This is a review and analysis of Shusaku Endos’s 1994 novel Deep River, his last. I started reading Endo recently, and reviewed his Kiku’s Prayer a few months ago. Endo’s controversial novel Silence has also been getting more attention lately due to the Martin Scorsese film adaptation currently playing in theaters.
Deep River may be interesting for those readers who read or saw Silence, and are looking for more from Endo, or are simply trying understand his point of view. Alternatively, it may be of interest to those who ponder why the faith seems to have flourished in some parts of the world, but not taken root in places like Japan. This is a longish review, and includes details that may spoil the story in case you prefer to read it first.
Deep River follows parts of the lives of five different people leading up to their meeting on a trip to India in 1984. Three of them are elderly Japanese men coming to terms with suffering. The two main characters are a Japanese man and woman engaged in a spiritual duel of sorts lasting several decades.
The three older men, Numada, Kugachi and Isobe, are to some degree biographical sketches of Endo or the men of his generation. Numada, like Endo, is an author who never quite got over the divorce of his parents, and has suffered from significant health problems later in life. Isobe is a representative of the traditional Japanese salary man who realized he never fully appreciated or loved his recently deceased wife. Kugachi is a WW2 veteran still trying to make sense of his and his fellow veterans’ experiences.
The main characters are Otsu, a Japanese Catholic who becomes a priest, and Mitsuko, an acquaintance from college who wrestles with alternative impulses to destroy and understand him. Mitsuko is trying to find herself, while Otsu is trying more and more to submerge himself into the Man of Sorrows.
In terms of style and structure, this is very different from Kiku’s Prayer. That book was almost a documentary about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 19th century. Deep River is more an examination of the interior states of its characters as they confront modernity and their own suffering.
Endo almost seems to be asking here whether any of the suffering explored in Silence and Kiku’s Prayer has been worth it, or why the sacrifice of so many martyrs has borne little obvious fruit. The Christians of mid to late 20th century Japan are considered odd by their compatriots, and Otsu is the butt of jokes and mockery by his fellow students. Endo tries to explore this issue, and offers his own thoughts through the words of Otsu and Mitsuke. Western Christians may not like the message.
Endo went to France as a young man to study French Literature. He alludes to this experience through Otsu’s time in a seminary in France. Endo appears to believe that the Scholastic, Aristotelian influenced mode of Catholic Christianity dominant since the Reformation simply does not work for many Asians. I am no theologian, but briefly, a key criticism of Scholasticism is that it is too rigid, too focused on using reason or logic to approach God. A more recent version of it, “Neo-Scholasticism” was the dominant mode of philosophy and theology within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th century. Some European theologians felt that this approach was limiting, and introduced ideas in the mid-20th century, often called Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”) that relied more on the writings of the Platonic influenced Church Fathers to address the problems presented by Modernism. Please note that this philosophical debate does not neatly fall into “liberal” or “conservative” categories, and there are no good guys or bad guys in this dispute.
Otsu voices Endo’s criticisms of “European Christianity” in a number of passages in which he describes his difficult seminary experience:
For three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve tired of the way people here think. The ways of thinking that they’ve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts … they’re ponderous to an Asian like me.
I can’t make the clear distinction that these people make between good and evil. I think that evil lurks within the good, and that good things can lie hidden within evil as well. That’s the very reason God can wield his magic. He made use of my sins and turned me towards salvation.
Again, its beyond my ability to well articulate Endo’s theological or philosophical view. He is not a heretic, but I think he views the logic, argument based form of Christian evangelization or Christian apologetics as not suited to Asia, or perhaps modernity in general. I think this is why he focused on the “failure” of several Jesuit priests as a key point in Silence. Rather, I think he is trying to encourage a focus on the more mystical, experience based approach of God’s mercy as often symbolized in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was the main symbol of faith in Kiku’s Prayer.
