Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278
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.
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826
When asked about his fiction, Shsaku End has said that the subtleties of contact between Oriental and Western experience are at the center of his art. This is not surprising. He himself has experienced at firsthand the passion of Roman Catholic commitment in twentieth century Japan. The martyrdom of early Japanese Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was mirrored for End in the persecutions that he experienced as a young man. During World War II, Christian affiliation was considered a less than patriotic connection. Japan’s life-and-death struggle with the Allies did not encourage tolerance of Western institutions. Even if, like Catholicism, such institutions were already well enough established to withstand the first attacks of the government, it eventually became necessary to punish “Europeanism” with isolating measures. End was subjected to a form of house arrest at a Christian college dormitory throughout the war years for his pacifism.
The stories in this collection add new stature to an international reputation already secured by several novels. Irving Howe was moved to the following praise after reading End’s most recent novel, The Samurai (1980): “ surely one of the most accomplished writers now living in Japan or anywhere else.” End’s many literary prizes won in Japan testify to his reputation among his own countrymen despite the marginality of his principal theme: Christian identity in a non-Christian society. Silence (1969), his best-known work, sold more than eight hundred thousand copies in Japan alone. John Updike called it “a remarkable work, a startlingly emphatic study of a young Portuguese missionary during the relentless persecutions of Japanese Christians in the early seventeenth century.”
Stained-Glass Elegies largely supports End’s contention that he is primarily a writer about religious feeling at odds with cultural or personal reality. “Fuda-no-Tsuji” is a story in which a site associated with early Japanese Christian martyrs becomes the locus of a painful memory for the narrator. He cannot forget a vigil at the site shared with a pathetic but brave and selfless European-Jewish monk named “Mouse”—the butt of everyone’s ridicule in the narrator’s student days at the Christian college—who is later murdered by the Japanese authorities.
An even deeper and more haunting guilt is probed in “My Belongings.” Here a man, long past youth, finds himself neither truly identified with his Christian faith nor lovingly attached to his wife. Nevertheless, his commitment is stronger than his desire; the man cannot abandon what he had chosen at a time in his life when choosing was a vital act. The residual power of his waning faith and love sustain his disillusioned character. The light of faith still shines mysteriously through the “stained windows” of experience. Whereas Western skepticism might call the husband’s faith a victory of habit, End’s realism and understatement lend a strange sanctity to the moment. In “Mothers,” another story about guilt, the narrator conflates the guilt of the Kakure, who betrayed their Christian faith to avoid torture and death, with his own guilt for betraying his domineeringly pious mother.
In “Mothers,” there is another dimension central to End’s fiction—a dimension as important as Christian suffering. It is the world of the hospital room; the trauma of convalescence constitutes End’s most trying experience in later life. His lengthy hospitalization for massive lung surgery becomes a pendant to the religious persecution of his youth. Both experiences test his faith and his capacities for perception and honesty. In “Mothers,” the narrator dreams about his mother while he is hospitalized. In “A Forty-Year-Old-Man,” which chronicles the daily trials of a seriously ill patient, a mynah bird gradually transforms from a natural creature into a Christ symbol and rewards the narrator-sufferer with something richer than the companionship of a pet—Christ’s pity.
End’s collection of stories has the intensity of a miracle play, and as with all such religious drama, there is a comic interlude. Halfway through the volume, the reader encounters a scatological tale so impish and irreverent that it almost seems blasphemous in the context of the tales as a whole. A naïve 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. Flatulence is the agent of deliverance in this story.
The stories are often breathless, choppy, and sometimes repetetive. Yet there is a rightness and deftness of feeling that sees many of them through to visionary statement. Most touching is “Old Friends,” the closing story, an epilogue to the collection. An old European priest, tortured during the war by the Japanese on suspicion of espionage, casually announces that spring always returns. Suffering does not kill hope. Dishonesty, repression, and cowardice are more successful. Yet suffering and hope have a strongly paradoxical interdependence. It is finally deep wisdom such as this that pushes End’s stories toward greatness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53
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Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 1, 1985, p. 99.
Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 76.
Listener. CXIII, January 10, 1985, p. 24.
New Statesman. CVIII, September 21, 1984, p. 29.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, July 21, 1985, p. 21.
The Observer. December 2, 1984, p. 19.
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