I only feel comfortable rating this novel 3 stars because I enjoyed a few of his other novels so much more.
To be clear, there was nothing bad about it. It was a historical novel about the clash of religion and politics between Japan and Europe. There is much discussion of power and faith, which are two of Endo’s primary concerns as an artist. Yet I hesitate to hail this work as a masterpiece because I did not feel drawn or even connected to the characters.
Unlike in The Sea and Poison and The Girl I Left Behind, I felt that Endo’s true powers lie in depicting stark human emotions and that this then represents one of the weaker offerings. Consider his book The Golden Country. It also deals with the struggles of missionaries in Japan, but it is a visceral and memorable account, compact and simple. Aside from the thesis statement dialogue in The Samurai I failed to find most of the scenes memorable. You can certainly read this work for its mature, intellectual discernment, for its historical accuracy or for the pristine prose, which never fails to convey a clear message, but I will turn to Endo’s other novels for more variety and more passionate portrayals of human beings. I look forward to delving into the other novels in his oeuvre.
Not only was the female character a good character, but the way she is portrayed did not seem as unrealistic as it might have played out in a film or more conventional novel. The way Endo described the novel in his Afterward as a youthful effort was nothing more than modesty, I thought, since the emotions in the novel were so raw and real. His writing is precise and effective. More to the point than Mishima.
The main character was full of faults and even if you don’t take him as a veiled autobiographical character, he is a bold portrayal of a human being. The sacrifice that the female character makes is well prepared, and as the author admits, taken from real life situations. The minor incidents in the novel serve to build up the characters but they also give the reader the feel of the time and place recounted. There is in it the struggle both inner and outer that many of us face at some point in our lives, of leaving people and things behind, and the sadness that comes with moving on through life’s phases. Endo’s message is universal, and I hope this book will still be read 500 years from now.
The struggle is affecting and powerful and unexpected at times. We are in the hands of Fate or God, and what we choose to do with our short lives is up to us. We have an effect on every single person we meet. That is the inherent message and it is well conveyed and beautifully depicted. The prose is startlingly simple and powerful and the straightforward plot is memorable. No matter what you believe, the themes the author weaves into his narrative are not overbearing or preachy, they are contemplative and will lead you to ask questions no matter which side you’re on.
I felt a note of nostalgia in it as well. Doesn’t everyone meet a girl (or a boy) in their youth, who they never really stop thinking about, but who does not end up playing a huge part in our lives, who was just there for a brief moment, burning brightly, and whom we can never truly let go?
We always want what we cannot have. This is part of life’s beauty and struggle. Even when the main character gains a semblance of a successful life, there is inevitably something missing.
This is a good place to start for readers of Endo, and I greatly look forward to discovering the mysteries of existence in his other works.
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