Review by Zena Neds-Fox.
Shusaku Endo’s The Final Martyrs is a collection of eleven short stories re-released earlier this year by New Directions, one of which is the skeleton for what would become the acclaimed novel, ‘Silence’. Endo’s stories are difficult. They are intimidating, near to a dare as one approaches. I hesitate to write anything about any one of them for fear that I do not understand, they are so high.
The book’s centerpiece story, ‘Heading Home’, is one of a man exhuming his mother’s bones on the heels of his brother’s death. As he contemplates facing his mother again, his sister-in-law hatches a plan to rescue a neighborhood dog that is starved, chained up and beaten. He is convinced by her and goes through with the plan, though the chained mutt is reluctant to go with them. Later he’s in a meeting where he learns of Catholic missionaries who return to Japan knowing wherever they ended up they were going to be killed. The man returns home to find out that the dog has disappeared, returning to its abuser. Later he holds his mother’s remains in his arms, looks at death squarely and comes to terms.
Not exactly a beach read. They symbols are there, and Christ is the lowest and the weakest. It seems to me that Endo can’t stop seeing the human race as great cowards. We are failures. God is the servant and the savior to the undeserving and Endo has an eye for what a failure actually looks like. The reality of our cowardice is clear before him everywhere. He also has the ability to imagine what could possibly be lower than that, and the freedom to put that identity onto Jesus who is great enough to take it on.
In another story, ‘Japanese in Warsaw’, Japanese tourists despise their time in Warsaw almost as much as their tour guide despises them. While they sleep with prostitutes and buy souvenirs they don’t like, they learn of a venerated Japanese priest. Kolbe, whom they’ve never heard of, was confined at Auschwitz. One day after trying to escape, a Polish prisoner is about to be executed. He weeps for his family and Kolbe steps forward and takes the sentence in his stead. One of the tourists later goes home with a prostitute and confronts a drawing of Kolbe hanging in her apartment. He recognizes the priest from his boyhood in Japan. One man dying in place of a citizen of this city, another hating everything the city offers, raping its women.
Not easy terrain, but if you’re up for a most poetic look at the brokenness and the cure of humanity, Endo is your man.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com