When I Whistle

This 1971 novel by Shūsaku Endō (translated from Japanese by Van G. Gessel) tells the story of a father and son, separated by time and temperament and war. The father, Ozu, spends much of his time looking back on his life before and during World War II. His memories center on his friend Flatfish, a lovable misfit who was obsessed with a young woman named Aiko. Aiko scarcely recognized Flatfish’s existence, having met him initially by chance and rarely seeing him after that. But Flatfish centers his life on becoming a man Aiko could love and then doing whatever he can to show his affection.

It is, I have to say, a little creepy. But Flatfish is not a threatening figure, as he spends much of his time on his personal self-improvement and very little on actively pursuing Aiko. And now, decades later, Ozu is haunted by that misbegotten love.

As Ozu reminisces, his son, Eiichi, is striving to become a successful doctor, but his priority is not to save lives but to climb the ladder of prestige. He learns early in the novel that prioritizing patient care is a good way to wreck your changes of promotion, so he does what he’s told, even if it involves dodgy medical tests. At the same time, he seeks ways to improve his status, by wooing the daughter of an influential doctor at the hospital and by sabotaging the career of a colleague who appears to be on his way up. It’s not a great picture of the medical profession.

So here we have two men, Eiichi and Flatfish, wooing women for different reasons. Flatfish loves ardently (albeit without real knowledge of the women in question), and that love propels him to study, work, and improve. For Eiichi, the pattern is reversed. It’s his ambition that drives him in his relationships with women, who are only useful if they help him in his career.

The pre-war life Ozu recalls is not idealized. Ozu remembers a lot of worry over getting the right exam scores and having to follow strict rules. But the war itself cultivated in Ozu a recognition that life and comfort can be fleeting and that they are to be cherished. Small gestures of love matter in Ozu’s world. Eiichi exemplifies a harsher worldview, where personal success is the guiding light. His view is not meant to be entirely of his generation — at least one colleague feels differently — but the idea is systemic enough that a whole group of medical personnel are able to put their plans for a new drug trial in place, even if it risks patients’ lives needlessly.

What caused this shift? Is it meant to be seen merely as a generational shift within a family, perhaps attributable to Ozu’s reticence to talk about the war? Or is Endō trying to get at some larger societal shift in Japan? In his other books, Endō explicitly deals with questions related to spirituality and religion, but, aside from a couple of scenes, it’s never more than an undercurrent here. But there is an undercurrent, making the book feel like an elegy for lost spiritual connections in a time when climbing the ladder is the priority in life.

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