writer will be tempted to dismiss the writer’s work as either inferior to that of the presumed counterpart or merely derivative. In introducing a Japanese writer to a Western audience, however, such comparisons can be useful, even indispensable—and, in this case, entirely apropos. End was one of the few Catholic novelists in the East, and his compelling though sinful and often stumbling characters captivate and endear themselves to the reader in the same way that Greene’s faltering saints do.
A more pertinent comparison, however, could be drawn between End and the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy. Percy’s seriocomic exploration of the disintegration of authentic Christianity in the jaded West and his attempts to redeem it novelistically from its secular trappings resemble End’s own agenda in addressing both his Eastern and his Western readers. Like Percy himself, End saw his task as taking Jesus out of the realm of commonplaces in his native culture, disarming his Japanese readers and getting past their syncretizing defenses. The key themes in his work are nearly always intertwined with an evocation of Japan as a “mudswamp,” that is, a land pervaded by moral apathy and a desperate need to find an ethical center rooted in eternal values—something that, in End’s view, only Christianity can ultimately provide.
End’s Christianity emanates from a childhood conversion to Catholicism, a Catholicism tempered by an education in France, where he was exposed to such French Catholic writers as François Mauriac, Paul Claudel, and Georges Bernanos. End recognized that as a Japanese Christian he was a walking oxymoron, an anomaly in his native culture. His own faith, he candidly admits in Silence, was a struggle against tradition and cultural identity: For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith. This problem of the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese bloodhas taught me one thing: that is, that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without the support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility.
When End looked at his nation through the eyes of a believing Christian, he saw a “swamp” that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process.” As a Christian novelist whose readers have no “objective correlatives” for the concepts he wished his fiction to incarnate, End saw his personal task as a novelist much differently from his contemporaries in Japan. Rather than mirroring the moral and social malaise about him, End sought to foster and exemplify such religious concepts as sin, redemption, and resurrection.
Like most works in translation, End’s novels have been brought into English not in the order in which they appeared in his native country but in the order of the prestige and interest they have engendered in the West. It is possible, then, to get a somewhat distorted view of End’s concerns and craft if one considers his work only in terms of what is available in English translation. In fact, End’s long fiction shows clear signs of development and maturation over time, and can be best and most conveniently discussed and analyzed within two main periods.
The first period covers 1953-1959, the years immediately following his return to Japan from France and during which End wrote the short work Aden made (1954; till Aden) and five novels. Each dramatizes, in End’s words, the Japanese “numbness to sin and guilt” by juxtaposing it to the conventional Christianized conscience of postwar Europe. End’s earliest novels, untranslated into English, bear the marks of a genuinely talented writer who is still seeking the most appropriate voice and characterization to express his thematic vision. The early short piece Aden made and the novels Shiroi hito (white men), and Kiiroi hito (yellow men) deal graphically with the spiritual contrasts between East and West in the postwar period but with thin characterization and heavy sentimentality.
The Sea and Poison and Volcano
End’s first two important novels, The Sea and Poison and Volcano, emerged as flawed but stirring problem works that scathingly indict the Japanese conscience for its insensitivity to the basic humanitarian impulse End saw in Western Christian nations. Set six months before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Sea and Poison stands out as particularly stirring and harrowing thematically in its exploration of the inhumane operations performed by the Japanese on captured American pilots during World War II and their impact on two young medical interns. Volcano is the first End novel that features fully drawn, credible characters, examining the complex relationship between a defrocked French priest and a Japanese volcanologist as they grapple with the natural and the supernatural at the foot of a newly active volcano.
At the end of this period, End published what may be his most characteristic and ultimately most enduring novel for Western readers, Wonderful Fool. Because Wonderful Fool is a transitional work that demonstrates End’s versatility as a novelist with a penchant for combining humor and pathos in his pursuit of a serious theme, and that bridges the gap between End’s two periods, it warrants special attention. In this novel, End’s comicnarrative style merges with a mature grasp of characterization to balance his central themes. Wonderful Fool features asprotagonist the bumbling Gaston “Gas” Bonaparte, a “fool for Christ’s sake” whose selflessness and genuine love for his fellow humans reflect the Christlike attributes that End wants his reader to recognize. Gaston is a “fool” in a Shakespearean sense, one who may unexpectedly speak as well as live the truth in a most poignant way.
Set twelve years after the end of World War II, Wonderful Fool tells the story of Gaston...
(The entire section is 2668 words.)