Deep River by Shusaku Endo
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I completed Deep River last night. Here's my review:
I liked this book more and more as I read it. Each of the 5 characters' stories was engaging and poignant in a different way, but it really grabbed me after they arrived in India. Although Endo was a Christian, I didn't find find this story to be predominantly Christian. In fact, it strives to be much more than that-- the story of the journey to salvation and love that is common to several religions (Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.) I think Endo even makes a point that individual religions trying to own or constrain that journey is what leads to strife, poverty, war.
There are several Christ figures in the story: the myna, Otsu, Indira Gandhi, Isobe's wife, Kiguchi's war buddy, but then there's the Hindu goddess to balance it all out. I think this book would make excellent material for a comparative religion discussion. Even if it is a Christian story, it is definitely an Eastern interpretation.
Endo's writing was interesting to me. Having just completed three other Japanese novels, this book does read differently. It could be because it is more contemporary, but I realized I was not picturing Japanese characters in my mind while reading. Somehow, very subtly, his European affinity and influences come out in his writing. Could be the translation too. I look forward to reading more of his novels so I can compare them. 4.25 stars.
This book is ripe for discussion. There are many layers of subtleties in the themes and characters.
Has anyone else had the same experience reading Endo: that is doesn't feel as Japanese as other novels do? I could not away from picturing Mitsuko as a blonde haired blue eyed Caucasian.
Well, I have finished the first half of Deep River, which seems to primarily be comprised of character sketches and preparation for the journey to India. The following are the notes I made in my reading blog so far:
> Interesting that a Japanese author would select an Negro Spiritual as his epigraph, and likely the title, "Deep River"......
> Epigraph: "Deep river, Lord: I want to cross over into campground". I know the melody and it is beautiful....I have a Barbra Streisand version on CD "Higher Ground"
> Characters: Isobe (loses his wife, Keiko, to cancer, not before she tells him she will be reincarnated and he must search for her), Mitsuko (hospice volunteer for Keiko, has a history of competition with man, Otsu, for his allegiance to God), Numada (long history of revealing his inner self only to animals and birds), Kiguchi (survived starvation death march in Burma during WWII, friend, Tsukada, saved them, but suffered a lifetime over guilt for having eaten meat of fellow soldiers to survive), Gaston ( mysterious missionary in the tubercular ward with Tsukada, takes much abuse, then vanishes after helping him)
> I still have cultural bias which makes me think the Japanese reticence to demonstrate affection, even as simple as holding his own wife's hand, is incomprehensible
> Hindu belief regarding death: "...the soul is in limbo for seven days, then slips into the conjoined bodies of a man and a woman and are reborn as a new existence." This repeats every seven days until they are reincarnated, no later than the 49th day.
> p. 28..."The sacred river Ganges purifies the he art....".
> p.42....Interesting that the author references the age of persecution of Christians, which was the topic of his previous novel, "Silence".
> I suppose that Mitsuko's effort to seduce Otsu away from "that man", Jesus, is a metaphor for what many Japanese experienced regarding their Christian beliefs.....although it is Mitsuko who goes on to desert her husband on their honeymoon to "search out the darkness in her own heart" and seek Otsu at the seminary
> p.66...As he did in "Silence", Endo refers to the search for a "form of Christianity that suits the Japanese mind."
> p.77..."There was no question that this bird with the odd face was as big an annoyance and nuisance to Numada's wife, who had to tend to the house, as Jesus had been to the rabbis of his day"...Endo refers to paintings by Roualt of Pierrots....I still think this was a bizarre sentence to introduce out of the blue.
> I went and looked at prints of Roualt's paintings......many have Christ and/or the Crucifixion as the subject
> Numada's forced separation from his beloved Pierrot seems to be another Endo example of the pain of being separated from that which is precious
I finished the book this evening. I thought it was marvelous! The following are my notes for the second half, and my review:
> p. 109...The image as the tourists approach Varanasi....."Just as those who have had brushes with near-death experiences have claimed to see a dot of light at the end of a black tunnel at the far end of the darkness a brilliance like the light of a firefly gradually grew larger."
> Repeated references to the French novel "Therese Desqueyroux"....a nod to Endo's love for France or more
> p.119..."The thing we are most lacking in our modern word is love; love is the thing no one believes in any more; love is what everyone mockingly laughs at - and that is why someone like me wants to follow my Onion with dumb sincerity." - Otsu
> Otsu to Mitsuko: the Onion is within you, "I don't think God exists exclusively in the churches and chapels of Europe. I think he is also among the Jews and the Buddhists and the Hindus."
