The Sea and Poison (Umi to Dokuyaku, 1958)
Wonderful Fool (Obaka San, 1959)
Volcano (Kazan, 1959)
Silence (Chinmoku, 1966)
The Golden Country (Ogon no Kuni, 1966)
A Life of Jesus (Iesu no Shogai, 1973)
When I Whistle (Kuchibue o fuku toki, 1974)
When eating their boiled green soybeans (eda mame), the Japanese pop beans from pod into hand or mouth with a marvelous deftness. In a crowded Tokyo bar, I asked my wife how to perform this operation. The bartender, speaking English with a French accent, said, “I’ll show you,” grabbed the pod from my hand, waved it toward his mouth, and scattered beans across the floor. I knew I had discovered The Fool, the model for Gaston Bonaparte in Shusaku Endo’s 1959 novel, Wonderful Fool. When Georges Neyrand, a French priest, opened this bar last summer, the papers treated him as something of a national monument, the strange character Endo had met in France, observed in Japan, and fashioned into one of the great comic figures in modern Japanese literature.
In the post-Mishima era, perhaps only Kobo Abe’s and Kenzaburo Oe’s novels are more respected than those of Shusaku Endo. The other two writers are radical in their politics and their literary technique; but Endo writes old-fashioned novels strongly influenced by François Mauriac, and identifies himself with the theologically conservative Catholic church in Japan. Since Catholics make up only half of one percent of the Japanese population, he begins as an exception, and presents himself as something more than an anomaly, almost as an absurdity. In his play The Golden Country, he argues that Japan can never accept Christianity, since the country lacks a sense of God, a sense of sin, and a sense of death.
Why, if Christianity and Japanese culture are so hopelessly at odds, has Endo devoted a very active career to exploring the hopelessness of it all? The best place to seek an answer may be the recent American edition of The Sea and Poison, the 1958 novel that gave Endo his first experience of fame and controversy. Since an English version appeared earlier in Tokyo, I took a copy with me to an interview with Endo last summer. Though he claims the Japanese have no sense of sin, this novel describes the growth of that sense in a doctor who was guilty of war crimes. Christianity plays no part in The Sea and Poison, but its protagonist recognizes his guilt.
“It is true,” Endo told me, “that the sense of sin is not natural to the Japanese. But the possibility for it exists wherever sin exists.” The sin of the novel is taken from history. Japanese doctors subjected American POWs to vivisection in experiments meant to establish the limits of lung surgery and the tolerance to certain injections. It was as monstrous as some things done in Europe’s death camps; yet, like those acts, it was not necessarily performed by monsters. Endo creates the hospital world of sterilized ambition and corporate blame-shifting that domesticated, gradually, the unthinkable as the merely unpleasant, that masked war crimes as a grim war duty. And recognition of the crime psychologically cripples the one doctor who holds back. Guilt does not redeem among the Japanese; it …