Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of my all-time favorite books, but it’s taken me years to finally get around to reading another of Endo’s books. The book that I chose was his final novel, Deep River. In it, a group of Japanese tourists travel to the Ganges in India. Each one has a particular quest in mind. Isobe is seeking the reincarnated spirit of his wife, Kiguchi is trying to come to peace with memories of war in Burma, Mitsuko is hoping to encounter the Roman Catholic student she used to tease in college, and Numanda wants to commune with the birds. Endo charts each one’s journey, showing what India—“in which purity and defilement, holiness and obscurity, charity and brutality mingled and coexisted”—teaches each one.
I’m afraid that Deep River didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It shouldn’t be a great surprise that this was the case. I love Silence so much that it would be hard for any book to live up to that. That’s not to say I disliked this book. I found several passages to be deeply moving, but as a whole, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for.
The first half of the book reads almost like a series of short stories. In these chapters, Endo gives the background of each of the characters going on the trip to India. The only characters I got particularly attached to at this stage were Mitsuko and the young priest-in-training, Otsu. And these two remained the most interesting characters for me throughout the book. In their conversations, Endo deals with some of the themes that were touched on in Silence, specifically the ways in which Christianity is a Western religion that has to be reimagined for an Eastern world. In a letter to Mitsuko, Otsu, then studying in France, writes,
In the final analysis, the faith of the Europeans is conscious and rational, and these people reject anything they cannot slice into categories with their rationality and their conscious minds. … At the seminary they were most critical of what they saw as a pantheistic sentiment lurking in my unconscious mind. As a Japanese, I can’t bear those who ignore the great life force that exists in Nature. However lucid and logical it may be, in European Christianity there is a rank ordering of all living things.
Later in the novel, when Otsu is in India, he talks about how he sees God in all religions and how he has chosen to live according to that belief, for example, by ensuring that the bodies of outcast Hindus are properly cremated according to their custom, all the while praying for God to “accept and enfold [them] in [God’s] arms.” The presentation of some of these ideas gets heavy-handed at times, particularly toward the end, but those unfortunate moments don’t detract much from the beauty of some of Otsu’s statements. This beauty shines through even when Otsu, as part of an inside joke with Mitsuko, refers to God as his “Onion.” In fact, the references to God as “Onion” probably keep these passages from coming across as unbearably preachy.
For me, the other characters never come to life to the same degree that Mitsuko and Otsu do, although each one does get a lovely moment or two. They each felt like a representative of a specifically Japanese mind-set, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what they represented. I could snatch at bits and pieces, such as Isobe’s regret that he didn’t appreciate his wife when she was alive, but I felt like my understanding was incomplete. The bigger problem, however, is the degree that the characters felt more like constructs than like people. A smaller cast, with more fleshed-out characters, would have been more satisfying.
It would probably not be possible for another novel by Endo to touch me the way Silence did. It’s not an understatement to say that it transformed a good deal of my thinking about the nature of faith. This book doesn’t do that, and it would not be fair for me to expect it to. Deep River is a good book, with some amazing descriptions, and the translation by Van C. Gessel flows nicely. It just wasn’t amazing, and I had gotten used to the name Shusaku Endo being the equivalent of amazing. My mild disappointment in Deep River won’t stop me from reading more Endo, though. I’ll just go in to the next book more aware that not all of his books are Silence.