Shusaku Endo is one of our recent additions to the J-Lit Giants hall of fame, and a well deserved one. I’ve enjoyed several of his books, and I’ve had this novel, highly recommended, on the shelves for a long time. Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint…
Deep River (translated by Van C. Gessel, published by New Directions) is centred on a package tour to India by a group of Japanese tourists in October 1984 (the date is significant…). Over the course of just over two-hundred pages, we meet many people, all with different motivations for making the trip abroad.
Four of the group members stand out. There’s Numada, a children’s author, who finds peace in nature, preferring animals to people; old soldier Kiguchi, returning to the subcontinent to make offerings to his dead colleagues; Mitsuko, a single woman searching for meaning in her empty life; and Isobe, an old man whose wife recently died of cancer. Her last wish was for him to look for her after her death – you see, she believes in reincarnation…
The story starts off slowly as we learn about the background of the main characters and their reasons for joining the tour. While interesting in its way, I was a little impatient at times, with the writer taking half the book to get us to India. It is important though, as these first chapters set up everything that happens when we arrive.
Of the main characters, it’s perhaps Isobe and Mitsuko (who nursed Isobe’s wife in hospital) who stand out. Isobe is a typical, unemotional Japanese salaryman, learning to cope with life alone after decades of being cared for in a conventional, dry Japanese marriage. His wife’s death throws him off guard, leaving him unable to quite grasp what has happened:
“Isobe could not bring himself to believe that the strangely pallid fragments of bone strewn in the box were those of his wife. What the hell is this? What are we doing? He mumbled to himself as he stood beside his weeping mother-in-law and several other female relatives. This isn’t her.”
p.18 (New Directions, 1994)
He doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but with his life partner gone, he decides it’s worth thinking about. And so he sets off to look for his wife…
Mitsuko is a very different case. Divorced, jaded, angry – she’s looking for something to occupy her as she exclaims:
“Just what the hell is it I want?” (p.68)
Despite her affluence and attractive appearance, she’s trapped in an empty life, seeing herself in the tragic heroine of a French novel she reads, Thérèse Desqueyroux. Her fate is linked with that of an aspiring catholic priest Otsu, her former lover, who she attempted to seduce and steal from God during her university years.
Otsu, while absent for long periods of the novel, is another important figure. He’s a Japanese Christian with dangerous heretical opinions, views which prevent him from ever progressing in his quest to become a priest. Pantheistic and inclusive, he’s a Christian of the east, unable to accept the strict doctrines of the Catholic church. In many ways, it’s inevitable that he’ll end up in India.
When he sees the Ganges, it’s as if he’s found what he’s been looking for all this time. It’s a river of life and death, inclusive and welcoming:
“The river, as always, silently flowed by. The river cared nothing about the corpses that would eventually be burned and scattered into itself, or about the unmoving male mourners who appeared to cradle their heads in their arms. It was evident here that death was simply a part of nature.” (pp.144/5)
The river is a backdrop to the later story and the scene of several pivotal events. Those who stay by the river, giving up on the usual tours, get to catch glimpses of the ‘true’ India. There are weddings, beggars, caste discussions and filth…
The tour group, of course, is no homogeneous unit, but a small microcosm of society. It consists of many people with different reasons for making the trip, each of whom sees India in their own way. In addition to the main characters, we also have a young married couple who loathe the dirt and noise of the country – and a tour guide who loves the country and hates the people he has in tow… The tourists are chance fellow travellers, people with little in common thrown together for a short time – but isn’t that exactly what life is?
Deep River is a beautiful novel containing stories about people with issues in the late 20th century. In a consumer society which has lost its way, it seems that everyone has their own cross to bear. In discussing pantheism and Christianity, reincarnation and nihilism, Endo (along with his creations) asks us how we should live our lives. Otsu, who perhaps has thought most about this problem, eventually finds an answer of sorts in the words of Gandhi:
“There are many different religions, but they are merely various paths leading to the same place. What difference does it make which of those separate paths we walk, so long as they all arrive at the identical destination?” (p.191)
That could just about be a fitting epitaph for a great book.