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.

Growing Up Is Hard to Do…

… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Zazie‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys,  crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.

Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).

The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:

– T’as vu le métro?

– Non.

– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?

– J’ai vielli.

Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).