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Book Review: Deep River by Shusaku Endo

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This is now the third book by Shusaku Endo I’ve read. Of my selections, one was mediocre (likely due to poor translation) and one was excellent (The Sea and Poison). Yet Deep River ranks somewhat in the middle — that is, falling closer the very good mark, and maybe only a notch below The Sea and Poison. Why his novel The Silence is regarded as his “masterpiece” I haven’t a clue, but again, now after reading Deep River, I am even more convinced the version of The Silence I read had a terrible translator. Deep River, translated by Van C. Gessel, is written in a spare, quiet and poetic style of writing that, while not intensely lyrical, contains poetic moments that are notable once the reader pulls back to view the larger canvas.

The story involves a group of Japanese tourists who converge at the river Ganges in India, and each individual is offered his and her own backstory. One of the most touching tales involves the case of Isobe, who has recently lost his wife to cancer. The book opens with his reflection upon receiving the news of her inevitable demise, and his wife’s descent into death is handled in such a way that is both realistic and emotionally powerful. For example, despite her knowing that she is dying, she manages to leave him notes as to how to mind matters of the house once she is gone. Things like, “Be sure to turn off the gas before you go to bed; here’s how to clean the bath tub—these were all tasks that he had left to his wife until now. She had explained each of them in simple detail.”

Later, we are given insights into their marriage, such as Isobe’s unfaithfulness, and how he had treated her indifferently, despite her having been a “dutiful” wife. He even admits his inability to see his wife as a woman, and after giving a speech at a banquet comparing a wife to that of air (in that one cannot live without it, yet air is something that should not be seen nor heard, and if a wife can be as air, then there will never be troubles between a husband and wife), he admits there is nothing wrong with married life being “dull and quiet.”

Yet later, the narrator notes: “Isobe couldn’t remember the expression on his wife’s face as she sat beside him and listened to his speech. But since she never said a word about it that night in the taxi or after they arrived home, Isobe assumed she must have agreed with what he said.”

But he had left out something very important in his speech. He had not touched on the fact that the plain, quiet, dull — in short, the ‘good’ — wife that Isobe had described, grows weary with the passage of time.”

This rumination appears again via way of the other members who have in some way felt rejected or are in search of some kind of higher fulfillment. Kiguchi cannot escape the fact that with a painful past comes painful memories —  those that involve his gruesome wartime experiences in Burma, and Mitsuko is a woman who is in search of reconciliation, but realizes she is incapable of loving another person, and is content to live the life of a drone: “She wanted to marry a man who had no interest in and no understanding of any of the things that stimulated the destructive force within her — Wagner’s operas, Redon’s paintings — and she wished earnestly, whole-heartedly to become a commonplace housewife and to bury herself like a corpse amongst men and women who were replicas of her husband.”

Mitsuko is perhaps the most cynical of the characters involved, though she seeks reconciliation with Otsu, a religious man she knew while in college, of whom she wanted to seduce in an attempt to break him of his faith.

Meanwhile, Numada has suffered from tuberculosis and believes he shares an abiding connection to animals. He also is convinced that a pet bird of his died for him once recovering from his illness. The moments among the characters are emotive and offer deeper metaphors against the larger context of the tale. For example, while these tourists are attempting their own form of “rebirth,” word arrives that the Prime Minister of India has been assassinated. Death is contrasted against life, and events in culture are also incorporated against that of the Hindu beliefs, notably the Andes crash of the 1970s where men had to cannibalize the flesh of the dead in order to survive. Elements of reincarnation as it pertains to Hinduism, as well as the rebirth involved in Christianity are intertwined within the tale, making Deep River both existential and spiritual, albeit not in the trite, New Agey way one would expect to find today. Each character’s scene is never mawkish, and the religion involved is there for merely layering, not for preaching.

Endo never seems to fail when it comes to his novels’ structure, in that he attempts different forms from multiple angles, and in doing so, he offers a larger landscape, yet never neglects the immediate and intimate that lives within his characters. A popular example of this approach can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, where the Endo influence is obvious, in how the story migrates from character to character, but then returns to its thematic center. Thus it does not surprise me that there is a blurb from Scorsese on the jacket sleeve of this book. Endo offers the rumination and detail of observation, and couples that with higher themes, making Deep River not necessarily a perfect read, but definitely a rewarding one.

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