Shūsaku Endō

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John B. Breslin (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Shusaku Endo: Martyrs and Moralists,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 15, No. 25, June 23, 1985, p. 10.

[In the following review, Breslin discusses religious themes in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

God and death, the ineffable and the irrevocable, haunt these stories as they do the more well-known novels of Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic novelist whose considerable oeuvre is steadily, if slowly, making its way into English. These 11 short stories represent two decades of Endo's work, from 1959 to 1977, and have been selected, the translator informs us, “with the aim of demonstrating the range of the author's talents in the short story form.” What struck this reader, however, had more to do with “depth” than “range,” for, apart from a satiric and scatological parody perched uncomfortably at the center of the volume, the stories fall easily into two categories, obliquely summarized in the translator's portmanteau title.

Endo published a collection called Elegies in 1965 and another called Eleven Stained-Glass Segments in 1979. The twin spectres of war and disease hover over the former, while in the latter contemporary experience merges with accounts of the martyrdom of early Japanese Christians. But as a composite title, Stained Glass Elegies has the merit of revealing that God and death are not so neatly divisible in Endo's universe as the original titles might suggest.

For the martyrs, death in great agony presented the ultimate trial of their belief in the Christian God. Endo's 20th-century characters—believers, half-believers, and non-believers—are alternately fascinated and repelled by accounts of the martyrs' suffering. “Yet he could not rid himself of the feeling that the martyrs were far removed from his own life. Only those, like them, who were strong and specially appointed could carry out such superhuman acts. They lived on a higher plane than the one where he subsisted.” Ironically, the young student who makes these reflections is at that very moment standing on a former execution ground next to a despised European monk (known as “Mouse”). By the end of the story (“Fuda-no-Tsuji”), the man makes two discoveries at a class reunion years later: first, that Mouse had sacrificed his life to save another man at Dachau, and, second, that heroism flows out of love, not physical stamina, and is as uncommon in the 20th century as in the 17th: “Somewhere in this crowd … he thought, sitting with his Harold Lloyd face, his mudspattered knees quivering, was Mouse.”

This quest for heroism in the face of pain and death, like the quest for God, takes place in these stories in most unpromising circumstances: the tedium of hospital rooms, the depression of wartime cities, the isolation of mountain villages. Hating themselves for their lack of courage or love or both, Endo's “heroes” find consolation only in the sad-eyed creatures around them: a myna bird, a dog. But when the sorrowing eyes belong to human beings, they trouble as well as console.

In “Mothers,” the most successful fusion of the era of persecution and the present, the main character, a writer, travels to a remote island to visit descendants of 17th-century Christian apostates (kakure), who have maintained their own idiosyncratic and syncretistic version of Catholicism quite distinct from that of the Roman Church. What he finds is a religion built on shame that focuses devotion on the merciful Mother of God who offers hope of winning pardon from a stern Father for their infidelity. In counterpoint to this theological theme, the writer thinks and dreams regularly on the island of his own mother. Gradually he realizes that the image he has formed of her (“with her hands joined in front of her, watching me from behind with a look of gentle sorrow in her eyes”) derives not from actual memories of her but from a statue of the Mater Dolorosa she kept in their house.

When, at the end of the story, he finally gains admission to a sanctuary of the kakure and sees the crude shrine with its picture of “a farm woman holding a nursing baby,” he understands for the first time both his own fascination with the kakure and their place in the troubled stories of his country's dealings with Christianity: “But when the missionaries had been expelled and the churches demolished, the Japanese kakure, over the space of many years, stripped away all those parts of the religion that they could not embrace, and the teachings of God the Father were gradually replaced by a yearning after a Mother—a yearning which lies at the very heart of Japanese religion.”

All the sad eyes of these stories—of birds and animals, of lepers and draftees—find their origin in the sorrowing glance of the Mother, even the eyes of her son, “that Man,” as Endo's alter ego, the novelist Suguro, is driven to call God in “My Belongings.” This is a vision of religion, and of human life, as far away from “happy talk” theology as could be imagined. Significantly, the most positive statement in these stories (and the last) belongs to a man who has known great suffering personally. Fr. Bosch, an aging French priest imprisoned and tortured in Japan during World War II, and thus a modern analogue of the early missionary martyrs, turns aside his former students' concern for his health by saying, “I only feel pain in the winter when it is cold. When spring comes, I am fine again. That is the way it always is.” If Endo's thoughts are never far from Good Friday and the Mater Dolorosa, it is comforting that—in his more recent stories at least—he is not unaware of Easter.


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Shusaku Endo 1923–-1996

Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and biographer.

Endo was one of Japan's foremost contemporary fiction writers. His short stories and novels were popularly and critically acclaimed in both Japan and other countries. As a Catholic novelist, Endo was frequently referred to as “the Japanese Graham Greene.” Among his central thematic concerns is the conflict of identity among Japanese Catholics, the clash of cultures between East and West, the persecution of Catholics throughout history, and the internal struggle of Christian faith. Endo was awarded nearly every major literary prize in Japan, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Biographical Information

Endo was born March 27, 1923, in Tokyo, but spent his early childhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. When Endo was ten years old, his parents divorced and he moved back to Japan with his mother. An aunt influenced Endo and his mother to convert to Catholicism, and he was baptized at the age of eleven. Endo was uncomfortable with his new religion, which he later described as the feeling of wearing an ill-fitted suit. During World War II, Endo was exempt from combat due to illness. He received a B.A. in French literature from Tokyo's Keio University in 1949, and from 1950 to 1953 Endo studied Catholic fiction at the University of Lyons in France. His first novel Shiroihito (White Man) was published in 1955, earning Endo the Akutagawa Prize for promising young writers. In the same year, he married Junko Okada, with whom he had a son. In 1959, Endo contracted tuberculosis and the next year, while in France to study the works of the Marquis de Sade, he was hospitalized for two and a half years and underwent three operations, which left him with one lung. After this period of infirmity, Endo's fiction became more sympathetic toward characters suffering from both spiritual and physical weaknesses. Critics note that he began to conceptualize a more merciful, compassionate image of Christ in his fiction. Over the course of his life, Endo published seventeen short story collections, most of them not translated into English, as well as forty-five novels and many works of nonfiction. Endo died on September 29, 1996.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Throughout his fiction, Endo was concerned with the inner battles of faith as well as the outer fights against persecution suffered by Japanese Christians in both the East and the West. Ryugaku (1965; Foreign Studies) contains three stories, each about Japanese Christians living in Europe. These stories focus on the inability of the characters to reconcile their Japanese identity with Western culture, and their own interior trials over belief in a religion which is firmly rooted in European tradition. The characters experience both alienation and a crisis over identity concerning the disaccord between their Christian faith, their Japanese identity, and their experiences in European society. “And You, Too,” the longest story of the three, concerns a Japanese professor of French literature living in 1960s France and studying the works of the Marquis de Sade. While Endo's earlier fictions present a more dour view of the moral endeavors of the individual, often seen without chance of redemption, his later works offer mercy and salvation for those who grapple with their beliefs. Stained Glass Elegies includes eleven short stories collected and translated from Aika (1965) and Juichi no iro garasu (1979). Critic and translator Van C. Gessel observed, “The short stories in the [Stained Glass Elegies] collection are in a sense vignettes, dessin-like sketches of the weak who must bear the burden of guilt and the throbbing of their consciences.” Throughout this volume, Endo conceptualizes Christ-like symbols of salvation, particularly in the form of maternal Christ-figures. In “My Belongings,” the character Suguro (who appears in several of Endo's stories) sees “that Man” (Christ) in the tear-stained face of his wife, whom he has never loved, but will never leave. “Mothers” concerns a community of Japanese Catholics who are the descendants of those who outwardly renounced their Christianity in the face of persecution, but continued to worship in secret, hiding statues of the Virgin Mary behind the family Buddha. When the narrator finally sees the image of the Virgin Mary, which this community worships, he is struck by the fact that it is a “clumsily drawn” picture of a local farm-woman in a kimono, nursing her child. Thus, here the Holy Mother has taken precedence in the faith of this isolated community over God the Father. The story “Unzen” is about a character, Suguru, who reads about and visits a Japanese town where in the seventeenth century Christians were tortured and put to death for their beliefs. Suguru learns that a man had chosen to publicly renounce his faith in order to save himself and his family. As Suguru identifies with this apostate figure, Endo focuses on the pain of the man who has renounced his religion. In “Fuji no Tsuda,” the main character learns of a monk who saved the life of a Jewish man in a concentration camp by choosing to take his place. The Final Martyrs (1993) contains translations of stories originally published between 1959 and 1985, many of them autobiographical, such as “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “A Sixty-Year-Old Man,” which are sequels to an earlier story included in Stained Glass Elegies, “A Forty-Year-Old Man.” In a review in Studies in Short Fiction, critic Francis J. Bosha noted: “Throughout The Final Martyrs there emerges a clearly autobiographical pattern of the melancholy middle-aged man, haunted by guilt and saddened by his childhood spent in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who, because of his mother, converted to Catholicism; yet he does not always feel comfortable with this religion, which in turn causes another round of guilt.”

Critical Reception

English critics applaud Endo's short stories for their explication of such subjects as the cultural conflict between East and West, the moral groping of the individual concerning the nature of belief, and the paradoxical identity of Japanese Christians. Endo has stated that he uses short stories as a testing ground for ideas which may later be expanded to novel length, and critics frequently note that the seeds of his later novels can be detected in a number of Endo's short stories. Francis Mathy commented of the stories in The Final Martyrs: “Much as the painter will do a number of preliminary sketches before setting his hand to a larger canvas, so Endo uses his short stories to sketch characters and themes that appear later in his novels.” Mathy also added, “There may be greater artistry in these sketches than in the novels themselves.” Paul Binding said of The Final Martyrs: “each of the stories in this wonderful volume has something of the novel's richness and discursiveness.” Some commentators have observed that Endo tends to subordinate character and plot to motif in his novels, but his short stories manage to convey a thematic message without overburdening the story. As Gessel observed: “There is a familiar, even popular tinge to virtually all Endo's stories; by rooting his narratives in common soil, he is able to attract the attention of readers who might have little interest in his metaphysical concerns. Plot functions rather like the New Testament parables, relying upon the elements of the earth in order to convey insights into the essences of heaven.” Critics have observed that while Endo's earlier stories offer little chance of salvation, later stories increasingly focus on Christ as a figure of maternal suffering—whether glimpsed in the face of a bereft, wife, a stray dog, or the painting of a woman nursing her child. Most scholars agree, however, that Endo eschews a tone of simplistic sermonizing, as his characters maintain an uneasy relationship to their faith, thus avoiding tidy, superficial resolutions to their ethical undertakings. Gessel remarks that Endo's popularity is in part due to the skill with which he conveys a virtuous message in stories which remain accessible and entertaining to the common reader: “Endo is able to placate not only the weary but also the wary, the simple as well as the skeptical. … If in fact the art of storytelling hinges upon the ability to draw the reader into a narrative with the bait of familiarity and then lead the way to a higher plane of understanding in the realm of the new and unfamiliar, Endo qualifies as a master storyteller.” Critics have also commented on other prominent motifs in Endo's writing, namely his fractious vision of personal identity and human culture, and his chief subject in fiction, “the human condition.” Jeffrey Renard Allen, in a review in Christian Century, said of Foreign Studies that the stories' subject matter is “the mystery of identity.” Allen concluded that: “If Endo's characters are alienated from the West, they are equally alienated from themselves. … Given the dark recesses of the soul, we are all foreigners.” As critic Marleigh Grayer Ryan remarked, Endo's representation of “profound cultural disjunction” ultimately “leads us to the most serious questions about the human condition.”

Norma B. Williamson (review date 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Stained Glass Elegies, in National Review, Vol. 38, No. 5, March 28, 1986, pp. 68–9.

[In the following review, Williamson focuses on the theme of Japanese Christianity in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

This is one of those rare instances when a book's title is perfectly appropriate to its contents, for, in this delicately wrought collection of stories, the most ordinary aspects of life are viewed as if through stained glass, revealing previously unseen colors and shadings. In addition, Endo's prose has the elegance and economy of poetry. Each word is weighted with meaning. Endo writes of “Old Friends,” “The War Generation,” “Mothers,” and an unloved wife in “My Belongings,” but one theme, the dichotomy of Christianity in Japan, is predominant in most of these stories. Endo, who is himself a Christian, seems almost obsessed with the persecution of early Japanese Christians and, in particular, with the relationship between those who died for their faith and those who recanted it rather than die. In “Unzen,” the protagonist, Suguro, who figures in a number of the stories, has traveled from Tokyo to view the site where Christians had once been burned to death. Suguro is fascinated by the bravery of one band of martyrs, but he is even more fascinated by one of their number who denied his faith to escape death, yet felt compelled to watch his friends die. Suguro discovers several charred stones beneath the black earth at the center of the execution ground. “Although he had no way of knowing whether these stones had been used here three hundred years before when seven Christians had been burned at the stake, he hurriedly snatched up one of the stones and put it in his pocket. Then, his spine bent like Kichijro's [the recanter], he walked back toward the road.” The figure of the recanted Christian who follows his friends with sorrow and longing appears in several of Endo's stories. Illness and hospitals also figure in a number of these stories. In “A Forty-Year-Old Man,” the recurring character Suguro is in the hospital for surgery for the third time in three years. He fears that he will die and reflects on the impersonality of death in hospitals. “People sometimes wonder when they will die, Suguro realized. But they never give much thought to where they will breathe their last. No matter who dies in a hospital, the staff handle death as if they were mailing a package at the post office.” The stories in Stained Glass Elegies are meant to be read slowly and savored.

