God of Mercy
Stained Glass Elegies by Shūsaku Endō
Shūsaku Endō is a Catholic Japanese writer. The stories of his which have been collected in Stained Glass Elegies and translated by Van C. Gessel circle around a few repeated themes of guilt, grief, weakness, martyrdom, and faith. And then there’s Incredible Voyage. We’ll get to that later.
Christianity arrived in Japan with Francis Xavier in the 16th century. Several warlords converted, including Sōrin Ōtomo, the most influential warlord in Kyūshū. Some were drawn by the religion’s message, others simply sought to foster close bonds with the strangers who had guns and technology to trade.
It soon became apparent that Christianity was a threat to the shogun’s political power. Mistreatment of Christians led to an uprising at Shimabara, which was put down brutally, with tens of thousands of Christians executed. The religion became illegal on pain of death, a decree that was not overturned until the 19th century.
As a Catholic in a land historically hostile to Catholicism, Endō’s characters arrive at their faith through weakness. They are marginalised, despised, and suspected. Like the first Christians, who scurried around the catacombs of Rome, they live maligned, misunderstood lives in the shadow of society, in a continent that rejects their faith as inauthentic and foreign.
After Shimabara, those suspected of Christianity were sent to Nagasaki, where they were made to tread on a fumi-e, a brass or bronze engraving of Jesus or Mary. Anyone who hesitated was taken prisoner. They were tortured, and if they did not renounce their beliefs, martyred. When you see photos of these icons, you can see the face of Jesus has been rubbed off entirely from the thousands of feet that have trodden on it.
Endō imagines this situation in The Day Before. A group of Christians are languishing in prison. One of their own, Tōgōro, has apostatised, but, feeling guilty, continues to reappear in a number of guises to watch their ordeals. Yet he is never strong enough to rejoin his brothers. Some children from the village are brought into the cell next to them, but they are part of the torture; one prisoner, peering into their cell, discovers “two emaciated boys catching dragonflies and stuffing them into their mouths.” (74)
Those like Tōgōro who either stood on the fumi-e or renounced their belief were able to return home. But they were wracked with guilt for their actions. They continued to practice their beliefs in secret, baptising their children with Portuguese names and praying to Christian icons disguised as Buddhist shrines. They were called the Kakure Kirishitans. They lived in remote towns isolated from the rest of Japan. When Christianity became legal again in the Meiji period, thousands of them broke their silence to rejoin the Catholic church.
But not all. Some carried on their secret beliefs, and in Mothers, the narrator travels to one of the remote islands to track down a modern-day Kakure. The locals despise the Kakure for their illiteracy, secrecy, and superstition. The Kakure continue to live simple, pious lives, venerating the martyrs of medieval Japan whom they betrayed, and praying to icons of Mary.
Interwoven with this story is that of the narrator’s mother. After her husband abandons the family, she turns to Christianity. The narrator cannot grasp her decision: “The words of the priest, the stories in the Bible, the crucifix – they all seemed like intangible happenings from a past that had nothing to do with us.” (120)
Struggling to balance his love for his mother with the contempt in which he holds her belief, the narrator’s relationship with her grows somewhat strained. He steals money and defies her by continuing to hang out with a friend of his, a local troublemaker whose family runs a brothel.
A message is sent to the boy while he is out one night. His mother has had a heart attack. The boy rushes home, but his mother is already dead. He is stricken with grief, not only for his mother’s death, but for his lack of filial piety: “No one turned to look at me; no one spoke a word to me. I knew from the stiffness of their backs that they all were condemning me.” (125)
Meanwhile, in the present day, as he is led to the house of a Kakure, he ponders on their curious beliefs. The Kakure, wrought with survivor’s guilt for abandoning the Shimabara martyrs, ask above all for mercy: mercy for lacking the strength to uphold their faith, and mercy for turning away from Jesus. They practice scourging (flogging themselves with whips) and chant Christian prayers that have merged with Buddhist chants:
The humiliation and anxiety of a traitor does not simply evaporate. The relentless gaze of their martyred comrades and the missionaries who had guided them continued to torment them from afar. No matter how diligently they tried, they could not be rid of those accusing eyes. Their prayers are therefore unlike the awkwardly translated Catholic invocations of the present day; rather they are filled with faltering expressions of grief and phrases imploring forgiveness. These prayers, uttered from the stammering mouths of illiterate kakure, all sprang from the midst of their humiliation. (128-9)
The narrator realises that the Mary whom the Kakure ask to intercede at the moment of death has merged with the Buddhist mother goddess of mercy, Kannon. This helps the narrator connect the guilt he feels for his mother’s death with that of the believer who does not live up to the teachings of Jesus. As he leaves the village, he walks side-by-side with the Kakure. The village guide goes on ahead of them, his back “stiff” and turned on the narrator and the Kakure. They, in their weakness, have found redemption through Christ.
