BOOK REVIEW / Dynamics of damnation: The final martyrs - Shusaku Endo, trs Van C Gessel: Peter Owen, pounds 14.99

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A FEEBLE-MINDED Japanese Catholic apostatises when threatened with torture, but it's all right by God; a writer wrestles with his obsessive attachment to the renegade priest who made his childhood a misery; a man dying of drink confesses that he ate human flesh during the war; a Japanese tourist, disappointed with his visit to still-communist Warsaw - no good souvenirs, no real night life - discovers that the weary, fearful missionary he once passed on a hillside in Nagasaki is the priest who has become a hero to the Poles by giving his life in Auschwitz. The connecting thread is weariness, weakness: these are the poor in spirit, the emotionally fragile, the despicable, for whom Shusaku Endo writes his own haunting, compassionate Beatitudes.

Endo's preface explains that he uses short stories to develop characters who will appear in his longer work, but here too he is working his material as a composer works musical themes: the demanding Catholic mother, the childhood in Manchuria, the squabbling or divorced parents, the priests, the dogs. Dogs are always weak and needy - their moist, grieving eyes are the eyes of a trampled, betrayed, weary Christ, especially in 'A Fifty-Year-Old Man', where Mr Chiba's dog dies so that his owner's brother can live. The irony - there is usually irony - is that Mr Chiba needs the dog almost more than he needs his brother. Ironically, too, the dying Christ-like dog drinks out of muddy water that has a single lotus flower blossoming out of it: a Buddhist symbol, another symbol of defeat and persecution?

Endo's text is almost journalistically matter-of-fact: when he uses images - such as the lotus - they sit like splashes of colour in the middle of the plain type. Some of the stories, too, sit apart from the rest, such as the chilling 'Adieu' - the best of the collection - where an old pied-noir Frenchwoman deliberately withholds her husband's pills and cooks him food that will kill him: 'He can't get along without me. I can't imagine what would happen to him if I died first.' There's almost always detachment and humour: only once, in 'The Last Supper', does the moral tone destroy the artistic balance, when the very person to whom Mr Tzukada tells the story of how he ate his comrade's flesh during the war turns out to have been forced to do the same thing after a plane crash - and of course the body was a priest's. That seems too contrived, too much like a sermon, a minor flaw in a collection that otherwise achieves such a rare and perfect synthesis of religion, humanity and art.