Friday, January 13, 2012

Deep River


I have been very busy since getting back from vacation and haven’t been around much.  We’ve been having weird weather.  Yesterday it was nearly 50 degrees, today we had four or five inches of snow. While traveling on train, I finished listening to Deep River.

Shausaku Endo, Deep River, 1993 (I listened to the unabridged audio version)

I am still trying to get my mind around this novel.  Endo begins with brief biographies of several Japanese tourists who are heading to India to visit Buddhist holy sites.  Osamu Isobe is a businessman who realizes, as his wife dies from cancer, that he loves her and had mistreated her.  Before her death, she makes him promise he’ll look for her reincarnated in someone else.  Mitsuke has suffered from a broken marriage, a promiscuous life and the horrors of having seduced Otsu, a student in college who was planning on entering the Catholic priesthood.  She is curious about India because she learns that Otsu is now living there and she hopes she can learn to love.  Kiguchi was a Japanese soldier in Burma, who wants to honor those who died in war.  During the war, he was kept alive by a friend who had a terrible secret; he’d eaten the flesh of another soldier in order to stay alive and to keep Kiguchi alive.  These three characters, along with Otsu, are in my opinion the most prominent within the story.  However, there are a number of other characters that adds to (and complicates) the story.  There is Numada who wants to find a particular bird and some honeymooners, with the husband only after photos and the wife wishing they’d gone to Europe. 

The key to the story is Otsu, who has studied for the priesthood in both Japan and Europe.  Otsu struggles with the Western concept of God and has battled with the church.  In desperation, he leaves the church and takes on the life of an Untouchable, compassionately helping those who have come to Ganges to die.  He is a gentle soul, through whom Endo critiques both Western theology and Japanese spirituality.  Otsu sees God everywhere, especially in those he helps.  He thinks the church’s great heresy is how it, as an institute, sees itself as owning the “true God,” and suggests that God is so big that he’s outside of any particular religion.  He also suggests that Jesus would be where he was, serving those who are most in need.

Although I have theological issues with the universalism Endo puts forward through Otsu, I found Otsu to be a believable character who struggles to live as a disciple of his Savior.  Otsu certainly “takes up his cross” as he enters the lives of the Untouchables.  I very much agree with Endo’s insistence through Otsu that God is free from human constraints.  In addition to dealing with the nature of God, Endo incarnational and sacramental theology is seen through in the story of Kiguchi, whose eating of dead soldier’s flesh.  However, the sacramental links are not as well developed as Endo’s nature of God.  .

This book has given me much to ponder, but I am cautious to recommend it to others.  Had he limited the main characters, Endo could have keep the book more focused.  I really enjoyed hearing the Japanese side of the suffering in the war (through Kigunchi), however I found the insertion to be somewhat forced.  Also being thrown in the mix is the tour to India occurs at the time Indira Gandhi’s assassination by Sikhs, which seems to overly complicate things.  However, Endo, a Japanese Catholic Christian (who died in 1996), seems to want to show the good and the bad of religions (Catholic Christianity, Buddhism, Sikh and Hindu.  Endo is best known for his novel Silence which is about Jesuit missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to Japan in the 16th Century.     

13 comments:

  1. To a certain extent you need to view the novels from Japan as plays. And not the newfangled novelised plays of Europe and Shakespeare but the Noh. Where you find the more exact and formalised the more flexible. Basically if you go back to this a few times the ancillary characters will flesh out and change the overall mood. Just remember you are not the jury/audience of Euripides but a player also and the mood you hold while reading will nudge the whole. That was a good part of what was so seductive to those 60s pot-heads that went to India in the 60s.

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  2. I admire your wide ranging reading habits. Although I read in many genres, I don't read much international work, and I should do more.

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  3. It sounds interesting, but it's good to know the writer's background before diving into one of these, especially from a writer with an Eastern cultural background.

    Cheers.

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  4. Roaring 40s: I have seen a noh play... I was young (22) and probably didn't appreciate it, but I wasn't impressed!

    Charles, I do try to read all genres, but really enjoy reading and learning from those outside our culture.

    Randall, if you don't know Endo, I would recommend "Silence"

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  5. With Noh you are working from a known. In our cultural shorthand they are a knowns, Hamlet etc. But how many these days know why Antigone was walled alive with her dead brother. And why it's tragic.
    With Noh is all about the fog or mist that subtly and elusively changes the sharply framed picture. But you need to see a play numerous times.

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  6. I was reading about this and for some reason I thought of you http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/projects

    They have somehow gotten all the community involved. They've even got veg growing in the CoE graveyard !!!.

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  7. I am in constant awe of writers of books like this with such an intricate plot. I'll put Endo on my list (which is long.)

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  8. Sound like a deep book though not theologically within my realm.

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  9. I suspect that the Japanese perspective on the war is not, for various reasons, much translated. A very accessible version of it in film is Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima", which enables you to empathize with the Japanese characters, but retain no doubt that the right side won.

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  10. DEK, there are some Japanese movies that address the war. I have reviewed one, "the Burnanese Harp". Another is a trilogy produced by a Marxist with Christian themes mixed in is titled The Human Condition". The first is subtitled "no Greater Love"

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  11. I have so many books on my "to read" list (sigh), one day I shall allow myself the pleasure to devour my way through it, maybe then I might be able to pop this one on it, too!

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  12. Sage: I was exposed to both of those films in the late '60s when my Japanese insurance man was showing Japanese movies in a rented theater in Chicago. Unfortunately, I was so taken with the stylized hyper-violence of Samurai films that I watched nothing else.

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