BOOK REVIEW / Pained eyes drowning in a sea of silence: The Final Martyrs - Shusaku Endo: Peter Owen, 14.99

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ONE OF the most likeable things about collections of short stories is that they are bad news for book reviewers. When you are reading to a deadline, nothing is more vexing than all those fresh starts. Worse, story anthologies are quick to shrug aside the encapsulating judgement, or summary sentence, that reviewers feel bound to dish out. What is there to say, other than that some of the stories are great, some are so-so, and some, well, the less said about them the better. To argue that the stories are much of a muchness can't help but imply a failure of discrimination.

But in the case of Shusaku Endo, Japan's senior novelist and a frequent tip for the Nobel, none of this applies. In a long and busy career he has written an elegant sequence of novels and stories that keep revisiting the same old haunts.

The horrendous torments of the 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan; the secret twists of a man's erotic hopes; the routine daily confrontation with the prospect of death: these are the motifs that dog his fiction. They might sound, at first, like a cartoon parade of Japanese sex-and-swordplay fantasies, but Endo lends them a fine unruffled simplicity; and there is always a delicate, even wistful autobiographical flavour that makes each story, or each novel, seem like a tender joint cut from the same body of work.

Endo was, to begin with, a rare hybrid: born in 1923, he was raised a Japanese Catholic. But it was when he became, after Hiroshima, the first post- war Japanese to study abroad (in Lyons) that he found his vocation: 'I felt that I had hit upon a theme peculiar to myself, which I would assume as the work of a lifetime. The theme is: to take the Christian religion which was so uncongenial to me as a Japanese, analyse why it was so uncongenial, and in some way make it more compatible - in other words, with my own hand I would remodel the ill-fitting suit of European clothes that my mother had dressed me in, and make of it a kimono more becoming to me as a Japanese.'

He has been as good as his word. His books vibrate with a sensitive and painstaking awareness of culture clash. It is just as well, we might think, that his foreign expedition took him to France: Japan and Britain would seem to have too much in common - small, insular empires, aggressive, crowded, industrialised and class-conscious.

But there is, in any case, something so Western about the novel form - its desire to depict individuals confounded by a wild and confusing world - that Endo's literary enthusiasms were probably a more telling influence than his mere travels. He studied French Catholic writers, and his novels, though they have their tricky moments, are of the most traditional sort. It is not surprising that Endo is billed, more often than not, as the Japanese Graham Greene.

The Final Martyrs opens with the title story. A Catholic village lies under the threat of persecution by the Shogunate, and the villagers brood on the known cowardice of their huge, soft friend Kisuke. They fear he may, in the trials that lie ahead, turn out to be a Judas; and sure enough, at the first hint of a crackdown Kisuke recants and flees. The priests are stashed in small cages and forced to watch as their flock is tortured and killed, but they refuse to renounce their faith. Finally, Kisuke turns up again. Unable to damp down his conscience, he has volunteered to come, like a lamb, to slaughter.

This is, in wolfish new clothes, the story of Silence, Endo's grandest novel and the subject of a forthcoming film by Martin Scorsese. A Portuguese missionary arrives in Japan to bolster the spirits of the cowering Christians, but finds himself a caged spectator of their misfortunes. They are hung on stakes and killed by the rising, falling tide. The missionary is driven half mad by the divine injustice behind all this cruelty: 'He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives for him.' The sea pounds in and pounds out, in a silence that becomes, inevitably, the silence of God.

But 'The Final Martyrs' also contains allusions to other favourite Endo topics. Kisuke's cowardice echoes the timidity of a European monk called Mouse, who has been teased for his feebleness in several earlier works. Mouse is Father Kolbe, who was a missionary in Japan for some years before returning to Europe: he died in Auschwitz, where he volunteered - like Kisuke - to take a fellow prisoner's place in a fateful cage known as the hunger-bunker.

Stories such as these describe European visits to Japan, as does Wonderful Fool, a secular version of the same tale: a saintly French goof called Gaston Bonaparte visits Japan, falls in with all the wrong people, and is humiliated by a gangster called, ha-ha, Endo. But sometimes the drift goes the other way. In The Samurai, a group of Japanese missionaries tours Europe and returns disillusioned. Endo drew attention to the autobiographical element here, relating the historical mission to his own post-war journey.

One of the new stories updates that odyssey by describing a group of Japanese tourists in Warsaw. All the predictable jokes are there - the way they stick together and aim their cameras, their one-track appetite for go-go bars. But Endo (who has himself led tour groups along the Thames, singing merry Japanese boating songs) surveys the scene with compassion, not scorn.

And he sticks a dart into the consciousness of his modern travellers by telling the story of Father Kolbe. The men shrug, and say they never had much truck with those 'Amen fellows' anyway. One of them recalls, with a stab of shame, having met the monk once; but this doesn't stop him going ahead with his long-desired assignation. The prostitute leads him up to her flat, and there, beside the Madonna, is a picture of the priest.

This see-sawing between new and old stories is more than just a neat modern trick. Endo is not interested in seeing whether we can join the dots. For one thing, it's too easy. Whole paragraphs from Scandal, Endo's brilliant Jekyll-and-Hyde novel about the sexual rambles of the author's uncontrollable alter ego, reappear in this new volume. And the double hero of Scandal, Suguro, is also Dr Suguro, whose life as a torturer of American prisoners of war is revealed in The Sea and Poison. And there is another Suguro in 'A Forty-year-old Man', the first of three touching exercises in pathos - the others tickle the traumas of 50 and 60.

Over and over, Endo places an incarnation of himself alongside some riveting historical episode, and steps back to see how he is shaping up.

Throughout his remarkable and growing library, references to the same events - the operation to remove a lung, the death of a brother, the adventure of a dog - recur. Endo is especially fond of animals. One of his ageing writer-figures buys a myna bird, puts it in a cage, and urges it to talk, for all the world as if it were a defiant priest staring out through the bars of a prison or the gridwork of a confessional. 'Come on] Good morning. Say Good morning]' The bird gazes back with doleful, trapped eyes, which resemble the eyes of all the hapless dogs in Endo's fiction, which in turn resemble the pained and sorrowful eyes of Christ.

The most seductive aspect of all this remarkable and steady artistry is that it has been placed not in the service of a smart self-consciousness - Endo is no Philip Roth - but as part of a theological debate. It isn't easy, when you are playing video-age identity games, to ponder big questions about sacrifice, faith and God. Yet it doesn't matter a damn if these are words we sometimes find hard to swallow. Endo has put a beautiful frame around a baffled inquiry into what happens when East meets West. A spoonful of Suguro makes the medicine go down a treat.