A Japanese Graham Greene
By Shusaku Endo
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Author: Bruce L. Edwards Jr.
Shusaku Endo has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene” by several enthusiastic Western critics. For a writer to be compared favorably with a successful, highly visible novelist like Greene is frequently a heavy burden, an albatross to be worn instead of a tribute to be celebrated. Whatever the actual merits of a writer so described, a reader too often reminded of his resemblances to another writer will be tempted to dismiss the writer’s work as either inferior to his presumed counterpart, or merely derivative.
But in introducing a relatively obscure non-Western writer like Endo to a Western audience, such comparisons become necessary, even indispensable — and, in this case, entirely apropos. Endo is one of the few Christian novelists in the East, and his compelling though often stumbling characters captivate and endear themselves to the reader in the same way that Graham Greene’s faltering saints do.
Endo’s Christianity emanates from a childhood conversion to Roman Catholicism, a Catholicism tempered by an education in France where he was exposed to such French Catholic writers as Mauriac, Claudel, and Bernanos. Endo recognizes that as a Japanese Christian he is a walking oxymoron, an anomaly in his native culture. His own faith, he candidly admits, has been a struggle against tradition and cultural identity: “This problem of reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood…has taught me one thing: that is, that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without the support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility.” When Endo looks at his nation with the eyes of a believing Christian he sees a “swamp” which “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process.” Endo thus sees his personal task as a novelist much differently than his contemporaries in Japan. Rather than mirroring the moral and cultural malaise about him, Endo seeks to foster and exemplify such religious concepts as sin, redemption, and resurrection in his characterization and plot, disarming his Japanese readers and getting past their syncretizing defenses, enabling them to confront Christianity as it really is.
In such works as Silence (1969), The Samurai (1982), and now in Wonderful Fool, Endo has succeeded in creating a portrait of a Christian faith obstinate enough to endure even in soils that have never been fertile for its growth. The theme of each of these novels and, indeed, all of Endo’s works, is the congenital failure of Japanese culture to nurture the tenets of Christianity and to recognize its meaningfulness to its people. Endo’s best known work in the West, A Life of Jesus (1973), is itself an attempt to “de-Westernize” Christianity so that the person of Jesus Christ can be made visible to Eastern eyes. In that book, written with a novelist’s sense of place and characterization, Jesus emerges as a more “Eastern” messiah, one whose humanity and spirit of self-giving love are more prominent than his supernatural relationship with a “Father in heaven.” It is Endo’s thesis that one reason Christian faith has had so little impact on his countrymen is that the Japanese have always dreaded the authoritarian father-figure so prevalent in their culture; the four most dreadful things on earth, according to one Japanese tradition are fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts, and fathers.
In his effort to make Christianity more “see-able” to his Eastern readers, Endo stands beside other Catholic novelists of this century, including Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Endo, like each of these writers, has endeavored to defamiliarize his culture’s jaded images of Christian faith, taking Jesus out of the realm of commonplaces, and portraying him as a profoundly self-sacrificing, tender, and moral human being.
Thus, in Endo’s work there is a series of Christ figures whose single role is to demonstrate the love and forgiveness of the Jesus whom Endo himself has received in his own Catholic vision of the world. His key themes always derive from Japan’s “mudswamp” of moral apathy and its need to find an ethical center rooted in eternal values — something, in Endo’s view, only Christianity can ultimately provide.
In Wonderful Fool Endo attempts this theme once more quite successfully, using the bumbling Gaston (“Gas”) Bonaparte as a Christ figure whose selflessness and genuine love for his fellow men reflect the Christ-like attributes Endo wishes to present to his readers. Gaston is a “fool” in a Shakespearean sense, one who may unexpectedly speak and live the truth in a most poignant way. Bonaparte may be Endo’s most effectively realized single character. In fact, Endo’s comic narrative style resembles that of American writer Frederick Buechner, whose Leo Bebb and Godric are classic “fools for Christ’s sake” in the way that Wonderful Fool’s Gaston Bonaparte is.
Gaston Bonaparte, a bona-fide descendant of Napoleon himself, arrives in Japan on a third-rate steamer, surprising his sometime pen pal, Takamori, a clerk, and his sister, Tomoe. After their first meeting, neither Takamori nor Tomoe could have suspected that Gas, as they come to call him, was a failed French seminary student who has launched out on his own to spread the news of faith and love to the long-neglected Orient. Upon first acquaintance. Gas seems to be a bumbling, clumsy oaf, well-intentioned but utterly ineffectual. In an early encounter, the gangly, uncoordinated Frenchman scandalizes his hosts Takamori and Tomoe by brandishing a Japanese loincloth in the place of table napkin. Later, he mistakes the advances of a prostitute for the simple congeniality of Japanese people.
Gas is clearly a stranger in a strange land, a wayfarer whose language and thought processes set him apart from everyone. Eventually Gas leaves behind the warmth and comfort of Takamori’s home to set out on his own pilgrimage, accompanied only by the mongrel of a dog who has befriended him. As Gas moves through the squalor of Tokyo’s underworld he steadily gropes toward his own destiny, toward his own Gethsemane, and later his own Golgotha.
The key relationship in the novel, however, occurs between Gas and the gangster Endo. Kidnapped by Endo, Gas repeatedly manifests the innocence and love uncommon in the streets of Tokyo, endearing himself to the hardened and morally drained underworld figure. Compelled by Endo to assist him in getting revenge against another criminal, Gaston thwarts him twice and eventually dies in saving both men from killing each other. His climactic and heroic acts on behalf of two criminals beyond redemption, earn him the reverence from Takamori and Tomoe (which his tenderness and tolerance so clearly warranted). In a final scene, Gaston, apparently drowned in his mission of mercy, is remembered as a “lone egret, flapping snow-white wings,” a traditional Japanese figure of peace and transfiguration.
Wonderful Fool is thus a parable about faith, the inevitable fate of a trusting soul who determinedly opens up his life and heart to all he encounters. His naïveté leads him to offend every significant social norm of Japanese society, and even the most commonsensical patterns of common sense. The final scenes of the novel powerfully capture Endo’s vision of contemporary Japan: a mudswamp in which a wise fool battles with all his strength to redeem two hoodlums who want neither redemption nor life, but whom he redeems all the same. Such is the Christian vision of Shusaku Endo: Jesus as the humble but single-minded “fool” who abandons all to reach those who are not so much hostile as they are indifferent, not so much faithless as they are cynical. This “foolish” Jesus — distinguished from the often bombastic and critical Jesus imported from the West — is finally the incarnation of the Redeemer which Endo wishes his countrymen to understand and embrace.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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