In anticipation of the release of Silence at some unannounced date in 2016, I’m going to read as much Shusaku Endo as I can. I have read several of his novels, but by no means all, so I started yesterday and today with one that was on my shelf, unread: The Sea and the Poison.
This was not Endo’s first novel, but it was one that brought him early acclaim. Published in 1958, it is based on historical events that Endo was the first to deal with in literature: the vivisection of eight American POW’s at a Japanese university hospital near the end of the war.
It was natural for me to read this book with Silence (published a few years later) in mind, and for similar themes to strike me: characters in professions dedicated to human well-being put in situations in which their action or inaction will result in others suffering and being killed; these situations being agonizingly fraught; a sense of being trapped in a situation in which there is no “good” outcome; the depravity of human brutality on full display.
And, of course, the question of…how?
It is, of course, a different book though. The focus is a bit more diffuse, as several characters come other scrutiny, and the characterization does not have a great deal of depth – they really do function as representatives of a culture rather than as people, but that is, perhaps, Endo’s point: to critique the nihilism of Japanese culture as it was at the time.
The book begins well after the war, in a town – a suburb, perhaps – of Tokyo. A man and his wife have just moved there, the man needs medical treatment and for it goes to the closest doctor, one Sugoru, who lives and works in dreary conditions, is mysterious and withdrawn, but who also has a surprising skill in the particular treatment in question, but with no human connection – bedside manner – at all.
We then move further back in history, to the end of the war at the hospital, where we remain for the rest of the novel. It’s a short book, so it doesn’t take long for us to meet the rest of the characters and get a sense of the situation: physicians, residents and nurses weary of war dealing with very ill, elderly patients – everything, it seems, is hopeless. War weighs on the situation, of course, but just as heavily is the politics of the hospital administration.
Sugoru, a young intern, has a conscience and cares for his patients, but he is really the only one. In short order, he is pulled into the experiments – given a choice, to be sure – but with no real argument presented against it. The prisoners, it is assumed, are going to die anyway, so why not in a way that will benefit others?
Now, here is what was interesting to me. Two other characters involved in the experiments are examined in depth. We get flashbacks exploring the backgrounds of Toda, another intern, and Nurse Nobu Ueda. Toda has absolutely no conscience, and never has. The void is illustrated through various stories from his childhood and youth. The nurse has experienced great suffering and loss, and her motivation for saying yes to participation are tied into that only in a reactive, complex way. For her, it is that by doing so, she will be a part of a secret of the chief surgeon’s life, a secret that his German wife – who has recently humiliated the nurse – will not be.
Anyway, what interests me is that Endo gives quite a bit of time to exploring the background and motivations of two characters who say yes to participation with little hesitation or pangs of conscience, but of Sugoru’s background – the one who begins the story and who is the only one to clearly have regrets – we know nothing. That’s a deliberate choice, of course, and it’s interesting to me. Endo is known for stories in which Japanese pantheistic culture and Western theism are in conflict, but that is not the case here, at least explicitly. Sugoru is not a Christian (the only character who is, presumably, is the German woman, who at one point asks, in a rage and in relation to another situation, if no one fears God’s judgment), so it is fascinating to me that Endo has chosen to not go into his background.
What is the effect of this? In a way, it simply renders him more of an Everyman. His conscience is not due to any specific experiences. This – conscience – is what makes us human beings – the failure of conscience, nihilism and total disregard for human life must be explained because it is a deviation.
The Sea and Poison is about excusing evil, about how evil can live under the veil of normalcy and about the tragic pointlessness of life defined by nihilism. It is about how evil can be domesticated as one more dimension of human attempts to gain power, to gain advantage over others or even, most paradoxically of all, to find meaning. How could this have happened? How could we have done this?
Endo invites his Japanese readers – and all of us – to confront this question. A conscience, human sympathy and respect for life are natural elements of human existence – but consciences of individuals and societies can be deadened and they can be distracted by festering wounds to the point that once, again, we see how true it is that the one fixated on the self is, paradoxically, the one who loses the self in the end.
After the procedure, several of the characters try to make sense of what they have done. They pause and study the location, they mentally revisit the moment. Resigned, they turn away and move on. Nothing has changed for any of them, except for Sugoru, for whom everything has changed, even though, like the sea, it all still looks the same.
A disturbing, thought-provoking book.