Of the three books I received for review from Peter Owen Publishers last year, there was one that I immediately earmarked for reading during January in Japan. Shusaku Endo is fast becoming one of my favourite J-Lit writers, and having heard good things about today’s book, I was sure it wouldn’t disappoint. Luckily enough, this was Endo at his explosive (!) best…
Volcano (translated by Richard A. Schuchert) introduces us to Junpei Suda, an old man about to retire from his position as section chief at a Kyushu weather observatory. The town he lives in is overlooked by the (fictional) volcano Akadake, and ever since arriving in the town fifteen years earlier, Suda has been obsessed by the mountain which, literally and metaphorically, casts a shadow over his life.
Asked by a local councillor and businessman to give assurances that the volcano is unlikely to erupt again (and thus endanger a hotel project he is planning), Suda is able to trot out the results of his (pseudo-scientific) research. Comparing himself to Akadake, he believes that they are both moving closer and closer towards death. However, what if the research he has poured his heart into turns out to be wrong?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is the set-up for a Hollywood disaster movie, but that is most certainly not the case. This is J-Lit, and the volcano is not here to destroy the city but to act as a symbolic backdrop to Suda’s story. The words of the professor whose research Suda is attempting to carry on compare the volcano’s actions to human life:
“What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives rein to passions, and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of those past evil deeds, and it turns quiet as a grave. You younger men can hardly fathom the pathos of this mountain.”
p.27 (Peter Owen, 2012)
Suda swallows the professor’s opinions whole – which makes it even more upsetting when the volcano shows unexpected signs of life in its old age…
This side of the story, one in which the ailing old man, loathed by his family and quickly forgotten by his colleagues, has to face up to his life’s shortcomings, would be interesting enough. However, this strand is contrasted with another story, one in which Durand, an apostate Catholic priest, begins to meddle in the affairs of his former parish. The new priest attempts to treat the Frenchman with respect, but Durand has no interest in fitting in. Having lost his faith in the work he was sent to do in Japan, he intends to spend his final few hours proving that there is no point in spreading Christianity among people who are unable to understand it. As he says to the shocked priest:
“…it’s because there isn’t a single one of them that pays any attention to that enigma in the Japanese heart which makes their work completely sterile.”
“Give me an example, Durand San. What are you talking about?”
“For example…,” Durand grinned again. “For example, among the Japanese people there seems to be absolutely no concept of sin.” (p.44)
Durand’s views on sin and shame lead him to tempt a member of the congregation into behaving improperly. After all, if you don’t really feel guilty, where’s the harm…
Suda and Durand end up in neighbouring rooms in a hospital, and there are many things which connect them. Both are on their last legs; both are facing massive disappointment after the failure of their life’s work; both are a burden on (and an embarrassment to) the people closest to them. There is one major difference though – Durand would like nothing more than to see Akadake wipe the city off the face of the earth…
Volcano isn’t overly long (only about 180 pages), but it packs a lot of ideas and imagery into its story. Akadake looms over the town and the novel, but we don’t really need to know whether it is going to erupt or not. It represents everything that affects our lives, the ideas we are unable to escape from, despite living the fantasy of a ‘free’ existence. Suda, typically, attempts to ignore the signs he sees on his trips to the mountain, just as he deliberately ignores the growing coldness of his wife and children. Durand though attempts to fight against his ‘volcano’, with his petty attempts at corruption.
All in all, this is another success from a wonderful writer. Combining the Christian elements of Silence with the more contemporary setting of When I Whistle, Volcano shows that Endo rarely fails to deliver with his novels. I’d certainly recommend this one, and I’m already thinking about which of his I can get next. Any suggestions will be gratefully received 🙂