Principal Works

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Aika 1965

Ryugaku [Foreign Studies] 1965

Yumoa shosetsu shu 1974

Kitsunegata tanukigata 1976

Juichi no iro garasu 1979

Stained Glass Elegies: Stories [includes translations of stories from Aika and Juichi no iro garasu] 1984

The Final Martyrs: Stories 1993

Shiroihito [White Man] (novel) 1955

Chinmoku [Silence] (novel) 1966

Iesu no shogai [A Life of Jesus] (nonfiction) 1973

Samurai [The Samurai] (novel) 1980

Sukyandaru [Scandal] (novel) 1986

Fukai kawa [Deep River] (novel) 1993

Sidney DeVere Brown (review date 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Stained Glass Elegies, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, pp. 688–89.

[In the following review, Brown considers the theme of heroism in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

That fiction is principally autobiography in the hands of modern Japanese writers becomes evident in the eleven short stories which make up Stained Glass Elegies. At first glance, Shūsaku Endō's self-revelation takes on the quality of medical naturalism, as he describes his massive lung surgery in graphic detail. The reader is impelled to cry “Enough!” at the bloody descriptions, until he realizes that the hospital room provides the setting, as an autumnal landscape might, for reflections on heroic people, often timid or mediocre men, in times past.

A Catholic himself, Endō, like Japanese writers from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa onward, admires the Christian martyrs of the seventeenth century and finds in their commitment unto death a continuing source for literature: his stained-glass elegies. “Unzen” deals with seven men who allow themselves to be hurled into the boiling water of a hot springs above Nagasaki rather than recant. Still, the writer has sympathy for, and modestly identifies with, the one man who denied Christ to save his family. “The apostate endures a pain none of you can comprehend,” he writes.

A surprise ending greets the reader in “Fuji no Tsuda,” as a former student at a church university contrasts the heroism of fifty Christians who went to their deaths at a place by that name in 1623 with the timidity of the foreign monk who was only a clerk at their school in the prewar years of the twentieth century, known to contemptuous students as “Mouse.” This mediocre man died a courageous death, substituting himself for a Jew sentenced to starve at Dachau, as we learn in the final sentence. “Retreating Figures” deals with another kind of courage, that of an uncle who embraced a hazardous radical political philosophy and disappeared into the Soviet Union in the 1930s, perhaps to die there. The author seems to confess in “Despicable Bastard” that he is incapable of the sublime courage shown by these others and is terrified by the prospect of accidentally touching a leper in a friendly baseball game at a sanatorium.

For me personally, “The War Generation” was the most impressive piece. A middle-aged man was reminded, by a chance encounter with the lady who played the violin, of a concert of European classical music—“The enemy's music,” as the military police put it—played at Hibiya Public Hall the day after the most destructive air raid of the war, the fire-bombing of Tokyo on 9–10 March 1945. It was a sublime moment amid police-state oppression and devastating loss, but when he tried to share it with his wife and daughter, he met only indifference. His was a very private sentiment.

Van C. Gessel has translated the stories, written between 1959 and 1977, splendidly, just as he did Endō's novel The Samurai, about another seventeenth-century Christian.

Van C. Gessel (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Salvation of the Weak: Endo Shusaku,” in his The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 233–41, 243–49, 257–68, 280–81.

[In the following excerpt, Gessel—who has translated many of Endo's novels and story collections into English—discusses the “moral idealism” of Endo's fiction, as exemplified in the stories: “Despicable Bastard,” “My Belongings,” “The Day Before,” and “Mothers.”]

… The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. … But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.

—1 Corinthians 1:25, 27

The role of the Christian writer in Japan has always been rather anomalous. Japan is widely recognized as a buffer zone between Eastern and Western civilizations, a conglomerate society that has joined the industrialized powers of Europe and America but retained a decidedly Asian suspicion of an organized, exclusivistic religion like Christianity. Though the Japanese acknowledge that a great deal of benefit has accrued to their nation from the presence of hard-working Christian missionaries, a faintly foreign “smell” (which they identify with cheese and butter, somehow) continues to hover over the religion itself. Christianity, like English literature, is one of those diversions that schoolgirls may be permitted to dally with like dolls while they are young. But once they have matured, they are expected to leave all such things behind. Questioned about their reaction to Christianity, typical Japanese are likely to say that they feel a good deal of “distance” from it.1

The Japanese author who has most keenly experienced that distance himself and devoted the greater part of his literary output to the examination of what it means to be a Japanese Christian is Endō Shūsaku. If he qualifies for membership in a generation of Japanese authors who have largely concentrated on the losses of the modern period, it is on the basis of his struggle to accommodate himself to the conflicting demands of his national origins and his adopted religion. Endō has never been completely at home either as a full-fledged Japanese or as a card-carrying Catholic. Unlike some of his countrymen, who have chosen to ignore the conflicts between the two, Endō has recognized that Christianity is weighted down with a burden of cultural associations derived from European tradition, and that he has been expected to bow down to these associations just as if to God. But Endō has been a Christian unable to accept the narrow strictures of Western-style Catholicism, and at the same time a Japanese equally incapable of living with the absence of a sense of sin and guilt in his native society.

Endō's tastes in literature as a child give some indication of these personal conflicts. One book which he read as a youth, continued to pore over during the war years when others were turning to propaganda writings, and still carries with him when he travels abroad is the early nineteenth-century picaresque novel, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (Travels on Foot on the Tōkai Highway, 1802–1822; trans. as Hizakurige, 1929). Authored by Jippensha Ikku, Hizakurige is a sprawling, ribald travel adventure of two ne'er-do-wells, Kita and Yaji, who pass from one rollicking episode to another in their journey along the highway. The humor in the novel is slapstick and slightly coarse—not unlike much of the humor in Endō's own writings—but the main characters are endearing.

Endō's observations about the novel are worth noting:

Here we have two men unable to live in the provinces, yet unable to settle in Edo either. Yaji and Kita are men without roots, no matter where they travel. That is why they had to set out on their journey. … Those of us who, even though we are Japanese, cannot bring ourselves to plant our roots firmly into the soil of modern-day Japan, and yet who are not total strangers to the place, cannot help but think of our own plight as we watch Yaji and Kita plod along through the rain down the Kiso Highway. In the broadest sense, these two men who cannot live either in the provinces or in Edo, may indeed be us ourselves.2

It is no coincidence that many of Endō's characters find themselves in the same predicament as Kita and Yaji, caught between tradition and modernity, East and West. Nor would it be an exaggeration to say that Endō himself feels like something of a hybrid, trying to find soil in his native land that will nurture the buds of Christianity which he has imported from abroad.

A typical member of the war generation, Endō has felt trapped in the “middle” of social change in Japan, but in ways totally unlike Kojima or Yasuoka. Kojima, scissored between duty to country and a pedagogical devotion to the “enemy” language, emerged from the war with a pessimism since leavened only by a grudging admiration for those who continue to struggle in the face of overwhelming absurdity. For Yasuoka, the battle was between his native indolence and clumsiness on the one hand, and social demands for vigorous action on the other. The literature that grew out of his experience pitted the solitary clod against every form of social oppression, with the sluggard inevitably doomed to failure. Unlike his two comrades, however, Endō never served in the Japanese army; the language he was assigned to study in his school days was German, an allied tongue; and despite his own disclaimers to the contrary,3 Endō never experienced the continual humiliation that Yasuoka underwent for his inability to do anything correctly.

Endō's conflicts were waged in a more abstract arena, where he found himself caught in the middle of a struggle that he never sought to engage in. He no more intended to do battle with the spiritual foundation of Western civilization than Kojima expected to stare into the vortex of human absurdity when he began his study of English. Endō was an unlikely warrior in this battle. A self-styled weakling, his temperament is more that of a prankster than a priest, his inclinations more gaudy than godly, his humor more indebted to Yaji and Kita than to the Passion plays. However uncomfortable he may have felt personally with the unwanted albatross of Christianity strung about his neck, though, he pursued the contradictions in his life with unflagging energy. While Kojima grappled with the relative “I” and found him elusive, and while Yasuoka and Shimao kept their eyes riveted upon the unpredictable “them,” Endō's focus was on the eternal “He,” a superior being who observes the acts of men with sorrowful eyes. Endō's struggle, in a sense, led to the creation of a Japanese Pilgrim's Progress, a travel journal in which his own spiritual searching provided the materials for his fiction. There is a long and rich tradition of travel diaries in Japanese literature, but Endō has been among the first of modern writers to map out a spiritual course of progress.

Endō has created a “drama” within the novel form, a central conflict resulting from the clash between man as God expects him to be and man as he really is. The conflict can be seen in the early story “Iya na yatsu” (“Despicable Bastard,” 1959; trans. 1984).

The story revolves around the ambivalent cowardice of a character familiar in Endō's literature—the diffident sort who knows for certain that he will abandon all principle if he is ever subjected to physical torture. This dread of pain is almost unique to Endō in his generation; those who actually served in the army developed a near-immunity to beatings and physical discomfort. But Endō, always poised on the brink of pain but never plunged into it during the war, developed a fear of physical torture that runs through all his fiction. Not until he actually experienced intense personal agony resulting from his long bout with lung disease did his fear give way to compassionate concern for those too weak to stand up for what they believe.

Egi, the “despicable bastard” of the title, is one of a handful of non-Christian students at a Catholic dormitory in Tokyo during the war years. Forced against his will to participate in a charitable visit to a leper hospital at Gotemba, Egi is subjected to further torment when someone suggests that the students play a game of baseball with the patients.

“Egi, you're up to bat next,” someone called. From the corner of his eyes, Egi saw a thin derisive smile appear on the lips of Iijima, who was watching the game just off to one side.

When Egi picked up his bat and started for the plate, Iijima walked up beside him, as though he were going to suggest a batting strategy.

“Hey, Egi,” Iijima whispered perversely, his breath smelling foul. “You're afraid, aren't you? You're going to get infected!”

Egi resolutely swung his bat. It connected firmly, and the white ball went sailing into the distance. “Run!” someone shouted. Frantically, Egi rounded first base and continued running, but the first baseman had already caught the ball from the third and had started after Egi. Caught between two bases, Egi suddenly realized that the hand that would touch him with the ball belonged to a leper. He stopped dead in his tracks. “Keep going!” he told himself, and sprinted off again. The first baseman threw the ball to the second baseman. When he got a close-up view of the second baseman's receding hairline and gnarled lips, Egi's body was no longer willing to respond to the promptings of his conscience. He stopped, hoping to be able to dodge his opponent, and looked up nervously at the approaching patient.

In the patient's eyes Egi saw a plaintive flicker, like the look in the eyes of an abused animal.

“Go ahead. I won't touch you,” the patient said softly.

Egi felt like crying when he was finally by himself. He stared vacantly at the infirmary, which now looked somehow like a livestock shed, and at the silver fields beneath the overcast sky. And he thought, “Thanks to my fear of physical pain, I'll probably go on betraying my own soul, betraying love, betraying others. I'm a good-for-nothing, a wretch … a base, cowardly, vile, despicable bastard.”4

Many of the fundamental elements of the drama which Endō has pursued throughout his career make an appearance in this passage. The story itself is spare and simple. Plot is a means rather than an end, a sturdily constructed scaffolding upon which Endō hangs the more ephemeral concerns of his writing. There is a familiar, even popular tinge to virtually all Endō's stories; by rooting his narratives in common soil, he is able to attract the attention of readers who might have little interest in his metaphysical concerns. Plot functions rather like the New Testament parables, relying upon the elements of the earth in order to convey insights into the essences of heaven.

In his recognition that plot can offer its own intrinsic rewards while serving higher purposes, Endō has much in common with the finest narrative craftsmen. As Robert Scholes has observed, “the proper way for narrative artists to provide for their audiences an experience richer than submissive stupefaction is not to deny them the satisfactions of story but to generate for them stories that reward the most energetic and rigorous kinds of narrativity. It is possible, as Shakespeare knew, to provide some plain satisfactions for the simple or the weary, while also rewarding those who are ready to give a narrative the fullest attention of their mental and emotional powers.”5

It is no accident, and no misinterpretation, that Endō is widely regarded as a “popular,” even middle-brow writer by many Japanese readers. He offers “plain satisfactions” through his stories in a manner that few of his contemporaries have been able to rival. In stories as direct as “Despicable Bastard,” dime-novel plots as easygoing and predictable as Kuchibue o fuku toki (When I Whistle, 1974; trans. 1979), and travel adventures as rousing as Samurai (The Samurai, 1980; trans. 1982), Endō is able to placate not only the weary but also the wary, the simple as well as the skeptical. If in fact the art of storytelling hinges upon the ability to draw the reader into a narrative with the bait of familiarity and then lead the way to a higher plane of understanding in the realm of the new and unfamiliar, Endō qualifies as a master storyteller.

