A couple of weeks ago I shared some reactions to Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, the story of a Jesuit missionary in 17th Century Japan. Let me now add to my recommendations of Endo’s work, his book of short stories (better described as spiritual narratives), The Final Martyrs.
For Endo, the short story form was a way to try out ideas and characters that would later take shape in a novels. So while some authors settle on one genre or anohter, Endo believed that “the best way to give concrete embodiment” to his themes was to alternate between the writing of short stories and novels.
All of Endo’s characters reflect, in his words, “portions of myself.” And his stories contain many biographical elements – his early family life in Dalien, the impact of his parent’s fractious relationship and ultimate divorce, the life of a Japanese student studying abroad, the questions of religion so central to his being and writing. The themes of exile and alienation are almost always present.
Endo’s characters often find themselves facing complex moral dilemmas. How his characters resolve those dilemmas often reminds us of our frail humanness. In Life, the same boy who reaches out in kindness to a young soldier billeted in his families home for a few days (the soldier had been mistreated by his superiors and the boy tried to gift him with one of his most valuable treasures) allows the Manchurian houseboy who had treated him always with kindness and goodness to be wrongly punished for an act of theft the boy himself had committed. In The Final Martyrs, reminding us of one of the characters in Silence, a weak man apostatizes but can’t completely give up his faith.
But his characters also remind us of the good we are capable of. In The Box, a woman who had been treated badly by the military police during the war refuses to witness against them after the war, preferring instead to report that they had given her potatoes and milk when she and her father lacked food. In A Sixty-year-old Man, the old man does not give in to his temptation toward a young girl willing to trade relationship with him for some clothes and music, remembering the painting of paradise the appeared in the dream of a character in a Dostoevsky novel.
Another good choice for some Lent reading (which I say recognizing that the end of Lent is closing in on us).