Another story of martyrdom, that of Maximilian Kolbe, is re-imagined in Fuda-no-Tsujii. The narrator recounts a man he knew in his student days in the late 1930s, a “foreign monk” that no-one really knew or liked. They called him “Mouse” because he was small and meek. As the world marches to war, foreigners come under suspicion and scrutiny. The students despise Mouse and make a victim of him.
The narrator also looks down on Mouse, but after Mouse witnesses him being beaten up by the military police, the two are inextricably linked in some way by their weakness. They cross paths again at a gathering of a local Christian Research Association, which the narrator attends not out of faith, but simply “a desire to escape the increasing oppressiveness of student life and the mounting bloodthirstiness of the world outside.” (62)
After hearing a talk about the martyrs of Fuda-no-Tsuji in 1623, Mouse asks the narrator to lead him there. The narrator, somewhat tongue-twisted in his disgust at Mouse, somehow finds himself obliging. As they arrive at the spot, Mouse reflects in silence, and the man, recognising those martyrs had died on the spot he is standing, starts to be moved. He quickly shuts it out by turning his thoughts against Mouse again: “You couldn’t do what they did. I might be worthless myself, but there’s no way you could do it, either.” (66).
In the present day, reminiscing with friends about the past, the narrator learns what became of Mouse. After returning to Europe he was caught up in the war and sent to Dachau. There, a fellow prisoner was sentenced to death by starvation, and Mouse offered to die in his place. This time the narrator cannot help but be moved by Mouse’s faith:
The realization that Mouse had been in such a place filled the man with wonderment. And if, in fact, Mouse had died for a friend – for love – then that was not a tale from the long-gone days of the Edo period, but an incident that commanded a place in the man’s own heart. Who or what had effected such a change in Mouse? Who or what had carried Mouse to such a distant point? (68)
All of the stories I’ve talked about so far have focused on faith. Many of them also involve—or reflect upon—the narrator’s having been in hospital for several years and undergoing a major, life-changing surgery. Endō himself was apparently often sick. He had pleurisy, tuberculosis, and scoliosis. Part of his lungs and several ribs had to be removed.
Yet even as his characters reflect on their misery, trying to obscure their weaknesses and the bullying they face by reflecting it onto others, Endō also has a mischievous sense of humour that comes out here and there. That’s the case in The Day Before, where the starving Christians, being marched around between different forms of torture, continue to point out various figures in shambolic disguises here and there, which turn out to be the apostate Tōgōro, repeatedly trying and failing to confront his shame. “Hey, there he is!”
And to drive home that Endō really does have this playful side to him, Gessel has included, among all these tales of sickness and martyrdom, one of the silliest stories I have ever read. Incredible Voyage is based on a 1966 American Science Fiction movie Fantastic Voyage. It is the future and the ability to shrink people has revolutionised the way surgery is done; now, an expedition shrinks themself, enters the patient inside a miniature submarine, and performs the procedure from within.
Bontarō, a young physician, is in love with Sayuri, the sister of his friend Gōichi. She is coughing up blood. A preliminary examination shows that “the mucosa between the heart and lungs had been attacked by cancer.” (83) Unbeknown to Sayuri, Bontarō manoeuvres himself onto the four-man expedition, led by Gōichi, to cut out the cancer from inside Sayuri:
They had arrived at the spot where they would be injected into her body. As far as they could see the area was thickly overgrown with appeared to be reeds withered by the cold of winter; this was in fact the down growth of hair on the surface of her skin. Although he had already participated in twenty intravenous operations, on this occasion Bontarō was deeply moved. Ah, so this is Sayuri’s skin! (87)
Bontarō is in boyish wonder that, hidden out of sight, lying within the girl he loves, are the same organs that everyone else has. A cluster of red blood cells flies overhead. The team get down to cutting out the cancer-cells. Two hours later, the job is done. But after a celebratory drink of mini-whisky goes too far, Bontarō drunkenly misses the turn-off back to the extraction point, and the submarine is swept down to the large intestine. Because of the “air pressure”, he is unable to turn back.
The crew are racing against the clock. They need to escape Sayuri before she wakes up. A plan is devised to exit through the digestive system, but it turns out that Sayuri did not relieve herself before the operation like she was supposed to. In desperation, the crew exits the submarine and starts cutting their way through Sayuri’s stool while fighting off threadworms. To finally propel their submarine out the bum, they irritate the wall of... wherever they are, and are finally swept out on a gust of wind (gross).
Bontarō is still somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing when he runs into Sayuri a few days later. His involvement in the surgery is still unknown, and he makes up an excuse for all the bruises and injuries he sustained during it. Sayuri tells him to be careful and a bit of the boyish enchantment returns: “Despite it all, he thought she was beautiful. He knew he loved her. In the end love had won out over physiology.” (95)
An engrossing collection, for sure. The best stories are those which deal with guilt, pain, and humiliation. But—maybe it’s childish—a little toilet humour, a little giggle in these lighter stories in between them helps us reset our emotions. As well as belief, one needs relief. I’m glad Gessel showed us Endō, the other Endō , the silly Endō, the one who writes about fighting threadworms in women.