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Japan's novelist Endo wrote of faith, endured


Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, who died last month at age 73, was often compared to Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac and even Georges Bernanos. To these associations might be added Dostoyevski (whose "buffoon" for Christ in The Idiot is matched by Endo's Gaston Bonaparte in Wonderful Fool) and perhaps sixth century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who wrote:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.
Everyone knows this, that weakness prevails
Over strength and that gentleness conquers
The adamant hindrance of men, but that
Nobody demonstrates how it is so.

Endo was dedicated in his writing to showing "how it is so."

At a cursory reading, one might see in Endo's A Life of Christ a portrayal of Jesus as a failure, with all the apostles contributing to his betrayal and the capricious crowds abandoning him when he did not meet their expectations as a political savior or miracle man.

The theme of apparent failure recurs in most of Endo's fiction. He sees a Christianity that cannot take root in Japan because of that nation's mental apathy. The main character in The Volcano insists that mediocrity is the secret of contentment and Christianity cannot flourish in mediocrity. The Sea and Poison tells of morally corrupt Japanese medical personnel who experiment on the bodies of captured U.S. airmen during World War II. (The novel caused an uproar in Japan when it first appeared in 1958.) Yellow Man is about the betrayal of a priest by a French apostate cleric.

Yet honorable failure precedes triumph; after crucifixion there is hope. Nowhere does Endo emphasize this better than in his best known novel, Silence (which was also adapted for the stage). In this historical novel, with its 17th century setting, we are presented with the story of an idealistic young Jesuit priest who risks his life to bring Christianity to the Japanese but falters under extreme pressure and betrays God and himself.

The terrible tortures that Christian martyrs of the 17th century had to undergo in a Japan closed to foreign influences were underscored by British author Arnold Toynbee in his multivolumed A Study of History: "Religious discrimination offers the same potential challenge as a harsh physical environment. In Japan, the Western traders and native Christian converts ... were persecuted with a severity that has scarcely been equaled in the entire history of religious penalization, yet both endured their painful treatment for more than two centuries until toleration was granted in the 19th century."

It is the stories of lonely heroes that are best represented in Endo's fiction. In The Samurai, combat on a moral plane is found in two characters, a priest who wants to become the bishop for all of Japan and a man of the spirit who is haunted by the figure of the crucified.

Another Endo work that ends in an expression of hope is his play, "The Golden Country." It covers some of the material found in Silence but, as translator Francis Mathy notes in his introduction, "the impression that caps the play and remains longest with the playgoer is that of the courage, nobility and love of the martyrs." As the drama ends with a report that all the loyal Christians arrested had been executed, a messenger comes in with the news that "Four Christian priests have just landed in Amami O-shima. They came over in a small boat rowed by Chinese and managed to land under cover of night."

In a foreword he wrote for Paul Glynn's biography of Takashi Nagai, A Song for Nagasaki, Endo may have symbolized his own place in Japanese literary history. He tells of the suburb of Urakami where "the cathedral was reduced to rubble" and where Nagai exposed himself to certain death to aid others. Endo tells how "Christian and non-Christian alike were deeply moved by Nagai's faith in Christ."

The same may be said of Endo and his best-selling works. Silence sold over 800,000 copies in Japan alone. In a century when major Japanese novelists committed suicide, Endo endured. Yasunari Kawabata, Japan's only Nobel Prize winner, ended his own life at his kitchen oven; Yukio Mishima, the multitalented composer, musician, actor, militarist and fiction writer spectacularly gutted himself; Akutagawa (Rashomon) was a suicide. Other names on this troubling list include Dazai, Kato, Hara, Schinichi, Kawakami, Itino, Takeo, Takoku and more. The "why" of such a roster is the subject for another discourse at another time. Endo told one of his translators, the late Jesuit Fr. Richard Schuchert, "Here is one Japanese writer who is not going to kill himself!" We can be grateful that he did not. May he rest in peace.

Harry James Cargas, professor emeritus of English at Webster University, St. Louis, is author of 31 books.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996