The Samurai by Shusaku Endo
1 July, 2010
Silence by Shusaku Endo seems to be a favourite amongst bloggers this year and I was thinking of reading it believing I had a copy on my TBR pile, but instead I found myself with a copy of Scandal. Well, they both begin with an S… I was then browsing in my local library and found The Samurai and snapped it up (naturally). I have to confess this is my first novel by Endo who has been on my radar for a while (I actually have another novel by him, The Volcano which I’m hoping to read later) and felt a tad intimidated as he’s one of Japan’s foremost writers plus a favourite of my favourite David Mitchell (I will stop going on about him one day, really!)
So I was expecting Endo’s novel to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be so beautifully introspective. There’s been a lot of discussion on blogs about translations and the importance of translators and I feel that with Van C. Gessel who translated The Samurai, Endo struck lucky because it was smooth, well paced and captured the spirit of the novel.
Endo is famous for being a Catholic writer in Japan, and his work addresses the issues that Catholics faced in Japan throughout their turbulent history. On top of this add the complex nature of Japan’s isolationist policy in the 17th century, their attitude towards foreigners and the religious, political, military and economic ambitions of the great European naval empires and you get a very intricate and multi-faceted story to tell.
In The Samurai, Endo focusses on Hasekura, a low-ranking samurai, and his trip to Nueva España (Mexico), Spain and Italy in the company of Father Velasco, an ambitious Franscican Padre. Japan has finally been unified under Tokugawa Ieyasu who has expelled the Christian missionaries from Edo (Tokyo) resulting in a mass migration south of Europeans and converted Japanese Catholics to more accomodating pastures. Some of the powerful clans outside Edo are interested in the European trade concessions and are eager to forge alliances with the Europeans. Hasekura and his companions are sent on a mission by their feudal lord to open negotiations with Nueva España. Father Velasco, their translator, is determined to become Bishop of Japan and convert them in the process. Endo spins a tale about the journey both physical and spiritual over the course of seven hard years and the fate of these men when they return to a Japan that has changed considerably in their absence.
What Endo has done with this novel is to show the internal struggles that people have with their faith: questioning, discovering and affirming. It’s not an easy journey and it’s not always beautiful. What struck me was that he really understood Christianity to be a religion for the poor and suffering, especially for those with no hope of escape from their indenture and grinding poverty, and you can understand why so many people converted to Christianity in the face of such deadly repercussions. Life wasn’t fair, especially for the poor and weak. And Endo does this beautifully in his portrayal of the samurai Hasekura and his loyal retainer Yuzo. I loved this book for its quiet beauty, especially Endo’s description of the harsh reality of rural life, whether you were a samurai or a commoner. This is not a quick read but I didn’t want to miss a single word. And what is amazing is that Endo based his tale on real historical figures.