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Book Review: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

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The Samurai is not the first time that Shusaku Endo has written about the persecution of Christians during the 17th century. He also did it in The Silence, which is considered to be the more popular and richer of the two works, even though I found The Samurai to be a better work overall. Part adventure tale, part historical novel, and part internal, The Samurai put me in mind of two other works, notably the most famous book involving men on a ship: Melville’s Moby Dick, and also Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage.

The Samurai does not have quite the colorful characters that Melville’s book has, and there are times where Endo dips into didacticism when it comes to the topic of religion. So with regards to that, The Samurai is not as “concise” as Middle Passage, and nor is it as rich as Moby Dick, but The Samurai is a different work entirely, one that mixes historical fact and fiction with that of internal character rumination.

Rokuemon Hasekura is a low-level samurai who is sent, along with a number of other “low rankers” on a boat voyage to Mexico (Nueva Espana). A Franciscan priest named Velasco accompanies them, and he wishes to develop a trade agreement between Japan and other foreign territory, hopeful to someday earn the title of Bishop of Japan.

Religious and cultural clashes arise when the Japanese men agree to undergo Christian conversion, even though their reasons are not for the religion itself, but for their own personal gain they believe can result because of it. Endo does a good job portraying the biases between the cultures, as they embark on this mission that is no less doomed to failure:

“These people are like ants. They will try anything! When ants are faced with a puddle of water, some of their number will sacrifice their own lives to form a bridge for their comrades. The Japanese were a swarm of black ants with those very instincts.”

Endo addresses an interesting point, one that has carried throughout the years and following into World War II. Since the Japanese had worshiped their Emperor as though he were a god, much of the persecution of Christians stemmed from their lack of comprehension with regards to worshiping an “abstract god,” as opposed to the actual blood and bone being that was their Emperor. The Japanese on the ship agree to undergo Christian conversion because they believe it will help them with their foreign trade agreements. Yet the men struggle with their faith, and Endo excavates this point even further when he notes the following about the Japanese:

“Their sensibilities are firmly grounded within the sphere of Nature and never take flight to a higher realm. Within the realm of Nature their sensibilities are remarkably delicate and subtle, but those sensibilities are unable to grasp anything on a higher plane. That is why the Japanese cannot conceive of our God, who dwells on a separate plane than man.”

This argument, of course, could be made to distinguish the creative versus uncreative mind, or some might claim the idea of religious acceptance to be the easy way out (merely accepting the world was created in the way we are told, rather than dissecting what is already there in nature). But none of these points are addressed, and instead Endo argues the religious approach — believing that faith in God leads to higher things (Endo himself was Catholic), and this isn’t so much a criticism per se, but just something to consider. That despite the argument for a Christian God, there is no mention of the weaknesses that such beliefs can involve. Having said that, his arguments are those that few atheists and agnostics will agree with personally, yet Endo does manage to argue his side well, for what it is worth. But there are times when reading his religious points can become a bit tiresome.

After the men spend years in wandering (many of them suffering scurvy due to a lack of vegetables as well as suffering other forms of poor nutrition), they eventually return to Japan, only to undergo persecution on account of their Christian conversion, despite their efforts to hide any evidence of such. There is no happy ending to this tale. There is suicide by seppuku (since despite its sin, suicide was considered a better outcome to that of shame), death by flame, and amid all this, there is a certain quietness present, despite the tragedy, thus ending on a rather understated note. At one time all are there, and then all are not.

The Samurai is also filled with rich language throughout. Translated by Van C. Gessel, Endo’s prose matches the consistency of his other works. Interestingly, he describes stillness not by what it is, but by what it is not: “Stillness was not the absence of sound. Stillness was the rustle of leaves in the groves at the back, the occasional shrill call of a bird, and the shadow of a man starring at tiny flames in a sunken hearth.”

It is moments like these that play off the quiet ending so well. There is pathos, and yet a sense of inevitability. God is present for some, and yet not for others. So in some sense, God is not the de facto Almighty that the narration has makes it seem, but rather, what each reader senses. The last line is also a great one. After the burning, the narrator notes: “The officers and guards no longer stood within the bamboo palisade.” Simply put: they were, and then they were not.

The Samurai is not the best of Endo I’ve read, for I’d recommend his novels The Sea and Poison and Deep River before this one, simply because those books delve a bit more deeply into other matters of the human psyche. His short stories are also excellent, and his innovative structure and rich description is both memorable and impeccable. And while Endo does craft an interesting and complex tale in The Samurai, I cannot help but to think that his overt religious beliefs hindered him more in his fiction than helped. But every artist has his thing. So like a good Catholic, I have forgiven him.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Alex

    Could you explain his journey, from place to place?