In “Despicable Bastard,” Egi finds, as do so many Endō characters, that he is caught between the earnest desires of the soul and the wretched weakness of the flesh. Caught between bases—a perfect metaphor of his inner dilemma—his physical paralysis mirrors his emotional palsy. One part of him—the “narrative,” earthly part—seeks only to run, to get away from this frightening situation. But another part—the “discursive,” transcendent aspect of his nature—agonizes over the pain he is causing the leper and, finally, his own conscience. Egi does not have within himself the power to resolve this conflict, and so he must remain in a middle ground where only some extraordinary, unexpected act of compassion can resolve his dilemma. The words of the leper at second base, “Go ahead. I won't touch you,” reverberate off Jesus's words to Judas: “That thou doest, do quickly.” In a later story, Endō suggests that Christ, knowing “all the desperate acts of men,” could no longer endure the torment Judas was going through, and “was overwhelmed with compassion” (p. 79) as he spoke to his betrayer.6

The guilt that accompanies such an act of compassion implies that Egi's pain is not assuaged by unwarranted forgiveness, merely transmuted. There is no escape from the middle ground for him, and he must always endure the taunts of those, like Iijima, who hound him with “derisive smiles” and mock him with their foul-smelling breath. These jeering figures wind through Endō's fiction, serving as constant reminders of the lure of the secular world, the seductiveness of moral cowardice. The chief torment for characters like Egi is that they have seen a fleeting image of a better life, even if it is constrained within the rotting body of a leper. Egi inveighs against himself with a stream of curses, perhaps, because he recognizes that he is an inversion of the leper's soul—his own putrefaction lies within, concealed by a body that appears whole.

While on the one hand this story transforms into literature some of the moral crises Endō faced personally as a Catholic during the war years, in a broader sense the story captures much of the sense of bewilderment, ambivalence, and loss that his generation confronted. They were presented with alternatives that seemed equally repugnant, and they remained unable to commit themselves to any specific course of action. Unlike the story, however, when the call to arms came for most, there was no one to look on sympathetically and say, “Go on ahead. I won't touch you.” They were all touched by the war, wounded emotionally by it. For Endō those wounds were only intensified by his feelings of cowardice and his lukewarm adherence to the enemy religion.

To summarize, then, Endō entraps his characters in a neutral zone between the concerns of the flesh and those of the spirit, and there he impels them to battle. The clash, as in “Despicable Bastard” or Chimmoku (Silence, 1966; trans. 1968), may be between moral principles and physical cowardice. Or it may be between East and West, dogmatism and materialism, as in The Samurai. In any case, the struggle on this middle ground produces few if any clear-cut victories. What it does provide is the sole opportunity most of these characters will have to receive communications of the spirit, to hear the voice of God. Only at the point where body and spirit seem about the tear apart from one another does God break his silence. This I will deal with in more detail in my discussions of Silence and The Samurai.

This spiritual battleground is reflected in the inherent duality of the mode of narration as well. The plots are secular, the discourse celestial. It is a literary approach which Endō has fashioned both from his personal encounter with Christianity, in which he has found himself in the midst of a cultural and religious conflict with his heritage, and from his experiences of the war years as a member of the “senchū-ha,” the generation caught “in the middle.”

Ironically, the polarization of the war years drove Endō to embrace Christianity more fully than he had in his youth. Under the influence of a Catholic philosopher, Yoshimitsu Yoshihiko, who was his dorm master at Keiō University, Endō decided to study French Catholic literature as a means to understand foreign attitudes and to comprehend what Christianity meant in his own life. The influence of Mauriac, Bernanos, and Julien Greene is evident in his own fiction, as well as the distinctive mark of Graham Greene.

Endō was given the opportunity to pursue his studies firsthand in 1950, when he and three comrades were selected in the first group of Japanese to go abroad for study after World War II. The four Japanese were loaded into the cargo hold of a French passenger ship along with a score of armed black African soldiers. In Manila and Saigon, where the Japanese were still considered war criminals, the “exchange students” were interrogated at gunpoint. After docking in Marseilles, Endō was taken off for questioning by customs officials who believed he was Filipino trying to get into France on a false passport; only when a French teacher of Japanese was called in and Endō demonstrated his ability to read a textbook in elementary-school Japanese was he allowed to enter the country.

It was yet another experience in isolation; he began to sense the presence of vast “walls” separating him from the mysteries of European Christian culture.7 Moreover, as he pursued his studies, he became increasingly cognizant of gaps between himself and the writers he was examining:

I could not shake the gnawing feeling that a great gulf lay between them and myself. Each time I read their accounts of their religious conversions, I got the impression that they felt they had “returned home” when they accepted Christianity.

Being Japanese, though, I could not feel inside myself that embracing Christianity was any kind of homecoming. And none of the writers I studied had anything to say about the agony endured by the stranger to Christianity.

The more I studied Christian literature, the wider the gap between me and these writers grew. It was not simply a feeling of distance from Christianity, but a distance from the entire culture of a foreign country. …

I was able to make friends with many of the French people, but no matter how long I remained there, my studies seemed to run into a massive wall, and gradually I lost the desire to go to the classroom.

From that time, I gave thought to becoming a writer. For I felt that I had run across a theme that I would need to pursue my entire life.8

That theme, of course, was the “agony of the stranger,” the vast gulfs that separate the Japanese and those brought up in a Western culture steeped in centuries of Christian tradition. During his time in France, Endō gradually came to feel culturally inferior to the Westerners he met. The symbol of that inferiority was his own yellow skin, which he concluded was dirty, less pure than the gleaming skins of the Europeans. In his early fiction, white represents a clearly formed religious philosophy, a distinct commitment to Christianity, and an implicit rejection of less exclusive religious philosophies. Yellow is a murkier, less clearly defined color representing the pantheistic tendencies of the Japanese, their willingness to live by situational ethics rather than unflinching moral standards, and their lack (as Endō sees it) of guilt feelings. …

Perhaps the most painful experience with near-separation in his life came for Endō when he contracted a serious case of tuberculosis on a trip to Europe in late 1959. He was there to further his research into the career and works of the Marquis de Sade, a figure who has continued to fascinate Endō because of the passion ignited in his rebellion against Christianity. It is such passion, such human “drama” that Endō insists is missing in Japanese society because it lacks a concept of God. But during his studies in France and several other European nations, Endō fell ill and was hospitalized shortly after his return to Japan. It was the second time he had had to leave the West because of a life-threatening illness. In the last novel to center around the conflicts between East and West, Ryūgaku (Foreign Studies, 1965; trans. 1989), Endō writes of a Japanese scholar who tries to penetrate the thick wall of Western culture but instead returns to Japan a disheartened, sick man. He has struggled to understand the red blotches on the walls of the Marquis de Sade's ruined castle, but ultimately he has not been able to comprehend the fervor—both positive and destructive—that Christianity has aroused among the peoples of the West, and the quest defeats him.

The attitudes of this weary scholar perhaps best characterize the literary struggles the Endō was undergoing at this point in his career. He had undertaken a precise—perhaps too precise—description of the insurmountable walls separating Japan from the Christian world, and his characters came to seem trapped within their isolated state of limbo beyond the reach of literary grace. His own long stay in the hospital, however, wrought a number of changes in Endō's attitudes toward literature. Prompted perhaps by thoughts of the proximity of death that would be the final separation between himself and his family and work, Endō's thoughts turned from the static depiction of walls to the more clearly dramatic demolition of them. By 1963, after three major operations had excised one of his lungs, Endō's own writing turned to the removal of barriers separating his characters from salvation, or at least resolution between body and spirit. There is a new compassion, a new search for ways in which the apostate can be accepted.

Perhaps the first critic to recognize this change in Endō was Saeki Shōichi, who wrote in 1973:

[Endō's early writings] are if anything a little too clear-cut, too coherent. They lack the dull resiliency of human flesh, the weightiness of a less-than-transparent human nature. His characters responded too readily to the author's commands, and seemed at times like cleverly manipulated marionettes. … [Endō] was more concerned with his themes than in the creation of believable human beings in his novels. His characters had to howl and suffer submissively as they writhed beneath the burden of theme that had been foisted upon them. …

But Endō is a perceptive critic, and he recognized these faults in his own work. … He had clearly matured as a writer after his two and a half years in the hospital.9

Endō in these later works continues to describe the agony of those wrenched from their heritage and unable to cope. His novels are still populated with apostate priests, weak-willed martyrs who wish they had been born in an age free of persecution, the ugly and the ludicrous and the pathetic who are trampled on by the world. But now Endō begins to suggest that the very act of suffering, of enduring the calumnies and assaults of the world, is a sufficient act of penance, and that there is a redemption for the weak who cannot be banner-carriers for Christianity or for any other creed. A new and consistent image appears in Endō's stories after 1963—the sad, compassionate eyes of birds and dogs that wordlessly observe human activities of every variety. Clearly these eyes are a prototype of a divine gaze which sees all the external failings of men but mercifully penetrates to the purity of intent in the hearts of those too spiritually feeble to save themselves. In “Watakushi no mono” (“My Belongings,” 1964; trans. 1984), the middle-aged novelist Suguro10 responds to his bored son's request for a story with:

“One day some children were playing baseball near that grove of trees. The ball went into the trees, and the kids peered into the grove as they scrambled through the grass looking for it. … And then they found a man, about your father's age, hanging by his neck from one of the trees. His two unwashed legs dangled down from his faded nightshirt. … Why did he hang himself? This man, who was so much like your father, hadn't done anything particularly bad. He hadn't failed in his business. He hadn't fought with his wife. So nobody knew why he hanged himself. But there was a dog that peered into the grove of trees with mournful eyes. … The End.”

… Suguro hugged his knees. I'll never leave this wife and child of mine, he thought. His own parents had grown to hate each other and were divorced; but in all likelihood he would spend his entire life beside this woman with the fat body and the exhausted face. He had this feeling primarily because her look of weariness sometimes overlapped in his mind with the face of “that Man.” I suppose I will never abandon Him, either. Just as I will not desert my wife, I will not desert that Man, whose eyes have a look as sorrowful as those of the dog that peered into the forest.

[pp. 43–44]11

The juxtaposition and ultimate synthesis of images exemplify the simultaneously contrastive and integrative activities under way in Endō's narrative technique. Carefree children are brought into a confrontation with the swinging corpse of a middle-aged man who has succumbed to despair. The motives for the man's suicide are murky, much like the reasons for Suguro's vague dissatisfaction with his own life. There is no clear distinction made between Suguro and the dead man—in fact, they are consciously compared. What keeps a listless Suguro from merging with the image of the hanging man is the blended images of those around him. The fat, weary body of his wife has a look that reminds him of “that Man.” Suguro cannot even bring himself to utter the name of God—the distance he feels from his wife is replicated in his alienation from deity. But the look of sorrowful, somehow compassionate understanding in the eyes of “that Man,” of the dog, and of his wife combine to give Suguro the courage to continue his life amidst frustration and bouts of despair. The “walls” separating Suguro from his family, and from God, are penetrated by the doglike gazes that observe Suguro but do not condemn him.

“My Belongings” examines a man's search for inner peace, a peace that can come only if he will take responsibility for his own life—for the mistakes, the sins, the weaknesses, and the hurt he has caused others. By embracing those parts of his life that he can truly call his own, he can arrive at some sort of peace with himself, and can begin to empathize with the follies and shortcomings of others. In this story, Endō is searching from amid the many separations of his life for some kind of integrating force—for a bond between human beings that will bridge the gulf of compassionless sin.

As he reflects on his life, his career, and the marriage that has a dank, foul smell to it—like the wet laundry hanging in the hallway—Suguro discovers that he has exercised very little control over it. Decisions have been made for him by others—mostly his parents—or in defiance of them, but not out of the depths of Suguro's own aspirations. He begins to wonder if there is really anything he can call his own.

In sharp contrast are the lives of two of Suguro's closest acquaintances in the literary world—the novelists Nagao and Mita, both of whom have in their middle years chosen Christianity of their own volition.12 The surprise announcement from Mita that he has decided to be baptized makes Suguro realize what a minor part he has played in determining the course of his own life. The foreign faith he has adopted was thrust upon him by his mother and aunt; he impulsively decided to marry a woman he really did not love so that he would not have to wed someone selected by his father. Once early in the marriage Suguro had lost control and slapped his bride, telling her “I never really wanted you.”13 An earlier Endō story might have ended on such a note of unresolved despair. But Suguro is driven by a desire to hold on to his meager possessions, even if they have been forced on him by others, even if he has abused them. He is not searching for some abstract, lonely freedom that would come to him if he abandoned the woman he did not want to marry and the Man he did not want to worship. An urge within him longs for something that is his own, for individuals and beliefs he can truly say belong to him. Perhaps the basic choices in his life have been made without his active participation (as they invariably were for the war generation). Fine—his task now is to learn to accept those choices.

As he gazes into his wife's weary, puffy face, it reminds him of another face that has lived with him and helped shape the kind of person he has become.

