obituary : Shusaku Endo

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The Independent Online
Last year, one of Japan's best-known novelists, Shusaku Endo, was to have received the Culture Prize from the hands of the Emperor. But he was too ill to attend the ceremonies at the Imperial Palace. The general public had been dismayed when the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Kenzaburo Oe instead of the far more popular Endo, and there were rumours that Endo's grievous disappointment at not receiving the Nobel Prize had contributed to a sudden decline in his already unstable health.

The writer had suffered from poor health all his life. Pleurisy had kept him out of active service in the Pacific War, though he had to slave on the assembly lines of a Kawasaki factory. He often spent long periods in hospital, and some of his work is set in medical environments.

His best-known work in the West is Chimmoku ("Silence"), published in 1966. It is a massive, ambitiously conceived novel about the martyrdom of Japan's early Christian converts in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and it caused controversy when it won the Tanizaki Prize because of an incident in which the Portuguese Jesuit priest, Christovao Ferreira, is forced to betray his Christian faith by treading a crucifix underfoot. Christianity has never taken hold in Japan to the same extent as in South Korea and the Philippines, and Endo in this fine novel seems to be trying to discover why, to take "the Christian religion which was so uncongenial to me as a Japanese, analyse why it was so uncongenial, and in some way to make it something more compatible".

It made a great impression both in Japan and abroad (and was filmed by Masaharu Shinoda in 1971), but had no effect whatsoever on the spread of Christianity. Indeed, Endo recently revealed that one of his books - he did not mention which - had been banned in the Roman Catholic schools and colleges of Nagasaki, the centre of Christian belief in Japan.

Shusaku Endo was born in Tokyo in 1923, but spent his early years in China. When his parents were divorced there, he returned to Japan with his mother and lived with a Roman Catholic aunt who persuaded him to be baptised into the faith. Shusaku was 11. In one of his best short stories, Kage ("Shadows"), from his 1959 collection Saigo no junkyosha ("The Final Martyrs"), Endo describes this traumatic event:

Whenever I look back along the river of my life, somehow I always think of that little church in the Hanshin district where I was compelled to receive baptism . . . Of necessity, I began attending the church, escorted there by my mother and aunt.

Endo entered Keio University, where he studied French Literature. In 1950, he was finally free to leave Japan and went to Lyons, where he spent two and a half years reading French Catholic authors like Claudel, Bernanos and Mauriac. But he fell seriously ill and had to suffer one of his many hospitalisations.

On returning to Japan in 1953, Endo composed his first work of fiction: a short story, "Aden made" ("To Aden", 1954), based on recollections of his voyages to and from Europe. In 1955 he gained immediate recognition in Japan with his short novel Shiroi hito ("White Men") when it was awarded the Akutagawa Prize. Like some of the contemporary novels he had been reading in France, it was set in the period of Nazi occupation, a tale of French Resistance fighters and their betrayals of faith and loyalty, a dramatic mixture of several forms of guilt and remorse. In 1956, he wrote Kiiroi hito ("Yellow Man") in the form of a letter written by a student to a French missionary, a Greene-like figure who appears in many of his stories.

The Japanese have a penchant for approximate comparisons, and Endo came to be known as "the Graham Greene of Japan". To the Japanese "Grimgrin" was a literary god only slightly obscured by the sun of "Sunset Mum" (Somerset Maugham). But apart from the fact that they were both Roman Catholics and sometimes portrayed priestly characters riven by theological doubts and existential guilt, they really have little in common. True, Greene wrote lighter novels, called "entertainments" and Endo wrote works with touches of his own particular humour like the 1969 Taihen da ("Good Grief!") and basically serious novels like Obakasan ("Wonderful Fool", 1959), but in Greene's case the touch is supremely light, in Endo's rather laboured.

"Wonderful Fool" is an entertaining story about a rather simple-minded Frenchman, Gaston, in the jungles of contemporary Tokyo, depicted in nightmare Kafkaesque fashion. Unfortunately the humour becomes rather heavy and hard to take, while the growing complexity of the clockwork plot tires by its very ingenuity. I have to admit that Endo was one of those Japanese writers, like Mishima and Oe, who never appealed to me. There was something too willed, too contrived even in his best works.

In the 1970 novel Fukaikawa ("Deep River"), set in India, the plot is constructed with almost mathematical precision, presenting slightly wooden characters representing various human qualities, characteristics and callings. It contrasts two conventional fictional types, a destructive young woman and a saintly young Japanese Catholic studying for the priesthood; a man whose wife has just died and who is trying to forget her; a writer of children's books, portraying the author himself, and an old soldier with memories of the "Railway of Death" in Burma. All these, and several other stereotypes, react and interact in a rather mechanical way. The style is wordy and repetitive, and the story suffers from the typical Japanese passion for coincidence: the young postulant is killed at the same time as Indira Gandhi. Endo shows great dramatic skill in this novel, yet one finds it rather dull.

Shusaku Endo had one of the attributes that help to create a reputation as a great writer: he was very productive and the list of all his works is too long to reproduce here. Among the best are Ryugaku ("Foreign Studies", 1965), Sukyandaru ("Scandal", 1986), Umi to dokuyaku ("The Sea and the Poison", 1957) and Samurai (1982), winner of the Noma Literary Prize. He also wrote a play, Ogon no kuni ("The Golden Country", 1966), performed by his own troupe of largely amateur actors.

In the end, one gets the impression that Endo was returning to his roots, to a Buddhist view of self and existence, as if he at last saw the similarities between Oriental and Western ways of belief. One of his finest works is Iesyu no shogai ("Life of Jesus", 1978), which won the Dag Hammarskjold Prize in 1978.

James Kirkup

Shusaku Paul Endo, novelist and playwright: born Tokyo 27 March 1923; married 1955 Junto Okado (one son); died Tokyo 29 September 1996.