I remain ambivalent about the fiction of the very Roman Catholic writer Endô Shusako (1923-96), though for me his penultimate novel, Scandal (1986), was a page-turner. Its primary theme is about an aging Japanese Catholic novelist, Suguro (who, like Endô, had written a biographical novel about Jesus, and whose next novel will be entitled “Scandal”) who is plagued by a seeming doppelgânger who regularly haunts peep shows and S&M parties I the Shinjuku (red-light) district of Tokyo.
Suguro has a reputation for rectitude, with a long-established companionate marriage, one of “poised tranquility” with a dutiful wife who lately is more and more hampered by arthritis. This leads to hiring a junior-high-school girl, Mitsu, to clean the separate apartment where he writes. This seems a likely source of scandal, but isn’t.
More of one is his increasing intimate relationship with a widow, Mrs. Naruse, who is a volunteer in the pediatric ward of a local hospital. Mrs. Naruse is a confidant of street-sketching portraitist, Motoko, whose current exhibit includes a portrait of a very debauched man everyone sees as Suguro, though he is sure he never posed for it.
Motoko is a suicidal masochist, and Mrs. Naruse has some understanding of sadism by way of her dead husband’s WWII atrocities (a matter very rarely taken up in Japanese fiction with the notable exception of Endô’s own The Sea and Poison), the recounting of which she found arousing. So far as I can tell, Mrs. Naruse has no personal experience of s&m scenarios and is regarded as something of a saint at the hospital where she cares for sick children.
A journalist named Kobari is eager to sully Suguro’s reputation, ferreting out Motoko and accounts of the debauches of his look-alike. Suguro is seen around Shinjuku, as he tries to find out about Motoko and his secret self—or to prove that his doppelgänger is another person so he can clear his name. Suguro himself comes to wonder if there is a sordid second self playing with debauchery, and only imagining seeing someone who looks like himself smirking at him in a public lecture. He enjoys the good repute in which he is widely held and dismayed by the harassment of Kobari, the would-be iconoclast bent on destroying his reputation (but ready to be bought out of publishing the dirt he gathers).
I would have preferred greater clarity about whether the second Suguro is a hallucination (heautoscopy), a real second person, or Mr. Hyde to Suguro’s Dr. Jekyll. So would Suguro, who is ready to doubt his sanctity and suspect that he could be a voyeur. That aspect is very Tanizaki-like (Endô won the second Tanizaki Prize, btw, for The Silence, recently filmed by Martin Scorsese) as is the keeping of the wife in ignorance about socially reprehensible but personally fascinating obsessions and vices. In considering that he might be evil, not just mired in sin, Suguro (Endô) surpasses Tanizaki’s (characters’) indulging in and scandalized by their various perversions. (Suguro explains: “My] pen somehow persisted in depicting the black, dark, ugly realms within [my] characters. As a novelist [I] could not bring [myself] to skit over or ignore any of the components of a human being…. [I have] the notion that a true religion should be able to respond to the dark melodies, the faulty and hideous sounds that echo from the hearts of men.” and “I’m a novelist. A novelist has to dirty his hands in the deepest recesses of the human heart. I have to thrust my hand in, even if I find something there that God could never bless.”
Endô does not seem to me particularly adept at writing thrillers, but was certainly adept at writing crises of faith, iinvolving doubts about what is real. At least in the translation by his major American advocate Van C. Gessel, he writes better sentences than Graham Greene (Endô was repeatedly called “the Japanese Graham Greene” and “the Asian Graham Greene” and shared Greene’s sense of existential guilt and lack of acceptance of grace; now he seems to be a writer who, along with Abe Kobo, paved the way for Murakami Haruki).
©2017, Stephen O. Murray