Hers was the weary face common to virtually every housewife. But it was, after all, a face of Suguro's own fashioning. It was one of his life-works, like the clumsy stories he produced by gathering and blending his materials and impatiently committing them to paper. And behind her weary face, Suguro discovered yet another face of someone he had not really wanted. He discovered the debilitated face of “that Man,” a person he had cursed and despised and beaten throughout his days. …

When Suguro cursed the Man and declared he had never really wanted Him, sad, doglike eyes peered back at him, and tears slowly trickled down those cheeks. The face was not the imposing visage that the religious artists had painted, but a face that belonged only to Suguro, that only he knew. Just as I will never leave my wife, I will never abandon you. I have tormented you the same way I have tormented my wife. I'm not at all sure that I will not go on abusing you as I do her. But I will not ever cast you off utterly.14

When the images of dog, wife, and God converge again at this point, Suguro recognizes the similarities in the scattered components of his life. He understands that an ultimate choice is available to him, the choice of accepting what has become of his life, of embracing the belongings that can therefore become his. He can admit that the weary look on his wife's face is of his own creation, and that the sorrowful gaze of “that Man” is motivated by his own actions. With an act of love, Suguro can lay the foundation for more meaningful contacts with both of these individuals. He can narrow the gap that has separated them for so many years.

It is no simple coincidence that the acts of integration that Suguro attempts here are compared to his work of bringing various materials together to construct his “clumsy stories.” The endeavors of his art are identical to those of his religion—to bring order out of chaos, and to provide meaning where none seems available. Endō first defines the ground upon which his characters stand by enclosing it within walls of frustration, cowardice, and selfishness; from there he suggests in subtle outlines the manner in which those walls can be penetrated. He is a Christian writer by simple virtue of the manner in which he impounds and then liberates the souls of his characters, a process which is a literary type of the Christian redemption.

Suguro's struggle is, however, not mere Christianity in kimono clothing. Endō's personal experiences of loss in wartime and in the hospital add a further dimension of contemporaneity to his writings, making Suguro's story more than that of an individual's brush with religion. In his predicament—that of living on terms not of his own making—Suguro is not unlike many Japanese who lived during the war and survived its chaotic aftermath. His religious wrestling seems relevant because it is part of a larger battle to cope with all the unwanted “belongings” in his life. The equation of faith and marriage may not be a perfect one, but the acuteness of Suguro's pain is made the more immediate by the juxtaposition of the two situations. The success of “My Belongings” lies in Endō's ability to make his Christian concerns coherent and tangible for readers with no sympathies for that particular struggle.

“My Belongings” is one of several fine stories from the post hospital period which were collected into an anthology titled Aika (Elegies) in 1965. They represent the first step away from the uneasy pessimism of the early works and the first movement toward the redemptive vision of Silence and The Samurai. The manipulation of characters and the subjugation of psychological development to theme no longer plagues these stories. Endō is writing with assurance in this collection; he probes to the heart of a man's relationships both with his family and with his God. These stories are not essentially “religious,” however; they do not attempt to defend or expound some didactic creed. Rather they are stories of men who can relate to their God only to the degree that they can subdue the demands of their own egos and communicate some form of love to those around them.

It is this quality which distinguishes the best of Endō's literary works. A fictional reflection of this quality can be found in “Sono zenjitsu” (“The Day Before,” 1963; trans. 1984), in which Endō proposes a remarkable affinity between carnal and sacred, a resolution made possible only by profound compassion and forgiveness. As the quasi-autobiographical narrator lies in his hospital bed awaiting what may be fatal surgery, his mind forges a correlation between the fumie image of Christ and the mundane pornographic talisman left him by a bedraggled peddler:

Still vaguely in my mind were thoughts of the small, yellowedge photographs the peddler had brought in earlier. Just as the shadowy bodies of the man and woman moaned and embraced in those pictures, the face of the copperplate Christ and the flesh of men come into contact with one another. The two strangely resemble one another. This relationship is described in the book of catechisms that children study on Sunday afternoons with nuns in the rear gardens of churches that smell of boiling jam. For many years I scoffed at those catechisms. And yet, after some thirty years, this is the only thing I can say I have learned.

After [the priest] left, I snuggled down into my bed and waited for my wife to come. Occasionally the feeble sunlight shone into my room from between the grey clouds. Stream rose from a medicinal jar on an electric heater. There was a bump as something fell to the floor. I opened my eyes and looked down. It was the goodluck charm the peddler had given me. That tiny wooden doll, as grimy as life itself.

[pp. 79–80]

The harsh distinctions between dogma and everyday experience are obliterated in such a passage. The experience of pain or loss—in the hospital for Endō, rather than on the battlefield—in the neutral zone of human experience leads to a transcendent understanding of the essential unity of all things. By an act of compassion or forgiveness—similar but not equal to that of Christ—the weakest human figure can break free of the prison of ego and qualify for an admirable if not heroic status in Endō's literary paradise. The comparisons in “The Day Before” are stark, yet ultimately convincing. The sacrificed body of Christ is brought into proximity with the naked grappling flesh in the pornographic photos, while the fumie—a sacred image defiled by the footprints of apostates—is transmogrified into a worthless wooden doll soiled from the hands of a porn peddler. And yet the world of grimy reality is distinguished by its similarities to the spiritual realm. The church gardens populated by nuns are reflected in the hospital corridors trafficked by nurses. The smell of boiling jam is replicated in the medicinal jar atop the electric heater. And the priest—the mediator between God and man—is replaced by the colorful, endearing peddler who brings the narrator as much consolation in his agony as any religious figure could provide.

The short stories in the Elegies collection are in a sense vignettes, dessin-like sketches of the weak who must bear the burden of guilt and the throbbing of their consciences. …

As the Catholic playwright and critic Takadō Kaname notes:

The paradox in Endō's literature—that a weakling can become strong despite his weaknesses—can be realized in only one way: through a meeting between a weak Jesus and these feeble human beings.15

If human beings qualify for salvation because of their capacity to suffer with others, yet are nevertheless burdened with weaknesses, it is only logical that an image of Jesus be fashioned along similar lines. The most effective literary expression of this image since Silence may be found in the 1969 story, “Haha naru mono” (“Mothers”; trans. 1984). Here he discovers an image of a compassionate Christ (virtually synonymous with Mary) who observes all the acts of human endeavor with sad but maternally forgiving eyes. In this discovery, which is clearly a natural extension of the imagery in “My Belongings” and other stories from Elegies, Endō finds the unifying force he had sought.

Endō's ability to manipulate multilayered storylines—a rarity among modern Japanese novelists—is nowhere more evident than in “Mothers.” Past and present are intermeshed, reinforcing and commenting upon one another. There is a cinematic virtuosity to the story, with Endō softening, then sharpening his focus on images, dissolving from one visual image to another, and finally producing a unified montage of incredible power.

The central visual image which Endō employs in “Mothers” is the human face. A variety of faces in different aspects appear throughout the story. Some are stern or angry, and are depicted in sharp focus—much like the clear emphasis that was achieved in Silence through the use of first-person narrative voice. Other faces are indistinct, muted with sorrow or soft compassion. The interplay of these faces seems random at first, but by the end of the story Endō has brought the images together in a powerful conclusion.

The face which remains hidden but is constantly felt beneath the discourse in “Mothers” is, of course, the face of Jesus that figures so centrally in Silence. That face, as Rodrigues noted, is never described in the New Testament. It remains the responsibility of the believer to etch in the details of that face—just as it is the task of the reader of “Mothers” to refine the final sketch that concludes the work. That task is all the more intriguing because the story is related in the first person, producing a narrator whose face is never described. We are free to draw in our private impressions of his face, perhaps including even details of our own.

“Mothers” is narrated by a novelist who has written about the Christian era in Japanese history. But he is less interested in martyrs than in the kakure, the “hidden” Christians descended from those in the seventeenth century who were forced to renounce their faith publicly but continued to practice it in secret. The narrator, seeking some link between himself and the weaklings of that earlier period, travels to a small island near Nagasaki to examine traces of the underground religion, which is still practiced by a handful of individuals who have doggedly refused to be reconverted to traditional Christianity.

The first faces described belong to the men of a tiny island where the kakure practice their hidden faith. The narrator does not know when he first sees these men whether they belong to the kakure sect or not. All he knows is that

Their faces all looked the same. Their eyes seemed sunken, perhaps because of the protruding cheekbones; their faces were void of expression, as if they were afraid of something. In short, dishonesty and dread had joined together to mold the faces of these islanders. Perhaps I felt that way because of the preconceived notions I had about the island I was about to visit. Throughout the Edo period, the residents of the island had suffered through poverty, hard, grinding labor and religious persecution.16

We are alerted at the outset of the story that the blank landscapes of faces will be painted in with impressionistic, highly personal interpretations. The faces of the islanders are “void of expression,” and yet the narrator sees something fearful within that void. The lack of expression to him denotes dishonesty and dread. While that reaction cannot be refuted at this stage of the narrative, we are clearly being guided to this island by a man who has some of these feelings within himself, whether we can read it on his face or not.

Endō reinforces this image of the cowardly island face by comparing it with an animal—“I jabbed at some of the chickens [in the cages at my feet] with the tip of my shoe. A look of fear darted across their faces. They looked just like the men from the waiting-room, and I had to smile” (p. 230). We are thus programmed to expect characters to be introduced and defined by their facial features. This holds true for most of the figures who appear in the story, and it is therefore significant to encounter those who are described in a manner that seems to be scrupulously avoiding any mention of the face.

In fact, the leaders of the Catholic parish on the island seem to be faceless. This is not a question of anonymity; rather, it seems almost as if the narrator avoids looking them directly in the face. But there is also something stern and unyielding about their demeanors that forces concentration upon other aspects of their appearance. When the narrator is met at the island dock by a representative of the parish, we are given no portrait of his face. Instead, he is described as overly deferential, somewhat detached, and decidedly stalwart:

He bowed to me an embarrassing number of times, then tried to wrest my suitcase from my hands. No matter how often I refused, he would not let go of it. The palms that brushed against my hand were as solid and large as the root of a tree. They were not like the soft, damp hands of the Tokyo Christians that I knew so well.

I tried to walk beside him, but he stubbornly maintained a distance of one pace behind me. I remembered that he had called me “Sensei,” and I felt bewildered. If the church people persisted in addressing me in terms of respect, the locals might be put on their guard against me.

[p. 231]

The faces of the Catholic converts, like the young man who greets the narrator, emanate faith and courage. As he compares the cowardly faces of the kakure with the assured look on the young Catholic, however, the author feels that his own appearance most resembles the sunken faces of the kakure; he shares in their weaknesses.

Besides the carefully detailed faces of the weak apostates and the avoidance of facial description among the faithful, the story also introduces images of stern faces. The original Catholic martyrs of the seventeenth century, for instance, are portrayed in terms of their “relentless gaze” and their “accusing eyes” (p. 256) as they observe the traitorous acts of their descendants.

The face which figures most prominently in the story, however, is that of the narrator's mother. A variety of images of this woman are presented over the course of the story, and it is the transformation of that face which lends the work its greatest interest and distinction. Some of the narrator's mental recollections of his late mother have to do with her face, and the memories are consistently discomforting: her constricted face, for instance, as she intently practiced the violin in Dairen. But often some other aspect of her body is described, and the association with the unyielding faithful of the island is evident. The narrator's focus as he recalls her violin practicing quickly shifts from her face:

With the violin under her chin, her face is hard, stone-like, and her eyes are fixed on a single point in space as she seems to be trying to isolate that one true note somewhere in the void. Unable to find the elusive note, she heaves a sigh; her irritation mounts, and she continues to scrape the bow across the strings. The brownish callouses on her chin were familiar to me. They had formed when she was still a student at the music academy and had kept her violin tucked constantly under her chin. The tips of her fingers, too, were as hard to the touch as pebbles, the result of the many thousands of times she had pressed down on the strings in her quest for that one note.

[pp. 235–36]

The impressions here, like those read into the blank faces of the islanders, are primarily the interpretations of a young man overwhelmed and perhaps even intimidated by the fierce dedication of his mother. There is no overt indication that he has felt unloved or ignored because of her devotion to her music, but the unyielding tautness of her face and the hard, calloused fingers (recalling the firm hands of the island Catholic) certainly create the same sense of distance that the narrator feels from the deferential parishioners.

The connection between the dedicated mother and the devout Christians is made overt in the narrator's memories when his mother is converted to Catholicism. The same impassioned spirit that led her in a quest for the single true note now impels her in her search for the one true God; the fingers calloused from contact with the violin strings are never removed from the beads of her rosary. The description of her face as it existed in life is not elaborated any further: it has become rigid and unbending. Nor, perhaps, could the narrator bear to dwell upon it.

His apprehensions about his mother's face are, of course, related to the fact that, as a young man, he could never muster the same degree of inner strength she possessed. Little acts of betrayal smudge his own past, and each time he recalls a personal failing, he invariably sees his mother's face before him. The day his mother collapsed and died, he was at his friend's house sneaking a look at some photographs of a man and woman engaged in intercourse. The look on the woman's face in the pictures is one of pain. When the call comes informing him of his mother's collapse, he scurries home, only to arrive after she has died.

In the back room, my mother's body was surrounded by neighbors and people from the church, sitting with stooped shoulders. No one turned to look at me; no one spoke a word to me. I knew from the stiffness of their backs that they all were condemning me.

Mother's face was white as milk. A shadow of pain still lingered between her brows. Her expression reminded me of the look on the face of the woman in the photographs. Only then did I realize what I had done, and I wept.

