Sachiko, by Shusaku Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel (Columbia University Press, 408 pages, $28)
If you read only one new novel this year, let it be the great Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s Sachiko. Actually, it is not a new novel, as it was published first in 1982 but is only now getting an English translation in the Weatherhead Books on Asia series, in which Van C. Gessel has also translated Endo’s Kiku’s Prayer: A Novel (2013), a predecessor of the current historical novel. (In 2020, Gessel received the Myoshi Translation Award for his lifetime service in translating modern Japanese literature.)
Shusaku Endo, born in 1923, died 25 years ago this month and is one of the great novelists of post–World War II Japan, having attracted by his earlier works the highest praise from fellow novelists, including Graham Greene and John Updike. His best-known work in English is the historical novel Silence (1966; English, 2009), which has been made into a full-length feature film three times by different directors — in Japanese (1971), Portuguese (1996), and English (by Martin Scorsese, 2016). My own preference is for The Samurai (1980, translated by Gessel), also historically accurate and set in Japan, Mexico, Spain, and Italy in the late 16th century.
Endo treats historical themes about the encounter of Japan and Japanese with the West since the earliest Christian presence in Japan in the 16th century, and Sachiko treats the period 1930–45 in Japan but also with an important intersecting secondary plot involving Europe under the Nazi regime. It takes some actual historical personages, places, and events and weaves them into a brilliant tapestry with fictional figures and events. In Sachiko most of the action takes place in Nagasaki, involving individuals in the Japanese Catholic community there that made it the center of Japanese Christianity.
Nagasaki was also the site of terrible persecutions and massacres of Catholics, thousands of whom were exterminated in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The remnant practiced their religion secretly for 200 years until qualified religious freedom was granted them in the 1860s and thousands emerged from their catacombs (actually small fishing communities in and around Nagasaki) and began openly worshiping in two major Catholic churches. One of them is the Oura Church (1864), a site in Endo’s novel and today a Japanese national monument. Though Endo was a Tokyo writer and resident, Nagasaki was his spiritual home and today has a museum devoted to his life and career as a writer. (Endo wrote a foreword to Paul Glynn’s book A Song for Nagasaki, about the noble atomic-bomb survivor Takashi Nagai, a radiologist.)
That Nagasaki would be the target of the second American atomic-bomb attack on Japan in August 1945, unbeknownst to and unexpected by his Nagasaki protagonists as they pursue their quotidian lives, is the grave irony that hangs relentlessly over Endo’s narrative.
The major actual historical figure in Sachiko is the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe (1894–1941), who spent the years 1930–36 in Nagasaki, where he founded a monastery and a publishing house for Catholic tracts. After his return to Poland and the initiation of the Second World War with the coordinated German and Russian attacks on Poland in September of 1939, Kolbe was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the death camp in Auschwitz. There in August 1941 he offered his own life for that of a Polish man who was married with children and had been randomly selected as one of a group for retributive execution for an escape attempt. Rather surprisingly, Kolbe’s offer was accepted by the Nazi commandant, and he and several others were starved to death. (He was finally killed by lethal injection on August 14, 1941.) He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and proclaimed a saint by the Polish Pope John Paul II in 1982. As Karol Wojtyla, the latter had survived under both the Nazis and the Communists in Kraków and lived to become cardinal archbishop of Kraków and then the supreme pontiff. As priest and bishop, Wojtyla had often visited the cell at nearby Auschwitz where Kolbe and the others had died. Wojtyla lived to help bring about and see the overthrow of European communism.
Although Kolbe is not the major figure in Endo’s novel, his personality, work, and witness haunt some of the characters, including Sachiko, the protagonist, for whom the novel is entitled. The narrative is largely the story of her life and her love for another young Catholic, Shūhei, as Japan is driven increasingly into social-Darwinist, racialist militarism and imperialism in the years 1930–45, its ideology mimicking and developing German “scientific racist” ideas and marrying them to Japanese xenophobia. There are tragic outcomes for some of the protagonists, including Sachiko’s boyfriend Shūhei, a morally conflicted Catholic idealist and would-be writer drafted into military service, who becomes a kamikaze pilot and dies in a suicide assault on an American ship.