Otsu manages to become ordained, but is viewed with deep suspicion by his colleagues. He eventually winds up in India, where he ministers to dead and dying Hindus in a solo mission of mercy. He carries the bodies of the dying to the Ganges, the “deep river” of the book, which represents God’s deep and unending love for all people. The final wish of many Hindus is that their remains be placed in the Ganges, either whole or after cremation. The poor that Otsu serve cannot afford cremation, so he carries them on his back, like Christ carrying the cross.
Earlier, I referenced the “duel” between Otsu and Mitsuko, the book’s sole point of view female character, and really a stand in for all of us. Mitsuko and Otsu meet in late 1960’s Japan, and she is a liberated college student who drinks, studies and sleeps around. She is given the nickname “Moira” after a character in a French novel she has read. Moira is derived from an Irish version of Mary, and Mitsuko is a sort of “Mary Magdalene” figure.
She and her fellow students are amused by Otsu’s Christianity, and they egg her on to test and seduce him. While watching him pray one day, she makes a bet against the ugly Jesus on the cross that she will steal Otsu away from him. She seduces him into a sexual relationship, and then dumps him after a few months. Otsu is devastated, but later says that he hears Jesus speaking to him to “come to him,” and he interprets this as a sign to become a priest.
Mitsuko goes on to marry, but finds no peace. She tracks down Otsu to his seminary while on her honeymoon in France, and his determination to keep his faith she finds unsettling. She eventually divorces and becomes a volunteer at hospital, where she cares for the sick and dying. Years later she joins the trip to India after learning that Otsu has moved to India.
This dual repulsion and attraction is symbolized by Mitsuko’s interest in the various Hindu goddesses she learns about on her trip, such as Kali
In Endo’s view, we are all, like Mitsuko, Kali to an extent, wounded by original sin, and trampling Jesus with our resistance. The theme of a trampled Jesus was the key image at the conclusion of Silence.
Endo studied the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos while he was a student in France. I have also been reading Bernanos and reviewing some of his work at this blog. Deep River reflects this influence in the struggle between Otsu and Mitsuko. Bernanos’ stories were ones of spiritual combat, often reflected in a confrontation between a priest and a female character. This was a deliberate pairing by Bernanos; not because of misogyny, but because all souls are feminine in relation to the first and second persons of the trinity. We are part of the Church, which is the Bride to Jesus’ Bridegroom. In his novels, the male priests, in a mystical way, often endure suffering to allow the female character to respond to God’s grace.
Otsu is trampled by Mitsuko in her original sin stained Kali form through her insults, her seduction, and eventual rejection of him. The modern hatred of priests was also a theme of Bernanos’ work, best described in his Diary of a County Priest. There a variety of women slander, mock, and tempt the unassuming, gentle protagonist, a character not too different from Otsu. And despite this almost instinctive revulsion, Mitsuko keeps circling around him, and thinking about her sterile life and the promise of the Christian God. The duel comes to a head when they encounter each other on the banks of the Ganges at the end of the novel. Otsu offers himself as a sacrifice, and in my view, it leads to a spiritual breakthrough for Mitsuko. The ending is not clear, but my interpretation is that she has been given an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.
The positive feminine symbol that Endo offers in contrast to Kali is that of the Hindu goddess Chamunda, a mother goddess who as described by Endo symbolizing the suffering and abiding of India. Chamunda is not beautiful, and her image is worn down by pain and toil. She is a Virgin Mary figure who shows the wounds of humanity’s suffering in her image. As Mitsuko thinks about Chamunda, she increasingly becomes drawn to the river Ganges, which Otsu compares to the deep and all accepting love of Jesus.
In the end, I think Endo is making a plea to acknowledge the feminine, motherly side of God, which bears all suffering, and accepts everyone, regardless of their stated faith. As a member of a very small Christian minority in Japan, Endo had come to accept that God had ways of reaching people of all religions. This feminine side of God is made present in the appearance of several nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the book, the order led by Mother Theresa. I think the reader is invited to speculate whether Mitsuko, a nurse by training, stays in India and joins the order. I would also like to think that Endo would welcome some of the developments in Catholic devotion in recent decades, including a new focus on the mercy of God, as described by St. Faustina Kowalska (canonized in 2000), and Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.