[pp. 251–52]

There are many elements of interest in this passage. There is, first, the back room, which will be echoed at the end of the story in the rear chamber of the kakure chapel where the maternal icons are kept. There is the church community, ever supportive of the mother's religious devotion, ever critical—as their stiffened backs make clear to him—of her son's wavering interest in religion. It is a community that exists in all its particulars on the distant island, where the Catholic faithful turn cold backs on the agonies of the apostate kakure.

And then there is mother's face. Even in death it seems to retain some of the energy that motivated her life and intimidated her son. But, as in “The Day Before,” her spiritual quests are here merged with his carnal weaknesses in a scathing denunciation of his frailities and betrayals. This is the confrontation that brings the narrator into the middle ground, the purgatory where he must find some means to reconcile his fleshly weaknesses with the example of her spiritual strength.

Intimations that such a resolution is possible season the text. As the narrator is preparing to journey to the kakure village, he dreams of his mother, but the image that appears to him is undergoing some kind of transformation from the stern woman of his memories:

I dreamed of my mother. In my dream I had just been brought out of the operating room, and was sprawled out on my bed like a corpse. A rubber tube connected to an oxygen tank was thrust into my nostril, and intravenous needles pierced my right arm and leg, carrying blood from the transfusion bottles dangling over my bed.

Although I should have been half unconscious, through the languid weight of the anesthetic I recognized the gray shadow that held my hand. It was my mother. … I know little about psychoanalysis, so I have no idea exactly what this dream means. In it, I can not actually see my mother's face. Nor are her movements distinct.

So far as my memory serves me, I can recollect no experience in my youth when I lay ill in bed with my mother holding my hand. Normally the image of my mother that pops into mind is the figure of a woman who lived her life fervently.

[pp. 234–35]

The focus here is indistinct, the features of the face in transition. The narrator is beginning to venture beyond the realm of material experience as he commences the task of justification, hoping to resolve the conflicts between the dogmatic hardness of his mother's face and the spongy unreliability of his own moral code. That resolution must allow him to retain his love for his mother but to sense some compassion from her as well.

That compassion seems forthcoming as she clasps his hand at the bedside. Further promise is given when he makes a connection between this new image of his mother and the tiny statue of Mary that has passed into his hands from her estate:

I superimposed on her face that of a statue of “Mater Dolorosa,” the Holy Mother of Sorrows, which my mother used to own. … Once my mother was dead, I took those few precious things with me in a box every time I moved from one lodging-house to another. Eventually the strings on the violin snapped and cracks formed in the wood. The cover was torn off her prayer book. And the statue of Mary was burned in an air raid in the winter of 1945.

The sky was a stunning blue the morning after the air raid. Charred ruins stretched from Yotsuya to Shinjuku, and all around the embers were still smouldering. I crouched down in the remains of my apartment building in Yotsuya and picked through the ashes with a stick, pulling out broken bowls and a dictionary that had only a few unburned pages remaining. Eventually I struck something hard. I reached into the still warm ashes with my hand and pulled out the broken upper half of that statue. The plaster was badly scorched, and the plain face was even uglier than before. Today, with the passage of time the facial features have grown vaguer. After I was married, my wife once dropped the statue. I repaired it with glue, with the result that the expression on the face is all the more indistinct.

[p. 258]

Once again, as in so much of Endō's fiction, the moment of apotheosis combines personal experience, wartime destruction (and resurrection-like recovery), religious enlightenment, and the fusion of images that have lain in scattered chaos until this point in the narrative. It is worth noting that the resulting unity remains somewhat blurred, even hesitant. The face of the statue is as blank as the visages of the islanders that opened the story. The resolution that has come to the narrator is utterly private, and it remains for the individual reader to create a separate personal integration and interpretation of the images or to reject the notion of resolution altogether. But for this narrator, there are intimations that a compassionate understanding, if not forgiveness, of his weaknesses will become available as the dream image of his mother is superimposed with that of the Mother of Sorrows statue.

Yet there is still another layer of resolution awaiting this narrator as he visits the kakure. The painful memory of his mother's death, still fresh in his mind, enables him to forge links between himself and the kakure. They have much in common. He had rejected his mother but never truly abandoned his love for her; the kakure had rejected their Heavenly Father but never turned totally away from him. Because of his unfilial behavior, the boy was disdained by his friends and neighbors; for their acts of betrayal, the kakure must endure the mocking sternness of the strong believers on the island.

“Sometimes,” the author writes, “I catch a glimpse of myself in these kakure, people who have had to lead lives of duplicity, lying to the world and never revealing their true feelings to anyone” [p. 252]. The cowardice and shame written upon the sunken faces of the kakure are the same expressions that repeated acts of weakness, or surrender to the cries of the flesh, have etched upon this writer's visage. He is a modern kakure, a charter member in the society of shame. He is one too weak to lead a life of open devotion, one that the strong, stern parishioners would mock if they knew the weakness within his heart. The identification between the author and the kakure is a powerful comparison that gives form and substance to “Mothers.”

The writer, inwardly united with the hidden Christians, cannot help wondering what the consequences of their mutual cowardice might be. What path to salvation and forgiveness is available to those who cannot tread the highways to martyrdom and unwavering devotion? Is that road open solely to those who conquer their frailties and endure great hardships for the Church?

The self-appointed priest of the kakure, Kawahara Kikuichi, can never look anyone directly in the face. He too seems to harbor a secret shame that keeps him from direct association with those who claim to be strong. The prayers which they intone for the visiting “sensei” are supplications offered not to the stern Father, but words “of profound sorrow” that entreat the Holy Mother to intercede with God so that their frailties might be forgiven [pp. 255–56]. Driven by a concern more personal than scholarly, the author asks to be shown the image of Mary that the kakure have worshipped for so many generations. The image is concealed behind the Buddhist altar, to keep it from the eyes of the persecuting, mockingly strong officials.

A drawing of the Holy Mother cradling the Christ child—no, it was a picture of a farm woman holding a nursing baby. The robes worn by the child were a pale indigo, while the mother's kimono was painted a murky yellow. It was clear from the inept brushwork and composition that the picture had been painted many years before by one of the local kakure. The farm woman's kimono was open, exposing her breast. Her obi was knotted at the front, adding to the impression that she was dressed in the rustic apparel of a worker in the fields. The face was like that of every woman on the island. It was the face of a woman who gives suckle to her child even as she plows the fields and mends the fishing-nets. …

I could not take my eyes off that clumsily drawn face. These people had joined their gnarled hands together and offered up supplications for forgiveness to this portrait of a mother. Within me there welled up the feeling that their intent had been identical to mine. Many long years ago, missionaries had crossed the seas to bring the teachings of God the Father to this land. But when the missionaries had been expelled and the churches demolished, the Japanese kakure, over the space of many years, stripped away all those parts of the religion that they could not embrace, and the teachings of God the Father were gradually replaced by a yearning after a Mother—a yearning which lies at the heart of Japanese religion. I thought of my own mother. She stood again at my side, an ashen-colored shadow. She was not playing the violin or clutching her rosary now. Her hands were joined in front of her, and she stood gazing at me with a touch of sorrow in her eyes.

[pp. 263–64]

This scene is the climax of “Mothers.” Endō masterfully brings all the elements of his story together at this point. The novelist becomes one with the kakure; he is united with them by common weaknesses, and by an earnest desire to seek forgiveness. The stark images of his mother that have been a part of his memory since youth are superimposed over images of a stern, unforgivingly paternal God who has condemned the kakure for the fleshly cowardice that has led them to apostatize. In the end, however, it is not a harsh Father to whom the kakure turn in supplication. Their prayers for forgiveness are offered up to an image of a compassionate Mother who will intervene on their behalf. Unable to gaze directly into the blinding radiance that emanates from the Father, they avert their eyes toward the subdued warmth that comes from the holy Mother; she shields them from the full force of the light that illuminates all their shortcomings. Without her mercy, they would not be able to endure the presence of God. In the clumsily painted image of a peasant woman, the author recognizes the unfamiliar face he had seen in his dreams—the accepting, mournful mother, his own personal Mother of Sorrows that he had never known in his lifetime.

“Mothers” is a controlled juxtaposition of religious and secular yearnings—on the one hand, a search for forgiveness by weak individuals who have betrayed their God; on the other, a man's lifelong quest for a mother who can understand rather than condemn his many faults. If man cannot be persuaded from his weaknesses, then there must be salvation granted in spite of folly for those who earnestly seek it. This salvation comes from the “mothers” who can love and suffer alongside even the least worthy of God's creations. The story comes very close to providing its reader with an experience of catharsis—the narrator's final perception of acceptance, a very personal spiritual experience for him, is conveyed undiluted to the reader.

One man has found a path leading to salvation in “Mothers,” but the pain inherent in human contact, the damage individuals do to one another in their jostling for self-fulfillment or even salvation, the strivings of the ego, and the need to unite solitary grief with the sorrows of others—all these problems remain for this individual (be he this novelist or Rodrigues at the conclusion of Silence) to cope with. If he cannot share the compassion of which he has been a partaker, then his own salvation will have no meaning. Endō leaves this problem unresolved at the conclusion of “Mothers.” As Jirō and Nakamura—a parishioner and a local official who are both sturdy Christians—leave the kakure village, they mock the holy image they have just been shown.

“How ridiculous! Sensei, it must have been a terrible disappointment to have them show you something so stupid.” As we left the village, Jirō apologized to me over and over, as though he were personally responsible for the whole thing. Mr. Nakamura, who had picked up a tree branch along the way to use as a walking-stick, walked ahead of us in silence. His back was stiff. I couldn't imagine what he was thinking.

[p. 264]

The rigidity in Nakamura's back recalls the rejection that the narrator had to endure from the mourners assembled around the corpse of his mother. The weak, the traitors must cope with constant rejection—the rejection that Kichijirō, Rodrigues, and a host of other Endō characters continue to endure. Thus the separation that Endō has been struggling to overcome since the outset of his literary career remains. His characters tread a lonely path—they may indeed be “wonderful” in the eyes of their creator (and their Creator), but to others they will likely be regarded as “fools.”

It is, in fact, as “wonderful fools” that many of Endō's most endearing characters appear in his popular literature. To the extent that these figures are extensions of Endō's fundamental belief in the superior value of compassion over worldly attainments, there is really little distinction between his serious and his popular fiction. Endō searches out the philosophical depths of his themes in his serious novels, then gives them rich human embodiment in his works aimed at a wider reading audience. Characters like Gaston of Obakasan (Wonderful Fool, 1959; trans. 1973), Mitsu in Watashi ga suteta onna (The Girl I Left Behind, 1963), and Flatfish and Ozu of When I Whistle are individuals who care, who devote their lives to sharing in the sufferings of others, doing what they can—no matter how trivial in the eyes of the world—to help even the most wretched of human beings endure their trials. That is why the popular novels are populated with murderers, thieves, abortionists, lepers, and social dropouts; they are the counterparts of the apostate priests, the weak-willed martyrs, and the ugly, pathetic “bastards” who fill the pages of the religious works.

Weaving their uncertain way among these calloused, uncaring figures are the “hidden” saints—those who are failures in the eyes of society but unqualified successes in the areas that really count for Endō: in the expressions of tenderness and concern for the pain of others. These characters are human reflections of the maternal Jesus whom Endō has described in his historical novels. The popular fictions, in fact, are best examined as inversions of the serious works. The process of salvation in Endō's entertainment novels is a mirror opposite of what transpires in Silence or Elegies. In the religious works, a self-assured, essentially self-justified individual—one who already regards himself worthy of paradise—must be thrust into the inferno (occasionally a literal pit, as Rodrigues learns) in order to confront his own weaknesses and thereby accept the intercessory mercies of Jesus. These works chronicle the transformation of a self-proclaimed saint into a true, humbled believer. The crucifixion of ego and an infusion of compassion are the sole requirements for salvation in the central purgatory through which these characters pass. …

Reared in a family broken and divided, separated from his friends by an unfamiliar religion, torn from his youth by a world war, and almost wrenched away from life itself by frequent battles with disease, Endō turned for his salvation to a literature of moral idealism. By exalting and promoting standards of behavior which he sees as the only hope for meaningful interaction between one intrinsically selfish human being and another, Endō has sought to atone for all the loss and separation and weakness in his life and to bring a message of healing compassion to his readers. In the finest sense of moral fiction, he has been successful.


  1. A subjective view, no doubt, but one confirmed by my reading of Endō's work and my experience as a missionary in Japan in 1970–1971. In a survey of Japanese religious attitudes conducted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the following conclusion is drawn: “The status of Christianity in Japan is remarkably similar to that of Marxism. Both have been taken up to a certain extent, particularly among intellectuals, but most people find it difficult to relate to either one. Both are held at arms' length by the establishment.” See Japanese Religion: A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, pp. 72–73.

  2. Endō, “Watakushi no Hizakurige,” p. 1.

  3. Fujitsuna Ryōzō suggests in “Rettōsei no tensai” that Endō has overemphasized his own failures; see the fifth monthly bulletin in the first volume of the Endō Shūsaku bungaku zenshū, pp. 4–6.

  4. Endō, “Iya na yatsu,” Zenshū, 3:199–200; my trans. from Stained Glass Elegies: Stories by Shusaku Endo, trans. Van C. Gessel, pp. 41–42. Further page references to the translations in Stained Glass Elegies are given in the text.

  5. Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation, p. 65.