> p.128 ....Isobe's speech to young married couple, "A wife should be just like air to her husband. If you have no air, you're in trouble. But air is invisible to the eye. It never intrudes in your life. If the woman can become like air, they'll never have problems as husband and wife.".........LOL
> Hindu belief that the place where two rivers flow together is sacred.....I like that
> Repeated references to the notion of goddesses embodying love and brutality
> Interesting choice to have the story impacted by the death of Indira Ghandi, one of the many Chrst like characters in this story, vilified for trying to unify people
> Chamunda, Asian Mother Goddess contrasted to the Holy Mother of Europe
> Otsu: an outcast from his own religious group, indirectly killed by fellow countryman....Christlike reference, he also carried bodies of the dead and dying on his back as Christ carried the cross
> p.191 - "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?"....sums up the book
> p.211 - "What I can believe in now is the sight of all these people, each carrying his or her own individual burdens, praying at this deep river....I believe that the river embraces these people and carries them away. A river of humanity. The sorrows of this deep river of humanity. And I am a part of it."
>LibraryThing Review: This is the second Shusaku Endo novel I have read as part of a year long read of Endo's works on LibraryThing.com. Once again, Endo addresses the theme of religious belief. In this novel, a group of Japanese tourists travel to India, several of whom seek answers to their individual inner darkness. A grieving widow seeks his wife's reincarnated soul, a WWII veteran seeks peace for the soul of a friend, a fable writing animal lover seeks to right an old wrong, and a woman seeks answers from "The Onion"/Jesus/her nemesis, Otsu. Intrigued yet? Endo addresses the nature of humankind and its need for a religious belief system that encompasses all of humanity in its many forms. Chunanda, the ancient mother goddess who offers breast milk to all despite her ancient age and many years of suffering, seems to exemplify the nature of the River Ganges, the sacred site for the dead, the dying, and those seeking purification, regardless of who they have been during their lives. Endo weaves a fascinating story and tries to answer profound questions which at one time or another occur to most people. Does he offer an acceptable answer? I think you must decide for yourself!
Great novel - this is my 4th Endo novel and it was so completely different, it didn't feel like a Japanese novel. The translation into English was seamless and the characters could have been from any country. Each of the main characters - Numada, Mitsuko, Kiguchi, Isobe and Otsu - travel to India seeking answers. Their stories are poignant and I was totally engaged right from the start.
I finished the novel today, and agree that it is a remarkable work. In Endo's earlier novels he speaks to the idea that as a Japanese he has a broader perspective on Christianity than a Westerner, but I wonder if Deep River, coming much later in the author's life, doesn't also reflect a change in his personal beliefs to the more pantheistic views of the character Otsu. He has almost cut himself loose from Christianity altogether. Isn't it conceivable that instead of being a Catholic in Varanasi, Otsu could have been a Buddhist in Mecca or a Sikh in Rome and carried the very same message?
I see the core of the novel as being essentially humanist, independent not only of religious dogma but even of religion itself, which makes it meaningful even to a non-believer such as myself. After all, each of the four travelers comes away from the experience of Varanasi more fulfilled, but none of them, not even Mitsuko, could be said to have experienced a religious conversion.
I finished this book tonight, and here is a link to my review on my Club Read thread. I found this much more expansive and thought-provoking in its religious explorations than Silence and agree with Steven that I think Endō's own ideas evolved as he got older to encompass a broader view of religious experience. Nonetheless, despite the more pantheistic views of Otsu, I think he (Otsu) still considers himself a Christian and even explicitly compares his carrying dying people to the Ganges to Christ carrying the suffering of humanity. The other thing that really struck me about the book was the centrality of suffering to many religions and therefore, implicitly, to life.
"'Every time I look at the River Ganges, I think of my Onion. The Ganges swallows up the ashes of every person as it flows along, rejecting neither the beggar woman who stretches out of her fingerness hands nor the murdered prime minister, Gandhi. The river of love that is my Onion flows past, accepting all, rejecting neither the ugliest of men nor the filthiest." (185)
So says the despised Otsu, a Japanese rejected in Japan and Europe. Otsu's problematic is the problem of many of this people in this character-based novel: how do we have faith and overcome our traumas and ourselves? Endo's book follows a group of Japanese tourists as they make a spiritual and physical pilgrimage to India. Here, their Japanese stoicism fades away as they share their burdens with one another, the pasts that haunt each one of them. I was very touched by this book, the fourth Endo volume I've read.
I agree that it is less explicitly Christian than Silence, although Otsu and Kichijiro are still one and the same in my mind. Still, as a Christian I understood both Mitsuko's tart comment that faith is pointless and Otsu's insistence that he could not live without his Onion. I also understood Mitsuko's feeling that the goddess of India was more identifiable, more human, more mired in the dirt and filth and death of her nation, than the pure and virginal European Mary. Christians so often blow up the holier-than-thou quality of saints and even Jesus himself. Otsu did not see this duality - and rightly so. How does Christianity come to a culture where divinity and humanity, good and evil, truth and untruth, are not so separate and unblurred as in Europe? This question, and the Otsu-Kichijiro character type, seem to recur in Endo's fiction.
I also sensed that Endo may have written himself in as Narada, the middle-aged and kindly writer of childrens' books about nature. My only wish is that Mr. and Mrs. Sanjo had been murdered by the Hindu mobs.
While I loved this book, I am with Rebecca in not quite understanding what Endo's key message was (if there was one).
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