Review of Deep River, by Shusaku Endo

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/8/05



  Deep River revolves around a # of Japanese tourists in a group who visit the sacred Ganges River in India. The fact that so little of the book has to do with the West, in any way, is at 1st a bit unsettling, then quite a relief. In the best passages of the book a Western reader will see parallel human traits & those peregrine side-by-side. This forces the reader to think how different our customs might seem with a little distance. The story is set during the time Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by militant Sikhs, yet wends back & forth through time to give us background on several of the tourists. There is Isobe, the widower- trying to deal with his wifeís death, as well as his terminal infidelity to her. His grief & guilt manifests itself in his quest to find her reincarnated in India. Kiguchi is haunted by the wartime horrors he saw during the Japanese invasion of Burma, as well as his own near-death experience, & the subsequent mooching from him by the man who saved his life. He seeks to deal with the war in his pilgrimage. Otsu is a failed seminarian dealing with his own beliefs, reviled by Mitsuko- a sexually wanton woman with her own issues, who cruelly seduced Otsu, years earlier, as a challenge to see whether she could break his faith. Years later, after ending a loveless marriage, she seeks redemption & forgiveness from Otsu, who is rumored to live in India. Most moving of all is Numada, recovering from tuberculosis. He is a short story writer who believes he can talk to animals- who act as his Muse. He believes a pet bird his wife bought died in his place when he recovered from his illness. The most poetic & evocative moments come when we see Numadaís interactions when, as a boy, his wealthy family owned land in occupied Manchuria, & he shared a friendship with a Chinese houseboy, & a puppy the houseboy trained for him so his parents would not kill it. This was when his connection to animals began, & he longs to see Indiaís fabulous bird sanctuaries before he dies.

  Yet the key element in the book is not spiritualism, but the psychic wholeness of the characters. When Otsu is living in Japan, after turning away from Christianity, he finds himself defending his changing beliefs when they are attacked, ĎIíve been here three years. For three years I have lived here and I have tired of the way people think. The ways of thinking that theyíve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts...they're ponderous to an Asian like me. I canít blend in with them. And so everyday is hell for me.í Endo is, as this passage portrays, not a particularly subtle, nor sensuous crafter of words. He is more a stage manager in the novel form- at least this novel, his lone work Iíve read.

  By that I mean while his descriptions of Indian customs from the Japanese viewpoint are excellent, & especially interesting in their difference from what we might expect from a European or American traveler, thereís a bit too much simplistic reasoning, not simplicity. Endo believes as Otsu does- that God can be found among all peoples & beliefs. Yet, the characters & their situations are too neat, too pat, & Endo seems content with them being more mouthpieces for viewpoints, than fully rounded characters. While not out & out stereotypes they are definitely archetypes. The stereotypes are saved for minor characters- a young married couple called the Sanjos. They are spoiled, arrogant, loud-mouthed, materialistic brats- manifest symbols of all that Endo believes wrong with modern Japan, & the West. While the viewpoint may be valid, the heavyhandedness of their presence serves in stark contrast to Numadaís wonderfully filigreed boyhood with his Chinese pal Li, his puppy Blackie. After Li is dismissed for allegedly stealing, Numada is heartbroken when his family has to return to Japan at the end of the war, & Blackie has to be left behind. Hereís how itís described:

  ĎWhen the carriage lurched forward, Numada turned round and watched as Blackie chased after them. His eyes grew moist though he struggled not to cry, and he turned his face away so that his mother wouldnít notice. Even after they turned a corner, Blackie continued in pursuit. He seemed to almost know trhat this was the last time he would see Numada. Eventually Blackie tired and came to a stop, growing smaller in the distance while he watched with resignation in his eyes as Numada left him. Numada as an adult had still not forgotten those eyes of Blackieís. It was thanks to Li and to his dog that he had first come to know the meaning of separation.í

  Flat out, this is spare, simple, & good writing. Alack, Endo is not as graceful in the rest of the book. In the case of the Sanjos Endo makes the reader hate them immediately, whereas the lump in your throat when you read the above passage is the end result of its structure on top of what has been sketched out in pages before.

  Yet, all the characters do somehow touch. Endo does, somehow, slip in a bit of humanity into his main characters. Especially nice is the ending where, after the violence that follows the assassination attempt, Otsu ends up hospitalized. A frantic Mitsuko finally gets word of what happened to him, yet nothing is really resolved, & the book ends ex media res.

  Overall Iíd marginally recommend the book, but do not expect a classic, more a book that youíll be left wishing was fleshed out more. I donít know how long it took Endo to write this book, but I get the sense that he may have rushed it, as he died soon after it was released in the mid-1990s. Had he focused more on just 1 or 2 of the tales, the whole novel may have found more focus. As it is, itís sort of a philosophical hail of bullets. Unfortunately, in the non-material world, this does more damage to the gun than the target.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share