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Book Review: The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo

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I open this review on a pleasant note, in that, after having recently read one of Endo’s well known and acclaimed works that proved to be quite mediocre, I am happy to say that The Sea and Poison is an excellent book. After having previously read Silence, and losing count of the number of clichés throughout the text, I was reluctant to believe this poor wording could be due to Endo, rather than the work of the mediocre translator, William Johnston. The Sea and Poison is translated by Michael Gallagher, and Gallagher reveals Endo’s prose to be something fresh and void of clichés throughout. This says that Gallagher’s translation likely bears a closer resemblance to how Endo’s prose is in his native language.

The book tells the story of Dr. Suguro and his experiences working with prisoners of war during World War II, and how he was instructed to assist in horrific experiments upon these prisoners, including live vivisections as well as other experiments involving the injections of substances within prisoners’ bodies. Examples include saline injections into the blood stream to determine the volume needed in order to induce death, testing the amount of air that can be injected into the veins until the prisoner dies, and the removal of lung tissue from live prisoners. Dr. Suguro is first encountered in the prologue — the speaker who encounters him is a man who must go to him for a routine injection, and the man notes that Dr. Suguro seems strange, detached, and ensconced within his odd, distant house. Though the man receiving the injection cannot help but notice that Dr. Suguro has impeccable technique, and that he is able to deliver a shot into the ribs without it hurting him at all. Later, when the man meets another doctor at a family wedding, he asks the other doctor about Dr. Suguro, who then begins disclosing more information about Dr. Suguro’s past.

The narrative follows a similar pattern to that of Silence, in that the story is told via way of multiple narrators, and the reality Dr. Suguro must discover is that many of his colleagues are driven to enhance their own careers, rather than actually helping the sick. Yet despite the subject matter, The Sea and Poison is not an overly gory or grisly novel when it comes to description, but rather focuses instead on the characters involved as well as the ethical, philosophical, and moral decisions they must make. The Sea and Poison remains primarily a philosophical and existential work, rather than historical, since one could argue, that given the time it was published (1958), not a lot of information about the atrocities performed by the Imperial Japanese Army upon prisoners of war was that well known.

Likewise, Suguro must face his own ethical dilemma when he is instructed to perform a live vivisection on an American prisoner who dies as result. Later, when discussing the procedure with one of his colleagues, Suguro insists that someday they will “have to answer for it.” What makes this statement all the more ironic (as well as saddening) is that many scientists who participated in these crimes in fact not only went unpunished, but died wealthy men. Endo ends the book brilliantly by showing both the lack of concern as well as any resolution gained by way of Suguro’s colleague who responds with, “Answer for it? To society? If it’s only to society, it’s nothing to get worked up about…If those who are going to judge us had been put in the same situation, would they have done anything different? So much for the punishments of society.”

Perhaps the only resolution, then, is the indifference felt by Suguro’s colleague, Toda, as well as the other doctors. Or since one’s conscience can be dictated, there is no resolution, in other words. The fact that Suguro is the one pondering his conscience makes him the odd man out in this situation.

The novel ends with Suguro quoting lines he is physically unable to finish. It is in this final scene where we begin to take note of both his disillusionment and despondency as actually becoming physical things, affecting not only his mind, but causing a physical reaction in him. This moment ties back to the beginning, when we first notice him strangely isolated and off by himself in his dingy house. Perhaps he did morally suffer on account of his actions after all, and this is what makes him human and someone readers can relate to. In The Sea and Poison, evil is something that is passed over, in that no one is willing to accept the responsibility for their own actions, but would rather fault the situation and circumstance. In this case, the book does pose a difficult dilemma, as in, where is the line between one’s duty and accountability? And what if one’s duty conflicts with one’s ethics? We see via way of the narration that when faced with this dilemma, one must adhere to something, so very often the scientists performing these crimes regarded their own self interest first, that is, their duty to their job as well as to the Emperor. Yet simultaneously they composed justifying arguments on behalf of their actions, all the while ignoring their personal ethics, or even in some cases, eliminating their ethics entirely.

The Sea and Poison is both philosophical and political in the best sense, but never does it turn terribly preachy, and nor does it lose its subtlety. Given the subject matter, this book could have very easily gone way of the condescending, mawkish route, but Endo trusts the intelligence of his readers too much to allow that to happen. The Sea and Poison is a book that begs for more than one reading.

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  • Dr. John

    Having just finished (again) The Sea and Poison, I must agree with the review. In fact, having recently also revisited Norwegian Wood (Murakami) and several other titles that one would recognize at once, Endo’s book comes off as more impressive than I had originaly considered. In fact, the characterization is outstanding–and the interaction of these characters–without interaction, I suspect contributes to one or more of the themes. The last line above, to me, is particularly important. As with multiple redings of Blood Meridian, one is likely to come away with more the second time. For me, The Sea and Poison remains one of the best triumphs in the form for a Japanese author.