I liked the setups of four Japanese characters who would go on a tour of Buddha sites in India better than the “payoff(s)” in 1984 Varanasi (Benares) in Endô Shûsaku’s 1994 novel Deep River (Fukai kawa). The location invites contemplation of death, pollution, and purification, with one of the setups being a dutiful, taken-for-granted wife telling her husband (Isobe) she will be reincarnated and he should seek her out. (Only as she was dying, did he discover he loved her.)
The forests of India recall Burma to Kiguchi who nearly starved at the end of WWII. As in much Japanese representation, the focus is entirely on the suffering of the Japanese (“Fires on the Plain” leaps to mind). There is literally nothing about what he did in the army before the final retreat. A heavy burden of guilt was carried by the buddy who saved Kiguchi, Tsukada, who died shortly before the pilgrimage to South Asia.
There is also a nurse (actually a volunteer, not a professional) who had attended Isobe’s wife as she died of cancer, Mitsuko, and a writer of stories about birds and animals (Numada) who does not consider that he writes for children. He had almost died (of tuberculosis). In his own view a pet myna bird died in his place, and he symbolically pays his debt by freeing another myna bird in India.
Mitsuko toyed with a very earnest Catholic, Ôtsu, in college, sought him out in France, and finds him again in Varanasi. A student of French literature, she was playing the part of Moira in the 1950 novel of that name by Julien Green in seducing Ôtsu. Later, she imagined herself as Théresè Desqueyroux in the 1927 novel of that name about a deeply dissatisfied wife by François Mauriac, the novel that she wrote about for her senior thesis.
Even in college Ôtsu is humble and self-effacing, and he turns into a modest saint, the embodiment of compassion (close to being a Christ figure, a lamb of God, despised and rejected…). The guide for Japanese tourists who do not see what he does in India, Enami, is an interesting character, not given a full-scale backstory (“Enami never displayed his true feelings. His present maxim for living was ‘passive resistance.’ He constantly repeated to himself: In front of your customers, you must always be the affable, accommodating tour guide.” And there is a newlywed couple, the Sanjôs who are caricatures of acute Japanese ethnocentrism.
Plus the assassination by her Sikh bodyguards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to make sure that India is not presented as the homeland of religious tolerance, even as Ôtsu articulates a view of all religions partaking of something of the same spirituality, as well as some pointed discussions of the caste system.
I don’t know if Endô was as pantheistic a Catholic as Ôtsu, though he had severe lung problems (pleurisy).
The four chapters about characters before the trip to India can easily stand alone. Translator and Endô advocate in English, Van C. Gessel, included the first one (Isobone) in Five by Endo, though it seems to me to be the one most lacking an ending as a story.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray