The stories deal with two essential experiences: what it means to be a Roman Catholic in Japan, and the agonies of extended hospitalization. Together they constitute the central challenges of the author’s own life. In his youth during World War II, Shusaku Endo endured a form of house arrest for his pacifism at a Christian college dormitory; later in life, he went through a lengthy hospitalization for massive lung surgery.
Throughout his fiction, the sufferings of the victimized believer or disillusioned idealist are often connected symbolically with the sufferings of aging and illness. Historical Christian martyrdom, personal memories of humiliation, the failures of marriage and career, and the emotional and physical harvest of a lifetime of bitter moments all interpenetrate in stories of medical trial (“A Forty-Year-Old-Man”), religious persecution (Fuda-no-Tsuji”), and ordinary despair (“My Belongings”).
Dispelling the gloom, several stories assert hope. The mynah bird in “A Forty-Year-Old-Man” observes the protagonist’s pain with infinite pity and emerges as a Christ symbol. The story “Old Friends,” which closes this collection, ends on a note of indestructible faith when an old European priest, tortured during the war by the Japanese on suspicion of espionage, casually announces that spring always returns.
In addition to hope there is laughter. A naive young doctor in “Incredible Voyage,” a science-fiction fantasy (actually a parody of the 1966 American film FANTASTIC VOYAGE), is miniaturized and enters his sweetheart’s bloodstream to operate on a tumor. He ends up blocked in her large intestine, and flatulence becomes the agent of deliverance.
Ghostly and impish, serenely illuminating and searchingly honest--all these epithets apply to the storytelling of one of Japan’s most honored and celebrated writers.