Shusaku Endo has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene” by several enthusiastic Western critics. For a writer to be compared favorably with a successful, highly visible novelist such as Greene is frequently a heavy burden, an albatross to be worn instead of a tribute to be celebrated. Whatever the actual merits of a writer so described, a reader too often reminded of resemblances to another writer will be tempted to dismiss the writer’s work as either inferior to his presumed counterpart or merely derivative. In introducing a relatively obscure non-Western writer such as Endo to a Western audience, however, such comparisons become necessary, even indispensable—and, in this case, entirely apropos. Endo is one of the few Christian novelists in the East, and his compelling though often stumbling characters captivate and endear themselves to the reader much in the manner of Graham Greene’s faltering saints.
Endo’s Christianity emanates from a childhood conversion to Catholicism, a Catholicism tempered by an education in France, where he was exposed to such Catholic writers as François Mauriac, Paul Claudel, and Georges Bernanos. Endo recognizes that as a Japanese Christian, he is a walking oxymoron, an anomaly in his native culture. His own faith, he candidly admits, has been a struggle against tradition and cultural identity: “This problem of reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood . . . has taught me one thing: that is, that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without the support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility.” When Endo looks at his nation with the eyes of a believing Christian, he sees a “swamp” that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process.” Endo thus sees his personal task as a novelist much differently than do his contemporaries in Japan. Rather than mirroring the moral and cultural malaise about him, Endo seeks to foster and exemplify such religious concepts as sin, redemption, and resurrection in his fiction, disarming his Japanese readers and penetrating their syncretizing defenses, enabling them to confront Christianity as it really is.
In such works as Silence (1979), The Samurai (1982), and now in Wonderful Fool (published in Japan in 1970 as Obaka San), Endo has succeeded in creating a portrait of a Christian faith obstinate enough to endure even in soils that have never been fertile for its growth. The theme of each of these novels and, indeed, all of Endo’s works, is the congenital failure of Japanese culture to nurture the tenets of Christianity and to recognize its meaningfulness to its people. Endo’s best-known work in the West, A Life of Jesus (1978), is itself an attempt to “de-Westernize” Christianity so that the person of Jesus Christ can be made visible to Eastern eyes. In that book, written with a novelist’s sense of place and characterization, Jesus emerges as a more “Eastern” Messiah, one whose humanity and spirit of self-giving love are more prominent than His deity. One reason that the Christian faith has had so little impact on his countrymen, Endo believes, is that the Japanese have always dreaded the authoritarian father figure so prevalent in their culture; the four most dreadful things on Earth, according to one Japanese tradition, are fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts, and fathers.
In his effort to make Christianity more “seeable” to his Eastern readers, Endo stands beside other Catholic novelists of the twentieth century, including Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Endo, like each of these writers, has endeavored to defamiliarize his culture’s jaded images of Christian faith, taking Jesus out of the realm of commonplaces and portraying him as a profoundly self-sacrificing, tender, and moral human being. Thus, in Endo’s work, there are a series of Christ figures whose single role is to demonstrate the love and forgiveness of the Jesus whom Endo...
(The entire section is 1,389 words.)