  6. From “Sono zenjitsu” (1963), Zenshū, 4:49.

  7. The “wall” image is used extensively in Endō's 1965 novel Ryūgaku; text in the fifth volume of the Zenshū.

  8. Endō, “Ihōjin no kunō,” Bessatsu Shimpyō: Endō Shūsaku no sekai (Winter 1973), 6:57.

  9. Saeki Shōichi, “‘Kanashii me’ no sōzōryoku,” pp. 58–59.

  10. A peculiar name which Endō has used for his protagonists in The Sea and Poison, several short stories, and Scandal (1986).

  11. Endō, “Watakushi no mono,” Zenshū, 4:205–6.

  12. Nagao is clearly modeled after Shimao Toshio, Mita after Miura Shumon.

  13. Endō, “Watakushi no mono,” Zenshū, 4:220.

  14. Ibid., p. 221.

  15. Takadō Kaname, “Endō Shūsaku ni okeru jakusha no ronri,” Kokubungaku Kaishaku to Kanshō (June 1975), 50:82.

  16. Endō, “Haha naru mono,” Zenshū, 6:230; my trans., modified from Gessel, Stained Glass Elegies, p. 108. Further page references to the Zenshū are given in the text.

Further Reading

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Billington, Rachel. “A Long Way from Tokyo.” New York Times (6 May 1990): 34.

Review of Foreign Studies in which Billington discusses central themes in Endo's fiction.

Endo, Shusaku with Kazumi Yamagata. “Mr. Shusaku Endo Talks about His Life and Works as a Catholic Writer.” Chesterton Review 12, No. 4 (November 1986): 493–506.

Interview with Endo by Professor Yamagata, a Japanese literary critic.

A review of The Final Martyrs, by Shusaku Endo. Kirkus Reviews 62, No. 13 (1 July 1994): 865.

Discusses central thematic concerns and autobiographical elements of Endo's stories.

Mellors, John. A review of Stained Glass Elegies, by Shusaku Endo. Listener 113, No. 2891 (10 January 1985): 24.

Brief review of Stained Glass Elegies focusing on themes of religion and physical pain.

Olson, Ray. A review of Stained Glass Elegies, by Shusaku Endo. Booklist 81, No. 17 (1 May 1985): 1236.

Review of Stained Glass Elegiesin which Olson discusses themes of grace and redemption.

Raksin, Alex. A review of Stained Glass Elegies, by Shusaku Endo. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 August 1987): 14.

Review of Stained Glass Elegiesfocusing on the “moral message” of Endo's fiction.

Swain, David L. “The Anguish of an Alien: Confessions of a Japanese Christian.” The Christian Century 112, No. 34 (22 November 1995): 1120.

Discussion of The Final Martyrsand Endo's novel Deep River in terms of “devotion to faith.”

Additional coverage of Endo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29–32R, 153; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 54; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 14, 19, 54, 99; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; and Reference Guide to World Literature.

Marleigh Grayer Ryan (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Foreign Studies, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 196–97.

[In the following review, Ryan discusses Endo's treatment of the experiences of Japanese in Europe as a means of expressing broader concerns about the human condition.]

In three tragic stories of varying size and dimension [in Foreign Studies] Shusaku Endo conveys with striking intensity the experience of the Japanese in Europe. It is clear from his introductory remarks that Endo is drawing on the memory of his own life in France, a life that must have been filled with profound psychological and physical pain.

In the first selection [“A Summer in Rouen”] a young Japanese has used his protestations of Catholicism to gain a summer abroad in Rouen just after World War II. He finds himself living with a devout bourgeois family which tries to use him to replace a deceased son once destined to go to Japan to convert the people. They are painfully ignorant of Japan, and their visitor is helpless to disabuse them of their false notions because of the weakness of his French and the reticence of his personality.

The second story relates with detachment the limited information known of one Araki Thomas, a seventeenth-century Japanese who studied Catholicism in Rome only to apostacize the faith upon returning to Japan. Araki appears to have been in Rome while Japanese leaders shifted to a virulent rejection of Christianity and was unable to withstand the tortures to which he was subjected upon his return. In recanting his faith he betrays those loyal to it, fellow Japanese and fellow Christians on whom the most terrible punishments were inflicted.

The third and by far the most sizable piece [“And You, Too”] is a deeply revealing tale of a young French literature specialist from Japan who arrives in Paris to study the Marquis de Sade. The protagonist moves from an observer of the decadence and corruption characterizing Japanese abroad to one who shares that fate. We are presented with an overwhelming portrayal of desperate loneliness and profound cultural disjunction. Sade's legendary decadence forms the backdrop against which the young Japanese students act out their lives.

The three pieces taken together constitute a strong statement of the abyss that separates the Japanese mind and sensibility from the West. Endo is as critical of the Japanese players as he is of the Westerners. He sees the foolishness and stupidity of Japanese life with the same clarity with which he views the vanity and superficiality of the West. By juxtaposing the two worlds against each other in these three quite different settings, he leads us to the most serious questions about the human condition.

John B. Breslin (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Pilgrim Between Two Worlds,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 18, May 6, 1990, p. 8.

[In the following review of Endo's Foreign Studies, Breslin discusses the theme of culture clash between Japan and the West.]

I had just finished teaching Shusaku Endo's novel Silence in an undergraduate course on Catholic fiction when Foreign Studies arrived for review. As always, Silence provoked a variety of responses among the students who found its hero, the 16th-century Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues, alternately an arrogant Westerner intent on winning glory as a missionary or martyr, and a sympathetic victim of a cruel religious persecution and a culture he little understood. In the end, Rodrigues accepted the judgment that Christianity could not flourish in the “mud-swamp” of Japan—a judgment enunciated by his canny inquisitor, Inoue, but clearly shared by the novel's author.

Foreign Studies was originally published in Japan in 1965, a couple of years before Silence. In his preface to this translation, the first in English, Endo describes “And You, Too,” the third and by far longest of the stories that make up this book, as “a prelude to Silence.” What he means is that his own experience as a foreign student in France after the war, the germ of that story, convinced him that East and West could never really understand one another on the deep level of “culture,” only on the relatively superficial level of “civilization.” Rodrigues, then, became a European mirror image of the unhappy Tanaka, the alienated Japanese student in Paris who attempts to insinuate himself into the French world of thought and feeling by studying the life and works of the Marquis de Sade. Cruelty in theory for the Japanese student, cruelty in practice for the Portuguese missionary. A nice symmetry.

Curiously, however, there are even stronger parallels with Silence, unmentioned by Endo, in the two brief curtain-raisers that introduce “And You, Too.” In both instances young Japanese Christians, one a seminarian, find themselves uncomfortably welcome in Europe as exotic specimens of the success of the church's missionary efforts. As such they feel constantly under pressure to live up to their status and beyond their personal convictions. Indeed the 17th-century seminarian, Araki Thomas, is confidently expected by his hosts to return to Japan to become a martyr; he becomes an apostate instead. His counterpart, Kudo, comes to Europe three centuries later, like Endo, right after the war, but encounters the same overestimation. It is summer in Rouen, and the oppressive heat Kudo suffers from reflects the naive passion of his hosts for the conversion of his country. Unable to master enough French to explain the subtleties of Japanese culture to these self-confident French Catholics, Kudo silences his objections and accepts his uneasy situation.

In “And You, Too” Tanaka has no such theological problems to deal with in Paris in the mid-1960s. His are entirely cultural and psychological. But the underlying dilemma of cultural incomprehension remains, heightened for him by doubts about the value of his profession as a student of foreign literature and about his status in his own university in Japan. Early in the story, Tanaka engages in a heated exchange with his fellow Japanese expatriates. Mocked by a mediocre novelist for being a detached critic rather than an engaged artist, Tanaka responds: “The world is full of writers, but the only time they justify their existence is when they create a masterpiece.” If that weren't provocative enough, he confirms his countrymen's deepest suspicions when he awards the palm to French writers and critics as unquestionably superior to the Japanese. And all this on his first night in Paris.

Shunned and shunning, Tanaka becomes ever more isolated in his attempt to penetrate French culture through the writings of Sade. His one Japanese friend, the failed architecture student Sakisaka, takes him to his favorite museum filled with skillful reproductions of cathedral statuary arranged in chronological order. Sakisaka is ill and knows he will have to return to Japan an apparent failure, but he wants Tanaka to be drawn into what he has experienced in this “insignificant little museum”—“the great flow of European history spanning all those centuries.” In ominous words, he spells out for Tanaka the cost of such discipleship: “In order to enter that great flow, we foreign students have to pay some sort of price. I've paid for it with my health.”

After Sakisaka leaves Paris, Tanaka occasionally returns to the museum, but his special shrine becomes Sade's ruined castle at LaCoste and other sites connected with the master. At each of these, Tanaka feels moved to a kind of giddy sexual ecstasy which he promptly subdues but recognizes as “the most real” part of himself. Near the end of the story, as he becomes aware that he, too, is ill, Tanaka climbs through the snow to the ruins of LaCoste: “Like a blind man groping in the dark, Tanaka passed his frozen hands over the remains of the walls and windows. He just wanted to touch and squeeze his lips against something that still retained a hint of the fragrance of Sade.” He then notices a spot of red on the wall and recognizes it as blood, but of a vividness that calls up the “lips of someone sated with pleasure”—Sade or one of his victims.

But the blood does not long remain merely a sexual symbol. As Tanaka descends the hill he begins to spit up blood on the white snow. Art and life meet here in a disconcerting symbiosis, and the initial sexual identification with Sade turns pathological. Tanaka has paid the same price as Sakisaka and must now face the similar disgrace of returning to Japan with his work incomplete.

Writing a quarter century later Endo admits in his introduction that he now views his former self as “a pitiful younger brother,” who did not fully appreciate that “at the unconscious level” East and West have much in common. This seems to imply that, even deeper than “culture,” there exists a human dynamic that unites individuals; but, Endo suggests, it is as often demonic as celestial. Tanaka's shadow-figure here is Sade, just as, in Endo's most recently translated novel, Scandal, it is a perverse doppelganger who haunts a popular contemporary Japanese novelist. Endo has moved inwards in his quest for the line that divides good and evil, but the awareness of the struggle remains the same. History helps us to localize the conflict, but it deceptively suggests that the forces of evil may be precisely identified. Not so, Endo insists, and offers again and again his own fictionalized story as proof.

Scott Baldauf (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Between Two Cultures,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 82, No. 169, July 27, 1990, p. 13.

[In the following review of Foreign Studies, Baldauf discusses Endo's focus on the persecution of Christians in Japan.]

When Portuguese missionaries landed in Japan in 1549, they proclaimed the Japanese to be the most spiritual race in Asia. Peasants and noblemen converted by the hundreds of thousands.

Fearing a loss of sovereignty, Japanese warlords booted the Portuguese out in 1614, and Japanese converts were forced to recant or face torture and death. Until the arrival of Admiral Matthew Calbraith Perry's warships some 240 years later, Japan's doors were shut to the white man. Some would argue that the doors remain shut today.

The persecution of Japanese Christians has been fertile subject matter for novelists, but perhaps no one addresses it better than Shusaku Endo.

Converting to Roman Catholicism after his parents' divorce, Endo soon realized that by worshipping an “alien” god, he had ripped himself out of the fabric of Japanese society. And as the initial euphoria of conversion wore off, Endo discovered that Europeans themselves fail to practice many of the teachings he valued most in Christianity. Little wonder that many of Endo's fictional characters struggle with a dual identity, Asian and Western.

The best of Endo's novels, including the chilling Silence and The Samurai are plot-driven, semi-historical fiction, and Japanese readers have consumed them like rice cakes. The stories retain their verve and directness, even in translation. Writing mainly for a non-Christian Japanese audience, Endo steers away from preaching. He describes such religious symbols as crucifixes or church-top gargoyles through Japanese eyes. The effect can be starling.

An early book, Foreign Studies (1965) has only recently found an English translator. It is composed of three separate narratives in France and Italy from the early 1600s to today.

In the first story, Kudo, a Japanese seminarian in France during the 1950s struggles against the cultural arrogance of his well-meaning host family as he enters the Roman Catholic priesthood. Endo then shows us Araki Thomas, a Japanese priest fully 300 years before, dispirited because Rome is more interested in him as a future missionary than as a recent convert. The third and most-developed story follows Tanaka, a timorous lecturer in French literature who travels to Paris in the 1960s to do research on the Marquis de Sade.

Each character suffers from an isolation that goes beyond homesickness. And because the Japanese value not showing emotion or weakness, their Western acquaintances assume that all is well.

Endo presents the West in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, as exploiting Japanese respect for authority. Obligations to the church merely replace the obligation they once felt to family and country. Defeated while their faith is still uncertain, Endo's Japanese grudgingly admit that Christianity is unsuited to their culture.

But he makes his readers wonder if Western culture has learned much from the religion it preaches. After all, the Europe that embraced Christ also toyed with the ideas of the Marquis de Sade.

And that leads us to Tanaka, a bumblingly shy man who lacks popularity even with his fellow Japanese in Paris. Many post-war French intellectuals like Simone DeBeauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre saw parallels between fascism and the unabashed evil of the Marquis, and Tanaka thought he could enhance his position at his university in Japan by becoming a Sade specialist. Although lacking Sade's assertiveness to act, he shares Sade's emotional depravity.

