After Mishima Yukio, Endô Shûsaku (1923-90) is the Japanese novelist of “the third generation,” i.e., those who began publishing after WWII, who has been most translated into English. His tale of the persecution of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese converts in the 17th century, Silence (Chinmoku) has been filmed in Japanese (by Shinoda Masahiro) Portuguese, and in English (by Martin Scorsese).
The first of the five stories in Five by Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel, “Unzen,” also reaches back to the 17th-century persecution, apostasy, and torture, as a 20th-century Japanese man, Suguru, seeks out sites, particularly the “Valley of Hell,” in which Christians were partially boiled before being burned alive (singing a hymn). Suguru lacks their conviction, and his story lacks any closure.
The second story, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” is more mundane and, for me, more moving. The title character, Mr. Chiba, has been taking ballroom dancing lessons for his health, though they exhaust his legs and back. The story is not about his stint as a dancing student, however. Rather it is about trying to come to terms with his dying brother, who is only three years older than he is, and Whitey, the mutt he adopted thirteen years earlier (that is, a very old dog). Mrs. Chiba suggests that one dies to save the other, an explanation I don’t credit, but his feelings about his own mortality and that of the two creatures closest to himI found affecting.
The story that seems to me to reveal the most about Japanese people and worldview in the collection is “Japanese in Warsaw.” In the latter years of communism in Poland, a Japanese student in Warsaw is a guide for Japanese tourists. They have not interest in Polish history and are appalled at the shoddiness of tourist facilities. Their paramount interest is in hooking up with white women, so that Shimizu feels that he must be a pimp (albeit one who does not take money from the females whose bodies are rented). There is a Catholic angle to this story, and to the next one.
(Endô in 1954)
“The Box” of the tale’s tile contains some old (wartime) photos, postcards, and a Bible. The narrator who bought the box (and had spent time evacuated to Ueda during the war) seeks out someone who knew the recipient of the postcards, the daughter of a missionary (from a country that was neutral during WWII; I’d guess Swiss in that her name was Lougert) who was tortured a bit by a diffident secret police agent so that she would spy for the Japanese. The narrator speculates that the cards contained Bible-coded messages. (She was not tortured for being Christian, btw).
(Ueda region (Shinano) in winter)
The final story, “The Case of Ibose,” is actually the first chapter of Endô’s 1993 novel Deep River, involves the death of a dutiful wife who was more concerned about her husband being able to take care of himself without her than with her agony and oncoming death from cancer (which her husband refuses to acknowledge to her, though lying to patients about the seriousness of their ailments was very common practice in Japan). It is moving and is fairly self-contained (though her dying wish for him to seek out her reincarnation propels him into a trip to India with three other Japanese).
I prefer the stories without the weight of Catholic martyrdom, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “The Case of Isobe,” along with the tangential Catholic martyrdom one, “Japanese in Warsaw.” Despite its apparent focus on varying religious beliefs, “Isobe” has interested me in Deep River.
In addition to translating multiple works by Endô (including another collectio of stories that I don’t like as much as this one, Stained Glass Elegies, Van Gessel wrote about Endô in The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray