Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Final Martyrs by Shusaku Endo

The history of Christianity in Japan has always been really interesting to me. I'm not exactly sure why except that it might stem from the curiosity of someone who has been privileged to grow up in a country where my faith is a majority faith. That has never ever been the case for Christians in Japan and they suffered great persecution in the past. Even though those days are over, Christians in Japan are still quite at odds with their country's dominant culture. Shusaku Endo is a writer who explored that in his works and posed the question of whether or not Christianity was really something that could work for the Japanese. His most famous novel is Silence, it is one of my favorite books. It is not a happy book, but it completely changed the way I thought about persecution. I think everyone in the world should read it, of course!

Also there's the fact that I lived in Japan and taught English for a little while--Japan will always be more interesting to me because I know it in a way I don't know all other countries. I find Japanese culture rich and complex and difficult.

I've wanted to read more of Endo's work, but sometimes I have to really carve out the time. Lately I feel like if I'm not committed to reading something I won't read at all! So that's part of why I chose The Final Martyrs for our final read of the year. I'm really glad I did, because I loved this collection of stories, some more than others, of course. Endo is definitely a writer I think is worth reading and hopefully I'll read more of his stuff before too long!

I want to touch on a few things from the book and stories but first I'm slightly confused about how much similarity these stories have. I was wondering if I was actually meant to believe that they were personal essays instead of short stories. But I guess the author's note at the beginning explains it, they are characters that lived in his mind throughout his life and my guess is that their similarities are not dissimilar to the idea of the writer in the second story, who tried to work out the impact that priest had on his life by writing him into his stories three separate times.

But I want to talk about the similarities anyway, which are also all from Endo's life for the most part.
*love of dogs, and not any dogs, but particularly mutts!
*a closeness to brother and mother, never any sisters!
*parents divorce at a young age
*living in Manchuria during the war
*studying in Lyon during university
*suffering from illness/losing a lung
*being a writer/having an office in Harajuku

I don't know, I just thought it was funny how in one story the dog dies and he buries him in the garden and then it happens in the next story as well! Oh and I was also chuckling over how the translator made sure we knew Endo had actually written about a Gessel.

Despite all of this, I really loved these stories. My favorites were probably "The Final Martyrs", "Shadows", and "A Sixty-Year Old Man"

I liked "The Final Martyrs" because, well it was about the martyrs in Japan and not unlike "Silence" Endo takes an extraordinarily compassionate view towards apostasy. The last weekend I was living in Japan I went to Nagasaki by myself. I went by myself because none of my friends were interested enough in going there to pay for the trip and also because I knew I would want to do things like visit the site where the martyrs were crucified, etc. that no one else would want to do. Nagasaki is a gorgeous city, but very hilly. I was very moved by visiting the hill where martyrs died and the museum there that still has some artifacts from the time. Even after Christianity became illegal, some Japanese Christians chose to continue practicing it in secret. The government had the goal to get them to abandon their faith and if they did not they were tortured and executed.

That's what is happening in "The Final Martyrs", but just like in "Silence", it's not a matter of bearing the pain for yourself, but watching others suffer on account of your faith. In the "The Final Martyrs" when the men don't renounce their beliefs, they actually get their younger siblings and torture them. I don't know why humanity is so ugly, and why we use the best part of people--our love for others--to control each other. But anyway, the characters in this story question where God is, if this faith can be real when they receive no sign from Him. But the story also demonstrates how painful it is to renounce your faith when tortured and lose everything your life has ever been and meant. When the character of the story who is the first to deny his faith comes back at the end to join his brothers, we begin to understand the kind of love our faith can produce--and that it's not always the big things but in the trying to be faithful that matters. And I think his return feels like a message from God.

Interestingly, this idea of human weakness carries into "Shadows" which is entirely different. It's written as a letter from a man to an old mentor who was a priest. I loved this story because it was about the kind of impact someone can have on your life and how we struggle to understand it and we can be shocked by what happens to them. Watching the priest who was so strong in his faith fall in love, and become humbled was...I don't know interesting. Like this quote:

"But weren't you forced to learn, some fifteen years later, that unexpected perils and danger spots like thin ice lurk within such strength, and that amidst such perils come the beginnings of true religion?"

But also interesting was the description about the dog's eyes being like the eyes of Christ:

"Even today, the moist grieving eyes of dogs somehow remind me of the eyes of Christ. This Christ I speak of is, of course, not the Christ filled with assurance of his own way of life, as you once were. It is the weary Christ of the fumie, trampled upon by men and looking up at them from beneath their feet."

I don't know I love this. That's the Christ we all come to know at one point. We may start out strong in the convictions of our faith, but it is the man of sorrows we need most desperately at times. The hardship of faith and the expectations of others, first presented in The Final Martyrs with the idea of persecution, and here with a priest leaving the priesthood by succumbing to falling in love are the paths that lead us to identifying with the Man of Sorrows, with needing for Jesus to be more than confident and self-assured but also the one who suffers with us.

And finally, the last story I want to talk about a bit in-depth is "A Sixty-Year Old Man" because I really liked it even though it was a bit disturbing. I thought it was interesting how it was essentially a story of aging and hating it, and how he grew attached to Nami, only to realize he was coveting her youth. How easy it would be for him to take advantage of her in the same way the character he so reviled did in the book. My favorite quote from this story:

There is no fundamental way to grow old beautifully. It's obvious to me just from looking at my body and my face in the mirror that old age is brutally ugly. Drab, lifeless hair, blotched skin -- and it isn't just the face and body that grow ugly. Ugliness also means that tranquility and peace of mind have yet to visit your heart even when you're past sixty. Even at sixty god won't grant me such feelings,and when I open my eyes in the darkness separating dream from dream, suddenly the fear of death stabs at me acutely. The extinction of my own body. Never again being able to see the light of morning, the shapes of the streets, the movements of people. Never smelling the aroma of warm coffee...At such thoughts, my chest aches as though gouged with a sharp knife. Where will I breathe my last? When will it happen? I try not to think about it. I try to fall asleep quickly in order to escape such thoughts. The ugliness of old age is inability to be free of such wretched attachments to life.

I originally wanted to write about each story as I read so this would be one massive post, because I really did find them to be so interesting, but I don't know, I just feel like I've been writing so much lately that I didn't have the energy. If anyone else read along this month---and I don't know if any of you did because no one mentioned that they would be! I'd really love to hear your thoughts about these stories.


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