Published: Jan 31, 2010
In the sixth episode of the final season of "’Lost," a novel — Deep River, by Shusaku Endo — figures in the plot.
So I read it.
What I didn’t anticipate: that I’d be knocked out by the book.
First, a snapshot of the author. Shusaku Endo (1923–1996) was raised as a Catholic in Japan. Talk about minority status — only one per cent of the Japanese are members of the Church. And Endo was far from a traditional Catholic. After the war, he traveled to France to study French Catholic writers. But in France, he encountered racial slurs — from fellow Christians. He became depressed and developed tuberculosis so severe that he needed to have a lung removed. Unsurprisingly, he felt his faith was being tested. Then, on a visit to Palestine, Endo had a flash of insight: The rejection he felt was a pale version of the rejection Christ experienced. And that gave him direction. As a writer, he’d go where Christ did: to the poor, the sick, the despised.
Endo’s novels — like “Lost” — not only explore extreme situations, they’re shot through with questions of faith, and especially this one: Is there free will or do we surrender to our fate? But they don’t read like spiritual tracts; his prose is clean, worldly. His plots move. If Endo is considered the Graham Greene of Japan, it’s because he worked at it. “Before I write a book, I always read The End of the Affair,” he said. Greene noticed — he called Endo one of his favorite novelists.
“Deep River” begins in a hospital room, where Isobe’s cancer-ridden wife is preparing herself for death. It’s a bitter moment — Isobe never really noticed her while she was alive, and revealing his feelings now is impossible for him. Approaching death, though, the bland woman who obediently made his dinner and cleaned his clothes finds her voice. And her pronouncements are stunning. “The tree [outside her hospital room] spoke,” she tells her husband. “It said that life never ends.” And more: “I’ll be reborn somewhere in the this world. Look for me…. promise….”
She dies. He’s lost. To create some activity, Isobe attends a meeting of Japanese interested in traveling to the holy sites of India. Mitsuko Naruse, one of his wife’s nurses, is there — but as we quickly learn, she’s not the serene saint he recalls from the hospital. As a college student, she was a French lit major, and a clichéd one at that; she drank, had meaningless sex, mocked religion. As a joke, she seduced Otsu, a devout Catholic. Then she made such a conventional marriage that, during her honeymoon in Paris, she fled to the provinces to see Otsu, now living in a monastery in rural France. Years later, divorced and empty, she’s drawn to India. (Also on the trip: a children’s book writer who loves animals and a World War II veteran plagued by terrible memories of the Japanese retreat through the Burmese jungle.)
Each character is presented as a “case,” and these case studies are so vivid you’ll be in no rush to get to India. But suddenly we’re in Varanasi — “the city where people gather in order to die” — and you’re either dazzled or disgusted. All those people! The stench! The poverty! The terrifying images of Hindu goddesses! And the Ganges! They call the river holy, but how can pilgrims bathe in water that has the floating ashes of the recently dead swirling by?
And wouldn’t you know it — here is Otsu, still a Catholic but shunned by the Church, giving Christ-like service to the poor by carrying bodies to the funeral pyre. Will the Christ he now sees in every religion bring him final comfort? Will he be able to open Mitsuko’s heart to the love of God? Will Isobe find the reincarnation of his wife?
Then Indira Gandhi is assassinated, and what these people believe suddenly has unforeseen consequences.
For a novel about large philosophical and spiritual questions, "Deep River" is remarkably accessible. I’ll remember the universal search for God in these pages, but what I’ll recall more vividly are the sharply drawn scenes of cannibalism in Burma, drunken sex in Tokyo, death rites in Varanasi.
In the very first episode of “Lost”, Locke explains how to play backgammon — and maybe more. “Two players, two sides,” he says. “One is light, one is dark.” Maybe that duality is the connection to the moral codes of Endo’s novel. But that’s just throwing a dart. What I do know, when I put the book down, is that I was plagued for hours by the images of the Hindu goddesses that the travelers see in a subterranean temple. For these images gave me “an unobstructed view of the writhing elements concealed beneath the level of their own conscious minds."
It says a lot about the underlying seriousness of the creators of “Lost” that, when they reached for a book, they chose a novel as disturbing and powerful as “Deep River.”
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