January in Japan: Endo Shusaku – Scandal

Endō Shūsaku: Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, Peter Owen, 1988.

Back in the late 1960s to late 1980s, during the time of the Japanese boom, Endō Shūsaku was one of the most highly regarded and translated Japanese authors, regularly tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If Kawabata represented aethereal Japanese beauty and cherry blossoms, Mishima the darker yet more ornate world of modernity clashing against Japanese tradition, then Endō represented something more familiar to the Western reader: a practising Christian (a Catholic, moreover).

Often compared to Graham Greene (inaccurately, I believe, although the two authors are said to have admired each other greatly), he is best known for his historical fiction such as Silence (about a Catholic missionary in 17th century Japan) or Samurai (about a Japanese diplomatic mission to Mexico and Spain in the 17th century). This novel Scandal is very much set in present-day Tokyo (at the time the book was written).

It is about a well-known 65-year-old Catholic novelist Suguro (clearly the author is capable of being quite self-critical and poking fun at himself). He has won prizes, has been successful, is content in his marriage with a fellow Japanese Christian, even though it’s all become very routine.

In the seasons when her limbs did not ache they would sometimes have lunch together and then go out for a walk. They always took the same route… They would sit together on a bench in the park, watching the young people play badminton. Even if they said nothing to each other, after more than thirty years of marriage there was a poised tranquillity between them that Suguro could feel almost palpably as she sat beside him… he was a novelist who peered into the depth of his soul and disgorged what he found there. But as a husband he was careful not to expose himself beyond the essential boundaries.

This double standard has led some critics to accuse him of being a ‘phoney’, of being afraid to face sex (and other sins) openly. It all flares up when a woman shows up at an awards ceremony, claiming to know him from his regular nocturnal wanderings around the red-light district. Suguro vehemently denies it, but the rumours of sightings continue and he decides he must have a doppelgänger who pretends to be him, especially when he sees the sly, obscene smile in the portrait that a street artist has painted of him.

Suguro starts investigating, hoping to catch this man posing as him, while a hack journalist Kobari initiates his own investigation, hoping to make his name by uncovering a juicy scandal about the famous author who is not at all as moral as he claims to be. Suguro encounters a voluntary worker at the hospital, Mrs Naruse, who seems to have no qualms confiding her secret darker desires, despite appearing to be extremely caring and loving with the children that she looks after when they undergo surgery. She tells Suguro that she considers that ‘our erotic behaviour expresses our profoundest secrets, the ones we ourselves aren’t aware of’, making the author begin to question his own decent, quiet life, his distinction between ‘healthy and unhealthy sex’ and begin to confront his own dark desires that he would prefer to maintain submerged. He hears about one woman’s masochistic tendencies, which is in fact a death wish – and she does indeed die as a result of the sexual games she engages in. But it takes Suguro longer to admit to his own obsession with an underage girl (which seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of Japanese literature written by middle-aged men, and is very prevalent in Japanese culture more generally, which I personally find icky). However, in this novel, the purpose of this strand of the story might be for Suguro to get his come-uppance, to realise that he cannot blame all his wicked desires and impulses solely on a stranger who resembles him.

There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born… Even a child has fun tearing the wings or legs off a dragonfly. These days even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that… because it’s fun… When the magma erupts in the form of sex, it comes out as sadism or masochism.

I wonder how many of the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey would be interested in this quite slow-paced, cerebral analysis of the human soul? The main character wondering if he needs to go ‘to the very end’ so that he can express all the depths of the human soul as an artist. Especially when the characters start having conversations about Jesus:

‘As Jesus, bathed in blood, carried his cross to the execution ground, the crowds reviled him and threw stones at him. Don’t you think they did that because of the pleasure it gave them?… Jesus was too blameless, too unblemished … so much so that they wanted to destroy him… That feeling is shared by all of us…. but no one wants to stare it in the face.’

All this soul-searching is also related to aging, and there are several passages where the writer makes it clear that Suguro is beginning to doubt the value of his life’s work (and possibly his entire life). If he has not been truthful to himself, then how can he have been truthful with his readers? All of these questions that people are planting in his head, all these doubts and confusions that are besetting him, run contrary to his belief that things will become more peaceful and certain in old age.

Old age doesn’t mean being free from perplexity as Confucius claimed; there’s nothing serene or mellow about it. To me, at least, it has loomed up in ugly, nightmarish images. With death staring me in the face, I can no longer prevaricate, and there is nowhere to escape.

Endō plays around with the conceit of the Japanese ‘I-novel’ (what we now call auto-fiction), and you cannot help feeling that at times he is thinking aloud, as he too was in his sixties when he wrote this book and suffering from ill-health. I did not rate it as highly as the other novels I have read by him, but it certainly made me both squirm and think. Like it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a book that will make you uncomfortable, that asks tough questions about core values and whether virtue is a myth, an accident.

The last but one, I think, of my posts linking to Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

18 thoughts on “January in Japan: Endo Shusaku – Scandal”

  1. I remember reading this a long time ago (probably when I was too young to fully appreciate it) but I remember it made me uncomfortable too! I think I tend to prefer his historical fiction – have you read Kiku? It’s pretty interesting and actually features a woman as the protagonist!

  2. Much as I enjoyed reading your reflections on this novel – mostly because they’re so thoughtful well-considered and eloquent! — I don’t think it’s a book for me. As you say, a middle-aged/elderly man’s fascination with an underage girl/young woman seems to be a familiar them in Japanese literature from this era. A different culture, but I couldn’t help but think of Lolita as I was reading your piece – another novel I’ve shied away from due to the troubling subject matter.

    1. To be fair, it isn’t the main focus of the novel (although it is a significant strand), but honestly the whole sado-masochism thing I just don’t get and don’t need to read about…

  3. Those books that make a reader uncomfortable can also be the most memorable, Marina Sofia. I think, for me, I might have to really be prepared for a book like that, as some of the themes are usually not for me. Still, it sounds like an interesting take on some issues.

  4. Great presentation!
    Not sure why, I’m a very active Christian Orthodox, but I usually have a hard time with Christian fiction…
    I only read Five by Endo, and these short stories didn’t do much to me. However, I’d like to try When I Whistle. Have you read it?

  5. I have never read Endo, not sure he would be for me. I remember my late father reading him though, he always enjoyed thought provoking literature, and this seems to fit that category.

  6. Hoping to try this at some point – I suspect I’ll be making my through all of his books eventually (starting with another post tonight!).

  7. I know of Shusaku Endo by reading Silence, but I have not read this work. I am especially struck by these lines in your post: “All this soul-searching is also related to aging, and there are several passages where the writer makes it clear that Suguro is beginning to doubt the value of his life’s work (and possibly his entire life). If he has not been truthful to himself, then how can he have been truthful with his readers?” That really resonates with me! I retired feeling at the top of my game, after 37 years of teaching, and now as I reflect I’m wondering how it is that I helped my students. This is not a productive way of thinking, but I can relate to the character you describe so very well.

    Thanks for all you have read, and reviewed, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15! I, myself, have only read three works, although Six-Four took me quite awhile. You really contributed a lot!

    1. Spending some time with my beloved Japanese literature is a great way to start the year for me, so I am more than happy to contribute. Yes, I too could relate to Suguro’s feeling, although I try not to let myself think of it too often. What the author certainly does well is strip aside all the conceits and lies that we tell ourselves to make ourselves more palatable to others, but especially to ourselves. I might disagree with the focus on the extremes of sex, and there was something uncomfortably voyeuristic about certain passages, but this drive for honesty, however uncomfortable, was interesting and what kept me going.

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