Friday 7 January 2011

What I can believe in now is the sight of all these people praying at this deep river

Friends, have you read any of Nikos Zazantzakis's (1883-1957) novels? That man clearly suffered for and struggled with his spiritual and religious beliefs; his struggle as portrayed in his fiction was, to misquote C. Dickens, one of very noisy desperation. Shusako Endo (1923-1996), writing a generation later than Kazantzakis, and in Japan rather than Greece, also used fiction to negotiate his complicated feelings and experiences surrounding his faith - but in a much quieter and subtler way.

Shusako Endo was a practicing Catholic in a country in which less than 1% of the population is Christian. Endo's sense of exclusion and fatally awkward difference from his peers were extremely difficult, and all his books apparently wrestle with these issues. Yet, I wouldn't call Deep River a "Catholic" book (whatever that might mean).

There is one Catholic character in the novel - the hapless, bumbling, and painfully earnest Otsu - but the novel's concerns aren't so narrowly focused. Rather, each of the book's main characters - Isobe, who's lost his wife to cancer; Mitsuko, an early middle-aged woman looking for some sort of meaning through Otsu, whom she alternately seeks out and emotionally tortures; Numada, a man who survives a near-fatal case of TB only through talking to his pet myna bird (indeed, he relates better to animals than to people); and Kiguchi, an elderly man who's survived horrific experiences as a soldier on the Highway of Death in Burma - are seeking some kind of spiritual solace, and they end up together on a tour of India trying to find it.

Each character's sense of where and how exactly such comfort might be found varies, but their notions are more vague than otherwise. Some, especially Mitsuko, are almost completely unaware that spiritual solace is, in fact, what they're chasing. Even Otsu, certain of his Catholic faith, has been prevented by the Catholic church from becoming an ordained priest because of his rather unorthodox views on God's availability to other faiths; he is certain of what he believes, yet he too engages in a physical wandering that reflects an even deeper spiritual path.

Endo's careful and gentle revelations about his characters' fears, needs, desires, pain, and endless searching is so beautifully accomplished that I felt almost overwhelmed at times. The beauty of this work lies in Endo's writing (as well as Van C. Gessel's translating, of course), and in the painful and protracted revelations his characters experience about themselves. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read, this year at least; time will tell if it becomes an all-time favourite. What I do know for sure is that I immediately went out and bought as many more of Endo's novels as I could find. Which leads to a translation question that I'm hoping someone out there will be able to answer...

I found an excellent selection of Endo's books at BMV on Bloor Street the other night (heads up for any fans in Toronto of Japanese lit). Because I was enjoying Gessel's translation of Deep River so much, I made a point of looking for other books he'd worked on, and I found a few. Other volumes were translated by other people whose names I can't recall....and some displayed no translation credits at all, not even on the publication info page. I don't know what this means, because clearly the works were translated. If you happen to know why such information is sometimes not provided, I'd be interested in hearing about it. The fact is, I was nervous about buying Japanese lit in translation for which the translator is given no credit. My initial suspicion is that something's gone wrong but the publisher was too broke to commission a second translation by someone better qualified - but that's just a guess and I'd be happy to hear something less...depressing.

(This is my 2nd book for the Awesome Author Challenge.)


Unknown said...

I need to read some Endo this year, so I'm glad to hear this was good. I'm with you on the translator - a good one is essential (c.f. my concerns with Birnbaum/editing on my latest Murakami post).

Interpolations said...

"Lovely" sounds a little saccharine so how about a hells'yeah. A fine and wonderful post. Happy Sat, K

Alyce said...

Just stopping by to take a look at your review. :)

I also thought I'd let you know that the linky for the reviews is underneath the Awesome Author button on the sidebar. Your review links accidentally got left on the sign-up linky. It's not a big deal, and although I don't have time to fix it now, I will try to get to it in the next few days.

Congrats on getting three books done for the challenge already!

Bookphilia said...

Tony: I'm certain you'll like Endo, too. I'm told Silence is his best novel.

Interpolations: Thank you, thank you. I enjoyed writing it!

Alyce: I am a techtard because I can't find this other linky. Have mercy on me.