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.

I read this for Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literary Challenge 4.

13 Responses to “The Samurai by Shusaku Endo”

  1. Tony Says:

    I haven’t read Mr. Mitchell’s latest yet (it’s still sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me), but having read about Shusako Endo, I can see that there may be Endo influences in that book. I’d quite like to read one or more of his works…

    …but I already have so many other treats lined up 😦

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Totally understand. I still haven’t read Black Swan Green or the new book yet. I’m planning to do so this summer, but like you, I’ve got so many books I want to read… But you can always save Endo for next year’s JLC!

  2. amymckie Says:

    This sounds like a great book. I’ll have to try something by Endo eventually as his books have been getting rave reviews.

  3. Colleen Says:

    I have this book sitting on my shelf! When my reader’s block ends…

    The cover of my copy is almost cartoonishly misleading though; what’s the cover of the copy you read like?

  4. chasing bawa Says:

    amymckie: This was my first Endo too. I’m so happy I took the plunge!

    Colleen: My copy’s cover is the one in this post (published by Peter Owen). It certainly added to my reading of the tale. It’s not exactly a light read, so when you feel you have the space, go for it!

  5. Teresa Says:

    I absolutely loved Silence. It’s one of my favorite books, but I’ve yet to read more Endo. This one and Deep River are both ones I’ve thought about.

    And The Thousand Autumns is wonderful. It was my first Mitchell, and I intend to read more of his books too.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Agh, I really need to catch up on David Mitchell considering how much I go on about him! Definitely this summer!

      I’m definitely reading more Endo, I’ve got Scandal and The Volcano. I was really impressed with The Samurai. Amazing novelist. I was thinking of saving Silence for next year’s challenge (I’m really thinking ahead, aren’t I?) but I might just cave and get it this year. We’ll see.

  6. Fëanor Says:

    Slightly off-topic, have you read any of the translated Japanese fiction published by Haikasoru? There appears to be some stellar stuff…I think I’ll try it!

    • chasing bawa Says:

      No I haven’t! Thanks for letting me know. Although I’ve seen Battle Royale, the film, I haven’t read the book. But I have read All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe and am a great fan, so I might check out some of her other stuff. Most of the Japanese sf I’m aware of is in manga form, so it might be interesting to read actual sf novels.

  7. itoeri Says:

    have never come across “The Samurai” til now. wonder why, since it sounds like an incredible book and apparently is one of Endo’s masterpieces. i would love to read it, but first i need time to carry on with Mitchell’s De Zoet!

    i’ve been intrigued with stories about “Japan meets the West” since i was a kid. i still remember how i impressed i was when i read a book about the 4 boys who were sent to Rome as “Tensho Ken-o shisetsu” in the late 16C. prob one the reasons why i want to revisit Nagasaki, which i’ve visited when i was 8 or so.
    now i’m hooked on NHK’s TV series on Sakamoto Ryoma with Fukuyama Masaharu : )
    Nagasaki was the place where he set up a company to trade with the Europeans.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      They mention the four boys in The Samurai! How incredible that people made such long and dangerous trips during that time. I was so amazed that this book was based on true historical figures and Endo shows just how hard the journeys were. Really amazing novel that isn’t sugar-coated at all. I think you’ll like it, although I don’t know what it will be like in Japanese as I read a translated version. Is Endo considered a difficult novelist to read?

  8. Parrish Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed The sea & poison & am waiting for my copy of Silence to arrive from the library,looks like I will be adding this to my TBR.loved the review.

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