Endo has disavowed the pessimism of Foreign Studies, but by releasing it to the West some 25 years after its Japanese debut, he clearly felt the novel could help us understand those who are torn between their own and a Western identity. And he's right. The points it makes are valid and harrowing, and beautifully developed.

Jeffery Renard Allen (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Foreign Studies, in Christian Century, Vol. 107, No. 30, October 24, 1990, pp. 973–74.

[In the following review of Foreign Studies, Allen discusses the alienation felt by Japanese intellectuals in the West, concluding that Endo's “true subject” is “the mystery of identity.”]

The clash of cultures is an old theme of universal relevance. Shusaku Endo is a Japanese Roman Catholic who writes about the social and cultural distances between the East and the West. [Foreign Studies] is a collection of three stories first published in Japan in 1965 and now translated by Mark Williams. All three stories concern Japanese intellectuals who experience alienation in the West—a very personal theme for Endo, who studied for several years in Lyon, France.

In the first story, “A Summer in Rouen,” a young Japanese student named Kudo is invited to stay with a devout Roman Catholic family in the provincial town. It is soon after the war and Kudo is forced to endure the family's ethnic misconceptions as well as their attempts to mold him into a good Catholic. The story concludes with his almost unbearable feelings of alienation.

The second story ends on a similarly pessimistic note. Narrated in a journalistic style, the story is a speculative biography of a real figure from Japanese history, Araki Thomas, who studies for the priesthood in 17th-century Rome. Angered at the West's attempt to introduce Christianity to Japan by any means, the emperor starts persecuting Christians. Thomas's contact with the West makes him a marked man, though it gains him an almost saintly status with Japanese Christians. Thomas finds himself burdened by a devotion to his faith. He returns home and is eventually executed.

The final story, “And You, Too,” is the longest and most substantial look at the burden of Western culture. Tanaka, a timid Japanese scholar of French literature, comes to Paris in the mid—'60s to research the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. Where Kudo and Thomas had problems understanding Western notions of virtue, Tanaka has equal problems understanding Western ideas of sin. His inability to decipher Sade is symbolic of an overall failure to penetrate the heart of European beliefs, customs and practices.

Whereas another of Endo's books, Silence, suggests the possibility of genuine understanding between East and West, this book offers no such vision. But the failure is part of a larger failure, expressing the workings of Endo's true subject: the mystery of identity. If Endo's characters are alienated from the West, they are equally alienated from themselves. Given the dark recesses of the soul, we are all foreigners.

Elizabeth Beverly (review date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Tyranny of Our Incarnation,” in Commonweal, Vol. 117, No. 20, November 23, 1990, pp. 700–02.

[In the following review, Beverly discusses the theme of moral struggle in Endo's Foreign Studies.]

Consider this book [Foreign Studies]. The author calls it a novel even though it consists of one twenty-five-page-long, perfectly realized short story, one swift historical account in twelve pages, and a long (one-hundred-seventy-nine page) narrative that is primarily novelistic in impulse. The book was written in the mid-sixties, in Japanese; finally, in 1989, the English translation appeared. In the preface, the author likens his former authorial self, the one who penned this novel, to “a pitiful younger brother.” And the author is Shusaku Endo, the ardent and prolific Japanese Catholic whose most recently written novel Scandal concerns the subject of sexual perversion in contemporary Japan, whose masterwork Silence explores the apostasy of a seventeenth-century Portuguese missionary, and whose Life of Jesus derives its warmth from a consideration of the mother-like qualities of Christ.

Consider the plight of the reviewer who in a short space is asked to bring the book to life for you. Should I tell you what it feels like to read Foreign Studies? Tell you that the experience is rather like setting off on a somewhat brisk but steady trek with an acquaintance whose personal habits are both rigorous and ascetic, someone who expects you to trust him every step of the way? The terrain is somewhat rocky, unfamiliar, so you do, and just as you think that your footing is sure, Endo stops and says, “Look!” Naturally you look up, expecting to see some grand vista or unsuspecting animal. But Endo directs your eyes downward, to a spot not far from your own feet where flourishes a startling patch of language and thought, at once familiar but bizarre, and therefore oddly beautiful:

In the winter evening light (Tanaka) could make out a couple of grooves like railway lines, which had apparently been created by the wheels of passing traffic. He had never seen such a road in Tokyo. He was convinced that no such road existed in Japan. He had never before experienced such a road, tinged as it was with the smell of human habitation and the sweaty odor of human feet. If it had been possible, he would have liked to dig up this road … and take it home with him. And had he not felt so inhibited, he would even have liked to run his tongue over it.

Within this patch of language from “And You, Too,” the third section of Foreign Studies, and within Endo's insistence that we linger with him over such a spot, lies his challenge to us as readers: we must read with the same awareness of the need for the conscious, moral life which preoccupies Endo as he writes. Our primary task is not to be distracted by twists in plot or the development of the protagonist, typical novelistic endeavors. Our job is to bear witness to the predicament of a particular person in a particular situation. In this instance, the person is Tanaka, an assistant professor of literary studies who has come to France to continue his research on the Marquis de Sade. And at this instant, a surge of bodily longing has caught Tanaka totally and uncharacteristically off-guard.

Tanaka is a worrier; he frets over his advancement, he plans his strategies for research. He's fussy and judgmental, disheartened by the dreariness of Paris, unwilling to be embarrassed by Japanese who haven't “made it” in the expatriate life. In the midsixties enough Japanese have thrived in Europe in the two decades since the Second World War to create a known community. But Tanaka cares nothing for them. He sees Paris as a necessary way-station on the path to academic success in his homeland. He's convinced that he studies Sade only to offer an eighteenth-century European commodity.

But as Tanaka worries his way through this long narrative, we see that the remarkable combination of self-absorption and alienation from deeper feelings of sympathy for self and others renders Tanaka oddly reminiscent of Sade, not in his monstrousness, but in the mindlessness that allows monstrousness to take root and grow. Estranged from himself and from those impulses that serve to sweeten life (Tanaka focuses periodically on the snapshot of his baby son), he literally errs, strays from the community that might help him.

But for the Endo who wrote Foreign Studies, the plight of the “stranger” is to be estranged. The collision of culture with culture, of the lone Easterner with the historically dense West, promises a suffering that enters the body itself. The three protagonists: Kudo, a fifties' student who finds his housing with a devout Catholic family in “A Summer in Rouen” to be an invitation for shame; “Araki Thomas,” the first Japanese student to study in Europe in the seventeenth century and return to a homeland in which the banning of Catholicism now requires of him either martyrdom or apostasy; as well as Tanaka in “And You, Too,” all find that one's true spirit may be alienated from one's body as long as there are others to please or to satisfy, as long as appearances must be kept up, as long as one must hide oneself.

But for some, the body in its sorrow and aloneness can no longer lie, and asks the spirit to join it. This is the mystery of physical suffering, and the gift for a character such as Tanaka is his inability to transcend his suffering body; he must claim it, know it, feel it, and in this way must begin to intuit his common tie with the imprisoned Sade, his own dark brother. Time and cultural difference may separate, but lone suffering brings together. When Tanaka feels his body thrill to the scent of a well-traveled road, we suspect that only the surprise of the embodied life can save him, but we don't necessarily suspect that his salvation will reside in an almost predictable sickness. Still, Endo closes his narrative before he allows any salvation to mar the studied cynicism of the text.

Although Endo's conscious intention in this novel is to elaborate the agony and risk of cultural conflict in which the “other” is devalued by the ascendant culture, his profound achievement is in his portrayal of what could be called the tyranny of our incarnation. That we must be born into one body, in one place, at one time, seems to determine our lot. We yearn to reach each other across these baffling distances, and cannot reach even ourselves. Foreign Studies provides a wise and compelling exploration of the problem, but Endo does not bother with hope.

Ironically, Endo, in his striking ability to bring his Japanese characters so fully to our lives, undercuts his own pessimism. If you choose to follow him, you will discover that the pleasure of reading lies not in finding out “what happens to whom,” but rests in the simple act of accompanying another person, letting your pace imitate his pace, slowly matching your breathing to his, feeling his sense of the trek enter you, so that your mind can fill with the questions, with the disturbances, with the affections, with the life that floods his sight as he guides you. Endo is a rare novelist, a determined thinker who quite simply ranges over territory no one else even knows is there.

For this reason it would be wise to give yourself the chance to consider this book.

Paul Binding (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Sad in Japan,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 250, April 30, 1993, p. 44.

[In the review below, Binding explores Endo's attraction to Catholicism and the autobiographical elements in the collection The Final Martyrs.]

“Dogs and little birds still appear frequently in my fiction,” says the novelist-narrator of the story “Shadows” [in The Final Martyrs], “but they are no mere decorations … Even today, the moist grieving eyes of dogs somehow remind me of the eyes of Christ. This Christ I speak of is, of course, not the Christ filled with assurance of his own way of life. It is the weary Christ, trampled upon by men and looking up at them from beneath their feet.”

These lines are of Endo's very essence; the attraction, in a Japanese middle-class milieu, to the Catholic Christianity bequeathed by his mother is precisely in its moral and spiritual elevation of the confused, the downtrodden, the insulted and the injured. And in its forgiving inclusion of the errant.

The Church was founded by one who betrayed his master; Japanese Catholicism was kept alive in secret by those who, converted by Portuguese or French missionaries, had capitulated out of cowardice to the cruelties of the authorities and apostates. In the title story, the large elephant-like protagonist who so easily becomes terrified in the face of trouble is almost given dispensation for his weakness. Christ, it's suggested, will be made happy merely by the times (before he runs away again) when he keeps company with his fellow-believers. It is not difficult for a non-Japanese to appreciate how, against the cultures first of Tojo and the war lords and then of Japan's postwar “miracle”, such aspects of Christianity would have their appeal.

In an interesting preface, Endo explains that he writes short stories to familiarise himself with the material he will turn into novels. Certainly each of the stories in this wonderful volume has something of a novel's richness and discursiveness. Readers will see openings to one novel or another throughout the book. Endo is a writer who works very much from his experimental grammar of metaphors. The Catholic priest in a non-Catholic society; “colonial” childhood in Manchuria; the unease of the graduate in the immediate postwar years; the appalling paraphernalia of illness; the contemporary writer trying to establish the moisture of spiritual life in an arid materialist society—all these predicaments are to be found here.

Endo is unflinchingly autobiographical. The moving “A Sixty-Year-Old Man,” for instance, was written when the author had turned 60 himself, extending his so ample charity even to his own ageing self as he records his pathetic hankerings after young girls witnessed in bars or parks.

Three stories in particular seem strong and generously worked in precisely the same way as his novels. “Lies,” from Endo's Manchurian boyhood, deals with the long-term significance of interactions with those seemingly on the margins of our lives. “The Last Supper” and “The Box” present the unmanageable anguish consequent on certain compulsory immersions in the violent events of contemporary history.

The main characters here have had their whole beings defiled by the moral anarchy unleashed by war (in Burma and in mainland Japan in the second world war's last stages). It is Endo's triumph that his sense of the totalitarian power of suffering does not dimish his insights into quotidian, late 20th-century urban life—and vice versa.

Karl Schoenberger (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: “A Voice of Moral Reasoning,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 38, September 18, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Schoenberger discusses moral struggle and Christian charity in Endo's The Final Martyrs.]

In a country where the conservative Establishment remains unapologetic about the stain of naked aggression during World War II, and where a ranking cabinet minister recently denied the veracity of the Nanking Massacre, Shusaku Endo stands out as a lonely voice in a wasteland of moral reasoning. This Roman Catholic writer, often described as Japan's Graham Greene, has been struggling with the slippery themes of right and wrong, defiance and cowardice, martyrdom and apostasy since his country emerged, psychically burned and morally bewildered, from the debacle of war.

His fiction may not translate with the brilliance of a twisted artist such as Yukio Mishima. But Endo is one of the rare living Japanese intellectuals who truly grasps the absolute moral values that the Western World has enshrined—and betrayed—for two millennia, and which the colicky collective consciousness of Japanese society has only partially digested over the last 150 years.

Endo's journey through Japan's postwar spiritual malaise is reflected darkly in The Final Martyrs, a collection of short stories originally published between 1959 and 1985, now available in translation for American readers in an edition brought out by New Directions. The reader should be warned, however: these are not short pieces of fiction in the conventional sense. Endo is less concerned with entertainment value than with his message.

Indeed, these are not short stories at all, but rather character sketches and rambling essays in the confessional zuihitsu style, a stilted genre that is unfortunately far too prevalent in contemporary Japanese literature. Copiously detailed footnotes grace one of these stories, apparently part of the original text. It should be noted that Endo made his mark as a man of letters in the genre of historical fiction. It pays to be patient with his dull, gray sincerity.

Endo's emblematic work is the 1966 novel Silence (Chinmoku), which is perhaps his answer to Greene's The Power and the Glory, exploring the psychological horror of the persecution of Christian martyrs in 17th-Century Japan. In this novel, Endo introduces his most powerful metaphor: the “swamp” of Japan, which consumes and obliterates the alien ideal that an individual has a right to stand against the crowd with a politically unpopular conviction.