Endo’s fictionalized depictions of Japanese interactions with the West and Westerners have not been restricted to Japan itself but also draw on his own experiences as a lonely, isolated, seriously ill foreign student in France for four years, 1950–53. One of the first post-war Japanese students on a French-government scholarship, and a Catholic convert along with his divorced mother, he had the painful goad of the joint experiences of frequent illness (tuberculosis) at home (where he also started out as a medical student) and abroad (his initial sea voyage to France in 1950 was frightening) and of the mutual incomprehension of Westerners for Japan and of Japanese for Europe and America, a lifelong quandary for him and other Japanese and Westerners. He felt as well that broader human incomprehension — of self and other — that afflicts any sensitive observer of human history, especially the apocalyptic history of the world since 1914. Despite his sincere and nearly lifelong identity as a Catholic, Endo found that the human heart is often as opaque to itself as it is to others and that even the Christian religion does not easily or reliably relieve that opacity. (“I do not know the man so bold,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “who dares in lonely place / That awful stranger — Consciousness — deliberately face.”)
In Deep River (1993; English translation by Gessel, 1995), Endo depicts five Japanese tourists of the prosperous period long after the War. They travel on a package tour of India, visiting a Hindu sacred city. Each one has his or her private motives, unspoken and unknown to the rest. An affluent, beautiful, bored, blasé woman who has played with men all her adult life — including a younger man whose heart she broke — wants secretly to find out why this younger man moved to India and what he is doing; an old veteran soldier of the Japanese army in Burma who engaged in unpunished atrocities there at the end of the War searches for a kind of expiation, despite having no conscious, conceptual sense of his own wrongdoing. Endo’s familiarity with the French literary tradition of diabolism (Sade, Gide) and the atrocities of Nazism and Communism adds to his awareness of the spectacular cruelty and sadism of Japanese behavior in China (e.g., the rape of Nanking, or Nanjing, in 1937–38; the sex slavery of largely Korean “comfort women”) and the barbaric Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners of war. His early novel The Sea and Poison (1957; English translation, 1995) treats the medical vivisection of American prisoners of war and its psychological effects on a doctor involved and was made into a successful Japanese film in the mid 1980s.
Alternating with these terrifying glimpses of the human heart of darkness are delicate, lyrical depictions of the beauty of nature in Japan and of the decencies and courtesies of familial and romantic love in a traditionally deferential and hierarchical society bound for the destruction instantiated by the bombing of Nagasaki. In Sachiko, Endo’s deft treatment of the apocalyptic modern period that commenced most spectacularly in 1914 includes the investigation of the consciousness of a literate Polish liberal who finds himself imprisoned in Auschwitz and whose progressive utilitarian ideology ultimately delivers him to cynicism and despair: “As a history teacher at the Kraków high school, he believed in the progress of mankind and of history, but he also knew that a great many people had died and would continue to die in order for that progress to occur. Yes, there are those who contribute to the progress of history, but there are countless numbers of those who are utterly useless, devoid of all value whatsoever.” But the sophisticated history teacher finds himself in this latter category at Auschwitz. As C. S. Lewis, himself a badly wounded veteran of World War I, wittily put it, utilitarianism, seriously meditated as a comprehensive worldview, leads to “futilitarianism.”
The death of the belief in “the phantom God” delivers, then, not enlightenment and emancipation but a multiplication of variables, a diminution of constants, an increase in the sensate and the decline of the reflective and meditative. The death of the past, but of the future too; and often an “unbearable lightness of being.” Even in the prosperous “economic miracle” period of the Japanese 1970s to 1990s, the human person undergoes a pervasive disintegration. With his deep study, starting in the late 1940s, of French diabolism and absurdism and of its French Catholic antidotes (Bernanos, Mauriac, Maritain), Endo painfully acquired a substantive “global consciousness,” but it hardly relieved him of the burden that Emily Dickinson’s line quoted above indicates.
Yet Endo became a national phenomenon in Japan also on the strength of his books of humorous essays and stories, which have not been translated into English, and as a television personality and an organizer of amateur theatricals. Sachiko has winsome humor as well as lyrical beauty. Its depictions of the kinds of human love — childhood friendship, filial love, parental concern, courteous kindness, romantic love — are ultimately augmented and even exalted by being placed alongside Kolbe’s self-sacrificial love in Auschwitz, which both legitimates and transcends them. The novel is the achievement of a master of world literature, a work that, rooted in time and place, speaks movingly to persons and places far beyond the Japanese islands.