Two men and a volcano approaching extinction

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Like his British analog, Graham Greene, Endô Shusaku (1923-96) had a fascination with spoiled Roman Catholic priests. The (as it were) second lead of his 1959 novel Volcano (Kazan), thedefrocked French missionary priest, Durand, has a sort of dutiful son in the priest who succeeded him, Father Sato. The main character, Suda Jinpei, a lifetime employee of the national weather service (twenty years in Manchuria, fifteen in southern Kyushu) was more interested in the nearby volcano, Akadaké (red peak), of which he had meticulously recorded observations since arriving in Kagoshima Prefecture, than in his family. He has a still-dutiful wife, though

“in Jinpei’s scheme of things, Taka was never anything more than a helpmeet. He viewed the married state as being no more than a social convention, a practical arrangement in which the very essence of a wife lay in the menial service of washing his clothes, packing his lunch looking after his children.”

In a coma after a second collapse, he realizes he has never loved anyone and never been loved by anyone. Certainly not by his elder son, Ichiro, whose remark overheard after the first collapse (which his father keeps replaying in his head) is shockingly callous: “The Old Man has probably spent all his retirement bonus [on hospitalization]… If he had only dropped dead right on the spot, the retirement bonus, the whole thing, would have come to us intact. I don’t like old people, the way they are. They eat their rice off others, for free, and keep on living, a pain toe verybody, and never learn what a burden they are.”

I really can’t imagine why a son thinks his father’s retirement bonus should be his! Ichiro did not work 35 years for the weather service, and has lived off his father’s salary even after marrying his frequently sneering wife Sakiko, who helps not at all with caring for her father-in-law (and is IMO as undeserving of any inheritance as her husband is).

The greedy younger generation members are revolting. Suda and Durand are despairing. Suda is committed to the view he picked up from the now-dead volcanologist who concluded that Akadaké did not pose any threat of further/future damage and had anthropomorphized that “a volcano resemble shuan life. In youth it gies reign to the passions, and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turnas as quiet as a grave.” Well, Akadaké continues to smoke, and geological time moves at a much slower pace than the 80 years since the most recent catastrophic eruption of Akadaké.

Suda is encouraged by a politician/businessman who wants to build a resort part way up Akadaké to provide “scientific” assurances that it is safe from volcanic danger. Durand, in contrast, longs for the volcano to erupt and bury the retreat that Father Sato is building on another part of the Akadaké slope.

On his last two visits to Akadaké, Suda has to recognize evidence that the volcano may be dormant, but is not dead, though he is unlikely to live to see his claims falsified. (Suda and Durand have their only conversation on Suda’s final visit to the island volcano, though they are in adjacent rooms in the hospital.)

Durand does not believe Japanese can feel guilt or believe in a single (and male) God. Though defrocked and an embarrassment to local Christians, he believes in and fears death. As translator Richard Chuchert put it: “The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphrasized by missionaries, and which accounts in great part for the failure of Christianity to strike deep roots in the ‘swampland’ of Japanese culture and religion.” (Endô valued the compassion of Christ, the most Buddhist aspect of the religion called “Christian,” which has rarely had much to do with the example or reported sayings of the Christ of the Gospels.)

Like Sakurahima, Akadaké is across a bay from the city of Kagoshima. Unlike it, Sakurahima is a composite volcano, not a single peak like Fiujiyama. And, unlike Akadaké,no one thinks Sakurahima is dormant. Nor is it red. (For Durand, “Evil itself is a volcano that will never be extinct,” and he doesn’t believe Akadaké is extinct, either.)

Sakurajima.jpeg(Sakurahima from Yagosima, Creative Commons (2009 photo by Tanaka Juuyoh)

Endô was only 35 when he wrote this book about old age (I’m not sure how old Durand is, but Sude Jinpei is 59 at the beginning (which means 58 by western reckoning). Endô had already undergone two years of hospitalization for pleurisy and would have a second bout and three more years of hospitalization in 1960. (He had one son; Sude’s younger one, who is in middle school, hardly figures as a character in Volcano.

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I prefer Endô’s last two novels (Scandal and Deep River) to Volcano. For my tastes there is too much vulcanological analysis of a fictional volcano plus the international “silence of God” funk of the 1950s (epitomized by Ingmar Bergman). And translator Schuchert keeps having Father Sato speaking of “the Christians,” as if he is not one (this would make sense for the ex-priest Durand). Surely, he would have referred to them in English as his “parishioners” or his “flock” (he shepherds them to the opening of a chapel on the site of the retreat he is having built on the mountainside).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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