Books: Pilgrims by the sacred river: Shusaku Endo

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THIRTY years separate Deep River (translated by Van C Gessel, Peter Owen, pounds 15.95), Shusaku Endo's most probing novel since his masterpiece, Silence, and The Girl I Left Behind (translated by Mark Williams, Peter Owen, pounds 14.99). But both books are closely linked by Endo's characteristic themes of sacrifice and redemption.

The deep river of the later book's title, the Ganges, serves as a fluid metaphor throughout the novel. To Benares (or Varanasi, as it is today), the city on its banks where the Buddha is believed to have taught, Endo brings a cast of unexceptional but emblematic Japanese tourists, each of whom is a kind of modern pilgrim.

There is Isobe, grieving for his wife and endeavouring to make some sense of her dying injunction to 'look for me, find me'. There is Numada, a children's writer who, like Endo himself, grew up in occupied Manchuria and has spent long periods in hospital, who sees God in the eyes of his Manchu hound and his myna bird. And there is Kiguchi, the old soldier with his memories of jungle warfare in Burma and the horrors of the 'Highway of Death', who represents the old, imperial Japan. There are also the foolish Sanjos, a honeymoon couple whose comic insularity arouses the contempt of the scholarly tour leader, Enami.

Deep River's two principal characters are not so easily encapsulated. Mitsuko is a Magdalen figure, a woman with a destructive force and an inexplicable hollowness within her. Mitsuko is plagued by memories of Otsu, a fellow student she once seduced to satisfy a sadistic impulse. With a broken marriage behind her she yearns for a meaning to life. She works as a volunteer in the same Tokyo hospital in which Isobe's wife died. Her reason for going to India is not to see Buddhist sites, but to immerse herself in the India of Hinduism. The godesses Kali, and, in particular, Chamunda, depicted in images of suffering motherhood, appeal to her and help her to confront the darkness in her heart.

Otsu, the butt of Mitsuko's cruel interest, is an 'Amen type': a Japanese Catholic studying for the priesthood, the 'sort of fellow you feel like playing a joke on just by looking at him'. He looks like a bank employee, he is serious, earnest and 'something weird, he prays]' Otsu fills Mitsuko with both pity and scorn. Having seduced him and urged him to apostatise, Mitsuko abandons him but is unable to forget him.

Otsu's vision of God does not accord with European Christian beliefs. For him, the figure on the cross is a god of many faces, who can be found in Hinduism and Buddhism too. 'I want to find a form of Christianity that suits the Japanese mind,' he tells Mitsuko, explaining the difficulties he has in accepting Western distinctions between good and evil. Such pantheistic notions are not to his superiors' liking and, towards the end of Deep River, we find him, though still a priest, dressed in threadbare jeans, consoling the dying and transporting untouchables to the waters of the Ganges or the funeral pyres of Benares, where he is taken in 'like an abandoned dog' by a family of sadhus.

Shusaku Endo's pilgrims feel compelled to unburden themselves and to expiate their guilt and inadequacies by the all-

embracing waters of the Ganges. Their visit coincides with news of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. By introducing historical events into his fiction, Endo often gives an added poignancy to his moral tales. The message is clear: religious hatred and intolerance are as responsible for the rejection and accidental death of Otsu as for the murder of Mrs Gandhi. The only way to make sense of suffering, he seems to be saying, is, as his Christian martyrs knew in Silence, through love and sacrifice.

Endo has always sought to interpret the proselytising spirit of Christianity for oriental sensibilities. He has even written A Life of Jesus with this in view, a book that puts emphasis on meekness, mercy and Marian devotion rather than the aggressive, condemnatory fervour that inspired the early missionaries. His conclusion in earlier hooks has been that the gulf between the 'mudswamp' of Japan and the West was unbridgeable. Now, in this beautifully crafted, mature work, his standpoint has changed. Understanding is possible, he now implies, and the path seems to be one that combines the Christian faith with Buddhist acceptance.

Otsu is reminiscent of a number of Christ-like martyrs in Endo's fiction. One such is Mitsu, the saintly heroine of his 1964 novel The Girl I Left Behind. Set in immediate post-war Tokyo, it is the story of a simple factory worker who falls for an ambitious young 'salaryman', who abandons her after a brief night out in Shibuya. The girl later contracts leprosy, but she never forgets her lover, Yoshioka. 'This misery and those tears cannot be without meaning,' Sister Yamagata, the nun in charge at the leproserie talls her, 'They must have some wider significance . . .'

Mitsu is an early prototype of Endo's sacrificial lamb who, to paraphrase Isaiah, bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. Her story is heavy with symbolism and verges on sentimentality, but for any student of Endo's work it is essential for an understanding of his view of the human condition.