The novel's theme was foreshadowed in the title story of this collection, “The Final Martyrs,” first published in 1959. It describes the ruthless persecution of the supposedly liberated “hidden Christians” in Southern Japan, who practiced their faith in secret during the 250 years that Christianity was outlawed by feudal authorities. The story is set in the small village of Nakano, near Nagasaki, in the early Meiji era, when the new oligarchic regime felt the same urge to suppress dangerous thoughts.

Significantly, Endo suggests a continuity of social management from feudal barbarism to modern thought control, which persisted through the ugly war years and, I would argue, is alive and well beneath contemporary Japan's veneer of liberal democracy.

Endo uses the final martyrs to show how difficult it is to embrace an absolute moral truth in the swamp of Japan. The villagers mix and muddle the absolute values of faith and devotion to Christ with the traditional, diffuse loyalties to the social group. The village ethos is clearly grafted onto the remnants of the Christian ethic, transmitted clandestinely over the generations.

A mentally disabled lad, Kisuke, is the prop demonstrating this cultural confusion. The village idiot is at first ridiculed and ostracized by his peers in the youth organization because he is mentally weak and cowardly, in a classic example of group bullying. “He has a weakness for pain, after all, and so I imagine he'd whimper in agony. Why, maybe he might even abandon the Lord Jesus and topple,” says one of Kisuke's detractors.

But in the end Kisuke finds a reserve of courage, and he is shown true mercy by one of the final martyrs, as both face torture and death.

The last story in the collection, “The Box” (1985), is a musing essay that weaves in and out of a another parable of Christian charity. We hear a doddering Endo wonder whether talking to the plants in his study will help them grow, as he recounts the tale of an old box of pictures and postcards he once bought in the resort town of Karuizawa. The contents of the box take him on a trail of intrigue, espionage and betrayal, all involving a half-Japanese foreign woman who was harassed by the thought police in wartime Japan.

“A dark, gloomy, at times even dismal atmosphere hung over Karuizawa during the war,” Endo writes. “Foreigners of various nations, on the pretext they were being evacuated from military targets, were assembled here, and while on the surface they led normal lives, in reality they were under surveillance by the Japanese secret police and military police.”

Endo's didactic technique, a blend of first-person narrative with anecdotal fiction, is tolerable because his own voice is restrained and understated. The writer is not pompous, preaching from a pulpit high above his frail characters but a humble guide to the moral conundrum of his people.

“Over the years,” Endo writes in the preface to the English edition, “I have forged intimate familial ties with [my] characters, who are a reflection and a portion of myself.”

Francis J. Bosha (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Final Martyrs, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, p. 712.

[In the below review, Bosha discusses Endo's attempts to reconcile his Japanese and Catholic identities in The Final Martyrs.]

The Final Martyrs is Shusaku Endo's second collection of stories to be translated into English by the capable Van C. Gessel. This new book provides the reader with a fresh opportunity to reassess the work of the now 71-year-old writer whom some have dubbed “the Japanese Graham Greene.”

The title story, which is the collection's earliest, dates back to 1959. Set early in the Meiji era in Uragami, near Nagasaki, and concerned with the government persecution of Japanese Christians, it is the book's only piece of historical fiction.

Endo provides graphic depiction of the dodoi torture the Japanese Christians endured, in which they were hoisted upon a cross and beaten while “their arms and legs, throat and chest were bound with ropes, which were all knotted together in one spot behind their backs.” Endo's focus in this story is not on the few resolute martyrs who refuse to denounce their faith, but rather on one character whose clumsiness and cowardice repeatedly get him into trouble. His ultimate inability to face martyrdom as his friends do, though he gamely tries and fails, seems to be Endo's way of suggesting that he acts no worse than any of us might have in similar circumstances.

In his preface to this edition Endo writes that his characters in these stories “must be living in some form or other in the longer works.” This is certainly the case in “Shadows” (1968), one of his many semi-autobiographical pieces, which takes as its form a long, unmailed letter written to a Catholic missionary priest, and which is reminiscent of Endo's 1956 novel, Yellow Man, in which a student writes a long letter to a French missionary. In “Shadows” the priest is Spanish and has left the priesthood, married and fathered a child. The narrator's disappointment with this man who played a formative if not always favorable role in his youth, and in the life of his divorced mother, is all the more affecting when Endo sums up the concept of influence: “We never realize what sort of marks we leave upon the lives of others … [which is] just as the wind twists the shape of a pine tree planted on a sandy beach. …”

Endo also includes in this collection two examples of what seems to have become virtually a once-a-decade practice: “A Fifty-year-old Man” (1976) and “A Sixty-year-old Man” (1983). “A Forty-year-old Man” (1964), in fact, appeared in his first collection of stories, and one can well imagine what Endo is working on now that he has turned 70. In both stories, the 50- and 60-year-old protagonists may have different names but both are burdened by similar middle-aged ennui and the bittersweet ruminations on growing older and approaching death. They also share a curious sexual fetish: the love of the scent of a woman.

In the younger character's case, he enjoys taking dancing lessons as a way to “tone up his legs,” or so he tells his wife. What he enjoys more is holding his 19-year-old dance partner, Mimi-chan, so that he can “savor the smell of sweat emitted by the body of this woman young enough to be his daughter.” Inhaling this scent “thrilled” him “to a momentary sensation not unlike vertigo.” In the story of the 60-year-old man, the main character is a writer struggling to rewrite his Life of Jesus, but who also likes to visit a coffee shop on breaks in order to stare at the high-school girls there. When these gifts walk by he picks up the “pristine smell” of their bodies. This “aroma of sweat” that he savors is part of his desperate effort “to suck in the smells of life at its zenith” while he approaches its nadir. It also makes for a neatly contrived irony that the narrator cannot escape: how it is possible for the author of such a religious work to want to seduce a high-school girl, all the while appearing to the world as half of a placidly married elderly couple.

The only light moments in this collection can be found in “Japanese in Warsaw” (1979), in which Endo depicts a group of risible Japanese male tourists in Europe who have detoured to Poland because they have heard that many tall, blonde women can be found there. A local Japanese expatriate is hired as the tour guide, and when he instructs the men on how to pick up prostitutes, “he knew that this was the only time they would listen to him carefully, staring into his face like obedient school children.” The story takes a serious turn when Imamiya, one of the would-be Romeos, and the girl he has paid for, discover, by a remarkable coincidence, their mutual awareness of a Polish missionary priest who sacrificed himself in Auschwitz. At the end Imamiya regrets having missed the opportunity to know the priest whom he had once encountered as a child in Nagasaki.

Throughout The Final Martyrs there emerges a clearly autobiographical pattern of the melancholy middle-aged man, haunted by guilt and saddened by his childhood spent in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who, because of his mother, converted to Catholicism; yet he does not always feel comfortable with this religion, which in turn causes another round of guilt.

Shusaku Endo has written elsewhere that he has sought throughout his writing career “To take the Christian religion which was so uncongenial to me as a Japanese, analyze why it was so uncongenial, and in some way to make it something more compatible.” To that end he appears to have written the majority of stories in The Final Martyrs, but only with varying degrees of success.

Francis Mathy (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Final Martyrs, in America, Vol. 171, No. 16, November 19, 1994, p. 28.

[In the following review, Mathy describes Endo's short stories in The Final Martyrs as preliminary sketches for his novels.]

The Final Martyrs is a collection of 11 stories written by the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo between 1959 and 1985. With a writer as parsimonious with his characters, plots and themes as Endo, there is much in these pages that will be familiar to those who have read other works of his. “The Final Martyrs,” the title story, for example, reads like a testing out of themes he would later develop in his novel Silence and his play The Golden Country. The story tells of the Nagasaki Christians who had secretly preserved their faith for several generations only to be persecuted again when they revealed themselves as Christians in 1865.

Endo follows the historical record in his dramatic account of the 28 men and 26 women who were sent to Tsuwano and tortured, some suffering martyrdom. But the main focus of the story is on the fictional character of Kisuke, a coward, who predictably steps on the fumi-e at the first threat of torture. Yet this same Kisuke, now disguised, follows the Christians to their place of exile after hearing the voice of Christ: “It's all right to betray me. But go follow the others.” And one of the captured Christians also reassures him: “Kisuke, if it hurts you, it's all right to apostatize. … The Lord Jesus is pleased just because you came here.” The priest in Silence hears the same message: “Trample on me. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” And he puts his foot on the fumi-e.

Kisuke is hardly distinguishable from many similar characters in Endo's works, especially the weakling who can neither stand up under persecution nor wholly abandon Christ. The motif of the strong and the weak is presented with many variations. The Christian writer in “A Sixty-year-old Man” (who later becomes the central character of the novel Scandal) burns with lust for high school girls even as he prepares a revision of his Life of Jesus. At the end of the story, he imagines an old man in one of the Passion scenes so provoked by envy of the pure gaze of Jesus that he spits at him “attempting to defile … the physical manifestation of that purity.”

Another variation is found in the highly autobiographical story “Shadows.” After the narrator's mother divorces his father and moves back to Japan from Manchuria, she and her son are baptized as Christians. In her eagerness to progress in her new life she chooses as her spiritual director a young, handsome, intelligent and holy priest. This priest eventually takes the place of the absent father and imposes discipline upon the boy, who, by his own admission, is a “spineless weakling,” while the priest is strong and full of self-confidence. The son's feelings toward this model priest are very complicated, but when the latter abandons the priesthood and marries a Japanese woman, the son, now an established writer, tries through his writing to understand his shock: “I made you a character … in three of my novels and tried in various ways to probe your mind.”

The boy in “Shadows” had a mongrel dog, who alone, he felt, could understand his loneliness. Now as an adult the “moist, grieving eyes of dogs somehow remind me of the eyes of Christ,” not the Christ confident of himself as the priest had once been, but “the weary Christ of the fumi-e, trampled upon by men and looking up at them from beneath their feet.” When, much later, the son accidentally meets the former priest, he finds him looking thin and shabby, lacking the assurance and self-confidence of old. His eyes remind him of the sad eyes of his mongrel dog—and, by implication, the eyes of Christ. The former priest now seems to him more Christlike than he did in his days of strength and self-confidence.

The autobiographical element, so strong in “Shadows,” is likewise found in most of the stories in this collection. “Life” and “A Woman Called Shizu” are based on Endo's experiences as a boy in Manchuria. “Adieu” recalls his student days in Lyons. “A Fifty-year-old Man,” “A Sixty-year-old Man,” “Heading Home” and “The Box” recount the experiences of the novelist Endo.

While the autobiographical element is one of the principal characteristics of this collection of short stories, another is the relationship of several of the stories to his novels. Much as a painter will do a number of preliminary sketches before setting his hand to a larger canvas, so Endo uses his short stories to sketch characters and themes that appear later in his novels. There may be greater artistry in these sketches than in the novels themselves. The reader of his novels finds that almost everything in them is designed to illustrate an abstract thesis, so that the characters fail to come alive and become interchangeable. But in the smaller compass of the short story this is not so great a defect, especially since the stories are well constructed and Endo has a good eye for the telling detail and contrast. For someone who is not yet very familiar with Endo's work, The Final Martyrs would be a good place to start.

Patricia O'Connell (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Deep Endo,” in Commonweal, Vol. 112, No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 34–5.

[In the following excerpt, O'Connell describes Endo's short fiction as either “intriguing or exasperating.”]

In two newly translated volumes, a novel and a story collection, Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo reiterates and sometimes expands upon his major theme—the frustration of trying to fuse Western Christianity and Eastern culture. …

Familiar themes also resonate throughout his second story collection. In the title story of The Final Martyrs, Endo again reveals his fascination with apostasy. In “Shadows,” an epistolary piece, we see a grown man writing to a priest, now separated from the church, who loomed large in the man's childhood after his parents had split up and his mother had arranged for herself and her son to convert to Catholicism (which his father refers to as “one of those ‘Amen’ churches”). Two stories here, “A Fifty-year-old Man” and “A Sixty-year-old Man,” are march-of-time semisequels to “A Forty-year-old Man,” which appeared in Endo's first story collection, Stained Glass Elegies (1987); the oldest protagonist in these stories is in fact the author of The Life of Jesus (1979), non-fiction that Endo himself wrote. “Japanese in Warsaw,” which includes a tourist-loathing guide (this time Shimzu of the Orbis Travel Bureau), has certain parallels with Deep River and also with “Fudano-Tsuji” in Stained Glass Elegies. Both involve the Polish saint, Maximilian Kolbe, who at one point served in Nagasaki as a missionary and later sacrificed his life at Auschwitz. In “The Last Supper” we see Kiguchi, somewhat transformed from his role in Endo's latest novel, but still entangled in a tale of the Burmese Highway of Death. Indeed, the similarities between these stories and Endo's other works are too numerous to mention. Whether one considers the repetition among the stories, novels, drama, sketches, and memoir pieces intriguing or exasperating is up to the individual reader.

The historical novel Silence (1980), concerning the apostate Jesuit missionary Christovao Ferreira and his former seminary student Sebastian Rodrigues in seventeenth-century Japan (and reportedly being filmed by director Martin Scorsese), remains Endo's masterpiece, but these two new works, beautifully translated by Van C. Gessel, are welcome additions to the author's oeuvre in English. Let's hope that New Directions continues to publish the award-winning Endo in this country and that such publications spur more lengthy analysis of this writer's life and work.

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Shūsaku Endō Long Fiction Analysis


Endō, Shūsaku (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)