A Feature Review of
Sachiko: A Novel
Endō Shūsaku *
Paperback: Columbia UP, 2020
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Reviewed by Grant William Currier
The multitude of pithy phrases about love circulating our physical and digital world add little to our understanding of love’s nature. They are, to be sure, memorable and marketable in their brevity and wide applicability, but they often lack an aspect of love that seems to be largely forgotten today: its utterly demanding nature.
This question of love is central to Endō Shūsaku’s newly translated novel Sachiko; at the center of this book is another love-phrase, made memorable and unfortunately opaque to us by familiarity: Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Endō, by Sachiko’s conclusion, has given this phrase plucked from scripture new dimensions, new problems; for me, this novel is superbly Endōesque and recasts his other novels in a new nimbus—a glow that simultaneously distances us readers from the remarkable characters, and has us share in their saintliness.
Set in Nagasaki and Auschwitz in the years before and during World War II, Sachiko explores the lives of Christians questioning how they are to live in evil times. (And evil for Endō essentially equates to a loveless or misdirected love; he comes, in Sachiko, as close to Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Christ in The Idiot as anything I’ve read since Wonderful Fool.) The main narrative follows Sachiko, a young Christian girl fascinated with the Ōura church in Nagasaki, and her relationship with a Christian pariah, Kōda Shūhei. Alongside this narrative is the story of Polish priests—based on real missionaries—who befriend Sachiko and Shūhei before returning to Poland.
Their story alternates between Father Maximillian Kolbe’s internment in Auschwitz and his influence on its prisoners, and Shūhei’s profound distress at being called to war by his nation. Central to Father Kolbe’s and Shūhei’s dilemma is this: Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Endō takes us back to this verse, words spoken by Christ in the hours before demonstrating them, nearly ten times in the book’s 400 pages, demonstrating its absolute centrality to understanding the novel and characters rightly.
There’s much about this novel I want to write about, and yet there’s such a profound kindness in these pages that I do not want to spoil, so I will direct these next paragraphs to some stylistic notes and reflections on how this book affected and challenged me.
Endō’s oeuvre demonstrates an interest in epistolary writing, and Sachiko is no exception to this. The correspondence between Sachiko and Shūhei contains some of the most clear depictions of tender change in the novel, and Sachiko’s final reaction is so poignant, I felt I intruded on something sacred. And this, I think, is part of Endō’s purpose in the epistolary sections of this, and all his works: the epistle is deeply, though not uniquely, Christian; such a large portion of the New Testament is composed of letters written from a place where the authors had to rework/understand their thoughts about love.
It is in these letters Sachiko comes to understand her love for a man her family, her village, her faith, would reject.
Shūhei is a third-rate poet who agonizes over the war question, the conundrum and distasteful reality that nations declare war and send—at least in this novel and historically—young men to kill and to die.
The portrayal of a few American pilots who rationalize their dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki find deep contrast in Shūhei’s late letter to Sachiko. While the American pilots demonstrate, with some emendation, that Machiavellian idea: the ends rationalize the means. This is to opposite of Endō’s understanding of love, demonstrated in full by Kolbe and Shūhei, and begun in profound ways by Henryk and Sachiko. Most poignantly and damningly, Shūhei asks,
Why would a church that preaches love assent to this war? Is it right for a Christian to become a soldier? Is it right to kill another person even if that person is the enemy?… Would I have to kill them even if I felt no animosity or hatred toward them? Would they have to kill me? Why does a nation have the right to force people to do that? And why does the church approve of such things? (294-5).
The immediacy and centrality of Shūhei’s struggle is the conflation of love and nationalism and right to power: Sachiko is a deeply anti-Nietzschean novel that quietly and assuredly weakens the tepid and tired “will to power” motif, offering instead Shūhei’s and Sachiko’s “will to love.”
Shūhei writes in one of his last letters, One solitary individual can’t begin to defy the power of a great nation. We might point to his despair for his overlooking the rather obvious, that the Christ did exactly this, that the writers of the New Testament did this, that all of the greatest acts of love are in fact acts of defiance against the order of this world divided into nations—which Endō puts into stark contrast with countries, made up of people; nations being the composition of ideologues.
Sachiko is a novel approaching forty years old, yet not a page of it lacks piquant relevance for today. Sachiko’s perplexity at her own faith and her growing love for Shūhei; Shūhei’s questioning of love’s limitations; Father Kolbe’s commitment to love as an enacted reality (I think some linguistic theorists might call this a constitutive act); Henryk’s small redemption; all these stories entwine each other and create an engrossing story, even as we know of the Bomb’s unavoidable approach.
This bomb, Gessel writes in his introduction, “was dropped by combatants from a presumably ‘Christian’ nation, and the epicenter of the explosion was almost directly above the largest Catholic church in the city, the Urakami Cathedral” (x). Is there a larger symbolic significance to this, I find myself asking after finishing the novel. Is the Church somehow to stand in the very damning center of conflict, in the maculate heart of malformed love the world cannot comprehend? Even to its own obliteration? Yes, I think Endō and Christ say.
Endō challenges so many of our presuppositions in this novel that I fear I have done it little justice. The stylistic simplicity masks its profundity, and I think sitting with this novel is much like sitting at a master craftsman’s table. One sitting is insufficient to learn its lessons.
After World War I, Yeats lamented that the center would not hold, that the blood-drenched tide was loos’d on the world. In a way, Endō says “Yes,” and shows us to what new shore such a current may take us when the tide is spilled, not from others’ veins, but our own.
* Curious about the novelist’s name (which you might have known as Shūsaku Endō) is rendered as Endō Shūsaku? Here’s an explanation…