With a couple of Nobel laureates and several other major writers gaining acclaim outside their own country, it’s fair to say that Japanese literature did fairly well in the twentieth century. However, one drawback of focusing on authors such as Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburō Ōe and Yukio Mishima, not to mention the bloke that likes cats, is that it can be easy to forget about other excellent writers (not to mention the many women struggling to have their work translated – but that’s a topic for another time…). Today, sees me returning to someone whose work I really should have read more of by now, so this recent release of a first translation in English was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Sachiko (translated by Van C. Gessel, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is a late work by Shūsaku Endō, best known for his classic novel Silence. The story is set in Nagasaki, taking us from 1930 to 1945 in the company of two young locals, Sachiko and Shūhei, whose youth coincides with their country’s shift towards militarism. The novel takes the form of a love story developing against the backdrop of an increasingly dangerous world, with the main characters having to put their lives on hold to do their duty to their country.
Just what that duty entails is not as easy to define as you might imagine. It’s no coincidence that the story unfurls in Nagasaki as the city was for centuries the heartland of Japanese Catholicism, and both Sachiko and Shūhei were raised in the Christian faith. Shūhei is forced to examine his beliefs and decide whether he can bring himself to become a soldier, but as the war approaches, he realises that this isn’t the question at all. The real dilemma is whether he can bring himself to follow what he believes in when these beliefs can only bring scorn and punishment upon his head.
Endō is known just as much for his religion as for his books, and Sachiko is another work focusing on the issues faced by local Christians in a non-Christian country. In Silence, the writer created a mesmerising story of persecution and the torment of faith, and there are echoes of this here three centuries on. On the surface, the situation is very different given the supposed freedom of religion in Japan, but as the war approaches, the pressure to conform starts to build. The Christians, until then tolerated and regarded as a bunch of harmless oddballs, suddenly become suspicious characters in need of close supervision. At times, ordinary Japanese even become bold enough to confront them:
As Sachiko and her mother were about to leave, the middle-aged man who reeked of liquor suddenly reappeared and called out to them,”Are you part of that Amen bunch?”
Sachiko’s mother looked at the man fearfully and tugged on her daughter’s arm. “Let’s go,” and tried to walk away.
“Christianity is a foreign religion. How wonderful for you to follow the religion of the foreigners while our troops are bleeding and dying in Manchuria. Don’t you feel any guilt toward them?”
p.25 (Columbia University Press, 2020)
While it’s initially just drunken men letting off steam, this resentment later becomes more widespread. The Christians must get used to being confronted after mass and followed by policemen letting them know they’re under tabs.
For Sachiko, most of this is an unwelcome inconvenience – for Shūhei, it’s a crisis. Having grown up as a Christian and a poetry lover, he’s doubly suspicious and condemned in an era when men have a duty to prepare to die for their country. To complicate matters, he’s not the most devout of Christians, prone to skipping mass and wondering how much faith he should really put in what he has been taught. Despite his reservations about the war, he gradually comes to realise that, unlike the martyrs of old, there’s little chance of him standing up for what he believes in, especially as he’s not always sure what that is.
Sachiko is a beautiful work, part love story, part tragedy, a tale of two young people caught in the wrong moment of history. Some of the more pleasurable moments of the novel come when the pair enjoy occasional days in the sun, spending a few precious hours on the beach or in an old, abandoned house they discovered in their childhood. These times away from those who think Shūhei’s not serious enough, or who consider him an effete traitor to his country, are in stark contrast with the dark atmosphere of the young man’s university and military days.
That’s not to say that his life is always dramatic, though. There are a number of lighter passages, especially during their childhood, and at the start of Shūhei’s studies in Tokyo. One nice touch is the attempt Shūhei and a friend make to have an adventure like the ones they love to read about. Alas, it doesn’t quite go to plan:
Thus ended the pathetic journey to the Izu peninsula of this duo, who returned to Tokyo with faces that closely resembled those of scrawny stray cats. As for Hesse’s hero, he was able to meet up again with the young woman from his past who had let him kiss her chestnut-coloured nipples, and the young man in ‘The Dancing Girl of Izu’ also had a chance meeting with a charming young woman in the course of his journey. But all Shūhei and Ōhashi had acquired on their journey were blisters on their feet and empty stomachs. (p.142)
All the time, though, the clock’s ticking down in the background through the early 1940s. As Sachiko and Shūhei struggle to find time to see each other, our knowledge of what’s to come adds to the poignant feel of their increasingly rare encounters.
There’s one other, slightly unusual, element to Sachiko, provided by the Polish missionaries who appear at the start of the novel. Their leader, Father Kolbe, returns to his country, and a while later we see him again – at Auschwitz. It’s a slightly unexpected twist, and in what seems like a story within a story, we follow this real-life character and witness his tragic end. This strand takes up a few chapters scattered around a third of the way through the book, and while it’s a little out of place, it’s undeniably powerful. What’s more, by the time you finish the book, you may see parallels with Shūhei’s fate thousands of miles away…
Despite being the title character, Sachiko plays a surprisingly minor role in the novel. There are chapters where her thoughts and prayers are at the forefront, and we see her going about her war-time factory work, but in truth she’s more of an observer than a protagonist, with far more attention paid to her love interest, so much so that you could be forgiven for wondering if the title is that appropriate. In fact, the novel is really about the period of Japanese history it’s set in, which is given a fresh perspective when seen through Christian eyes.
If you’re expecting another novel on the level of Silence, you might be disappointed, but Sachiko is still an excellent work, both for its portrayal of young love and the depiction of a society moving ever closer to tragedy. As the two young lovers attempt to navigate the constraints of both their culture and their faith to come closer, the reader is urging them on, mindful that there isn’t much time for them to do so. It’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and one thing’s for sure – it’s made this reader keen to try more of Endō’s work before too long 🙂