Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Adventure classics -- Endo’s autobiography of faith

The Samurai

by Shusaku Endo


In 1613, a group of samurai, merchants and shipwrecked Spanish sailors set out from Tsukinoura in northern Japan on an unlikely embassy. Accompanied by Franciscan priest Luis Sotelo as interpreter, the group may have intended to establish trade ties with the then-Spanish territory of Mexico. It was a journey that would take its chief envoy, a samurai named Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga, around the world by way of Mexico, Spain, and Rome as a possibly unwilling convert to Christianity, only to find on his return home in 1620 that his efforts had been in vain, as Japan closed itself to the outside world.

“So little is known about this embassy that both Japanese and Western historians have all but ignored it,” Van C. Gessel wrote in the postscript to his 1982 translation of The Samurai, one of the last novels by Nobel nominee Shusaku Endo. Although Soleto (the model of Father Velasco in the novel) left a report, he “seems to have been every bit the scheming zealot described by Endo. . . Leaving us to our own devices to determine why the embassy was ever organized in the first place. . . .”

As we are left to our own devices in determining the end of Hasekura, who died in 1622.

Did he abandon the Christianity he had assumed only for expediency? Did he stay true to his new faith, for which he may have been ordered to die? Did he renounce Christianity publicly but continue to practice it secretly?

In an interview soon after the 1980 publication of The Samurai Endo described it as “in some ways an autobiographical novel. . . I was the first Japanese to study abroad after the war (World War II), the first to travel to Europe. . . The descriptions of the ocean in this novel are based on my experiences then, and in the life of Hasekura and the manner of his death I have expressed my present state of mind. . .”

It was an ambiguous state of mind whose expression some believe caused Endo’s fellow Catholics to block his chance at the 1994 Nobel Prize. Baptized as a Catholic in childhood at the instigation of family converts, his writings, in the words of Caribbean writer and Endo fan Caryl Phillips, “continually restage the problematic encounter between Japanese and western understandings of self and God, an encounter which, as Endo’s work develops, comes to be increasingly characterized by . . . the word, ‘betrayal.’”

Before Hasekura begins his voyage, one of his overlords tells him, “In the land of foreigners, the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. . . If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”

And so Hasekura does, only to find the rules turned upside down when he arrives back in his country.

“You had the ill fortune to be caught up in the shifting tides of Government,” his lord tells him upon his return. “‘I know how painful this is for you. This old man here understands your pain better than anyone else.’ The samurai raised his head and stared into Lord Ishida’s face. In that seemingly gentle voice, that seemingly gentle face, he
sensed a lie. . . (He) could see snow falling. The swirling flakes seemed like the white swans of the marshland. Birds of passage which came to the marshland from a distant country and then departed for a distant country. Birds which had seen many countries, many cities. They were he himself. And now, he was setting off for another unknown land. . . .”

Endo’s works are widely available. Although English translations usually list family names such as Endo, last, Gessel’s translation of The Samurai follows the Japanese tradition of listing the family name of the protagonist, Hasekura, first.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics opens a January of true adventures with Barbara W. Tuchman’s history of the first month of World War I, The Guns of August.)

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