This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Endo Shūsaku, the prominent Catholic writer whose work explores the difficult relationship between Christianity and Japanese culture. As part of centenary events, new book takes a fresh look at Endo’s latest novel Deep river.
The culmination of a literary life
Author of a new study on Endō Shūsaku, Yamane Michihiro is the leading Japanese specialist in the works of the author whom he knew personally. An earlier version of Endō Shūsaku, Fukai kawa o yomu: Mazā Teresa, Miyazawa Kenji in hibikiau sekai (Reading Endō Shūsaku’s Deep River: Mother Teresa, Miyazawa Kenji, and Worlds in Sympathy) appeared in 2010, and this revised edition incorporating additional material has now been published as the second part of a three-volume series of studies for mark the centenary of Endo.
Fukai-kawa (trans. by Van C. Gessel as Deep river) was Endo’s last major work of fiction, published in June 1993. Professor Yamane describes the novel as “the recapitulation and summary of Endo’s life and work.” Given the importance of the novel in the author’s work, Yamane immediately wanted to explore as closely as possible the subjects addressed by the book and its characters. The result was a series of essays which appeared for two years in a quarterly magazine beginning in September of that year under the title “Reading Deep river.” Incorporating extensive readings and drawing on an impressive range of scholarly sources, Yamane’s scholarship has shed new light on Endo’s final message to his readers. This groundbreaking study forms the core of the new book.
The real priest and friend who inspired a literary hero
A culmination of Endō’s work as a writer, the novel features a cast of characters reminiscent of characters from the author’s previous novels, as well as Endo himself, his parents, and close friends. “The novel has a fairly dense structure. It’s as if different aspects of the rich tapestry of Endo’s life thus far are projected onto the different characters in the novel,” says Yamane.
The plot incorporates several different elements, including the bond between a married couple, the interconnectedness of the human and animal worlds, and the lingering influence of an old mentor and friend. As the novel develops, it reflects the changing patterns of the characters’ lives: their problems and secrets, as well as the complex relationships that unite them all.
The novel brings together these diverse characters into a group of Japanese tourists in India. Each of the participants has their own reasons for registering. The story follows the travelers as they head to the sacred city of Varanasi (Benares) on the banks of the Ganges, the holiest place in Hinduism.
One of the novel’s protagonists is Ōtsu, a devout Christian. After graduating from the philosophy department of a Catholic university in Tokyo, Ōtsu trained for the priesthood at a monastery in France, but gradually became uncomfortable with certain aspects of European Christianity. Considered a heretic by his fellow seminarians because of his unconventional views, he struggled with the desire to develop an approach to Christianity that suited the Japanese mind. He ends up in Varanasi, where providence reunites him with the group of Japanese tourists.
Another character who plays an important role in the story is Naruse Mitsuko, who, as a non-believing student, once seduced Ōtsu while she was a student in the French literature department, partly as a joke, and l almost persuaded him to renounce his faith. She soon ends their relationship, but later visits him in France while he was a theology student and continues to correspond with him after his arranged marriage ends in divorce. Mitsuko continues to search for “true love” and is motivated to join the tour largely because she knows that Ōtsu lives in India.
Yamane’s book reveals the real-life model of Ōtsu’s character: Father Inoue Yōji (1927-2014). Inoue and Endō traveled together as students to France, fourth class passengers on The Marseillaise outside Yokohama. Ultimately, both men struggled to adapt to the assumptions of European theology. Inoue spent his life trying to reconcile Japanese culture and Christianity, and Endō, whose own work often examined the Christian faith from a Japanese perspective, referred to Inoue as his “old comrade in arms”.
Tolerance and respect
Hindus believe that bathing in the sacred Ganges can cleanse a person of sin. It is said that if a person’s ashes are scattered in the river after cremation, that person will get Moksha and be free from the cycle of rebirth. The book describes Ōtsu’s life in the Hindu holy city as “an expression of compassion and love that boldly transcends the framework of conventional Christianity.”
Convinced that Christ lives even among the anonymous Hindu devotees who die penniless and unnoticed in Benares, Ōtsu cares for the dying with warm respect for their faith and, after death, entrusts their souls to Jesus before making cremate their bodies on the burning ghats of Saint-Pierre. Ganges.
Although they never met, Endō exchanged letters with Mother Teresa (1910–1997) in Calcutta. In Deep river, Ōtsu is an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), father of Indian independence, and the novel cites Gandhi’s writings on religion. The nuns who care for the poor at Mother Teresa’s hospice also appear in the novel.
In his study, Yamane highlights the similarities between the life of the Hindu Gandhi and that of the Catholic Mother Teresa. “Both provided a striking example of lives dedicated to their respective beliefs, while showing respect and tolerance for other religions. » Part of the message of Endo’s latest novel is a plea for tolerance and understanding among the world’s diverse religions.
Yamane also suggests parallels between Deep river and the spiritual perspective of Ginga tetsudō no yoru (trans. by Julianne Neville as Night on the Galactic Railway) by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). Kenji believed in the Lotus Sutra, but also studied the Bible. Endō also became increasingly interested in Buddhism in his later years. Yamane notes that an open and fundamental religious sensitivity that allows different religions to coexist locally was a key theme in both authors’ works.
A minority writer who found mainstream popularity
“Since the dawn of the 21st century,” writes Yamane, “the world has been caught in a growing spiral of violence, terrorism and reprisals, driven by a clash of civilizations exacerbated, even provoked, by religious differences. »
Yamane thinks that by writing Deep riverEndō has drawn on his last reserves of energy and creativity to complete a final message for our times, which contains valuable advice on overcoming religious tensions and violence.
It has now been 30 years since Deep river was published, but the sectarian conflict continues to tear the international community apart. The issues addressed in Endo’s final novel remain vitally important today, more than a generation after his death.
Christians of all denominations make up only about one percent of Japan’s population. Despite these small numbers, Endo Shūsaku’s best-known work on a Christian theme, Chinmoku (trans. by William Johnston as Silence), sold more than 2 million copies and became a film by Martin Scorsese. In addition to his serious literary works, Endō also wrote many popular novels marked by humor and gentle irony. His work continues to enjoy critical and popular success around the world.
Endō was convinced that there was an important difference between “human life” and our daily routine lives. What made his work so popular with a diverse readership in Japan and around the world, making him a world-renowned author frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate? Throughout his career, he continued to question the deeper meaning of human existence and was never afraid to approach the serious questions of life and death from a deeply marked by his Catholic faith. It is surely this combination of seriousness and lightness that explains its worldwide reputation and its lasting importance in this year of its centenary.
Endō Shūsaku: a timeline
Endō Shūsaku, Fukai kawa o yomu: Mazā Teresa, Miyazawa Kenji in hibikiau Sekai
By Yamane Michihiro
Published by the Publications Board, United Church of Christ in Japan
(Originally written in Japanese.)