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A literary love affair: Graham Greene’s brief encounter with Shusaku Endo

by George Bull

LONDON — For oddly different reasons the names of two not so long dead Catholic novelists from East and West are prominently, simultaneously, in the news. Because of two books dealing with his sexuality and the release of a quirky film based on “The End of the Affair,” the ambivalent nature of Graham Greene’s Catholicism and his literary merits are being imaginatively argued about in Britain.

Because of his growing international reputation and his widow’s dedication, Endo Shusaku’s memory is being enshrined in a remarkable memorial near Nagasaki. Between these two authors, by chance I once played the adventitious role of go-between.

Greene I knew from school days as a famous author, first through his books, beginning with “The Power and the Glory,” which (when I was 16) a Jesuit teacher urged me to read, but not before I was 21. With Endo I became friendly in the process of getting to know Japan as a journalist (first visiting the country with Maurice Edelman in 1963); then in some depth through running the Anglo-Japanese Economic Institute and making annual visits to Tokyo from 1988.

I came to know Greene after I had been appointed along with him as a trustee of the Catholic weekly The Tablet in 1976. Endo gave me an interview for The Times in April 1985, after I had been deeply affected by his soul-searing novels. I met Greene occasionally in London, chiefly to swap Catholic gossip. He would materialize infrequently at our trustees’ meetings in the Garrick Club with mysterious suddenness, like a risen Christ among the Apostles.

With Endo, when we spent time talking together in London or Tokyo (usually in French, with which he was more at ease, having lived for a while in France after university in Japan), I explored either his own rather anguished literary and linguistic aims (though like Greene he inserted “comedies” into his long run of novels) or the nature of the soul of the Japanese. He was always charming, courteous and generous, at one time writing an enthusiastic introduction to a book of mine, on the Vatican, in its Japanese translation.

Between the two great Catholic novelists I helped along quite a literary love affair: from infatuation to courtship and consummation

Although writing squarely in the framework of postwar Japanese fiction, Endo was profoundly influenced by European Catholic novelists, especially Francois Mauriac and Greene. He constantly reread their novels. Given his religion, and his concern with sin and redemption, as soon as he won international recognition he was invariably characterized as the Graham Greene of Japan (where the number of Christians is tiny and their religion generally regarded as bizarre).

Endo, 20 years younger than Greene, shared with him attitudes and idiosyncrasies, from professional purposefulness and relentless curiosity about the sources of human goodness and evil to a tendency to tease and mystify and a conscious theatricalism. It was more than kindness of heart that prompted Endo to found a theatrical company in Tokyo to perform operas and musicals whose 50 or so members, aged from 18 to 78, had to be “inept at singing, clumsy at dancing and bashful. . .” When the troupe performed “Madam Butterfly” in London, a British amateur group put on one scene in competition and the Japanese ambassador presented a bouquet for the worst performance.

In his last few years, Endo, as his widow recalls, would close one of Greene’s novels, muttering how much he envied his splendid gifts as a writer. The two often tried to meet, but managed to do so, by chance, only once. The score or so of letters to me from Greene and Endo respectively trace their efforts to get together and shed a flickering light on their personalities, which had several traits, especially dry humor, in common.

Endo was always trying to arrange for Greene to visit Japan or to meet him somewhere in Asia. Endo’s many friends included the Catholic novelists Shumon and Ayako Miura. But soon after I had interviewed him in London, for The Times in April 1985, Endo wrote to me saying that he felt “rather isolated” because of the way Japanese critics regarded him, and that from Greene he had heard that “it was not impossible for him to visit Japan. Would I be able to come with him?”

In his next letter, Endo announced that both he and Greene would be lecturing in Taipei, and that Greene had promised to fly on to Tokyo. “My friends and I are trying to make a schedule which will be easy and not a tiring one. . . . I am looking forward to meeting him very much.” But on April 9, Endo wrote to me that Greene had sent a letter saying he would not be able to go to Taiwan. “We are wishing so much to have him in Japan one day.”

The first ever letter Greene wrote to me, in April 1974, had thanked me for a review of “The Honorary Consul,” and said he had been most interested in an interview I had published with the then Soviet ambassador to Britain, but as for himself, “I must admit I am not very fond of interviews.”

Several letters on, in February 1987, knowing I would be visiting Japan, he asked me to give his “warm regards” to Endo, and in February 1988, after calling himself “an intense admirer of Endo,” he added: “I have met him once almost by accident at the Ritz Hotel and that is all. . . . I have ordered a copy of ‘Scandal’ but it hasn’t yet arrived.”

I already knew about the meeting. Standing in the lift at the Ritz when Endo visited London in 1985 had been “a tall gentleman with blue eyes.” Endo’s interpreter telephoned excitedly to let me know about this the next day. But Greene never did visit Japan. Perhaps this was just as well, as he had a knack of arriving in distant parts just as some almost total, usually political, disaster struck.

In March 1986, Endo wrote to tell me how happy he was that Greene was receiving “an honorable award” (the Order of Merit). In January 1990, Endo told me that he felt “admiration and joy that Mr. Graham Greene wrote such a wonderful novel at the age of over 80. When you meet him or write to him, please convey that I am reading his books with great respect.”

The novel was “The Captain and the Enemy.” Endo himself was then working on what would prove to be one of his most important novels (“Deep River”), and had just returned from the experience of going “deep into the unconscious” in India. He had sweated over the style and the content of a work that he feared would not be understood by Japanese readers; but in June 1994 he let me know that “it has sold over 240,000 copies and is being made into a movie . . . being filmed in India right now.”

My letters from Greene over the years told me that he agreed that the first in the TV series “The Shades of Greene” had been “a terrible affair”; that his agent would let me (as an editor looking for copy) see his short story called “A Really Bad Hotel”; that he was glad to hear that Malcolm Williamson retained “a friendly memory of me”; and that he thought it was not worthwhile my writing a reflective book about his life and work as “such a book” (“The Other Man”) had already been written: “It is by a woman called Allain whose father I knew well and who belonged to the French Secret Service and was murdered in Morocco, which is why I gave her permission . . .”

He invariably asked me to give his regards to Endo. In August 1988, he sent through me his “admiring regards” to Endo, adding (in October) how interested he was to hear what I had told him about Endo’s vivid impressions of Christianity in Korea.

Endo’s widow, Junko, recalls that after he met Greene in London he was “leaping with joy.” “He told Greene how greatly he had been influenced by his works and that he might even not have been a novelist had he not read his novels. . .”

Greene told Endo that “if he was interested in a Nobel Prize” he would be pleased to introduce him to a “very large and famous publisher.” But Endo refused to accept his offer as he “wanted to be faithful to the other British publisher who had undertaken to get his first novel translated into English and published.” (This, of course, was the courageous Peter Owen). Greene also said to Endo that he had just a few years to live and hoped that Endo would continue writing “Catholic” literature as if on his behalf.

In Japan, Mrs. Endo speaks of Shusaku as having “spent the whole of his life weaving the warp of faith and the weft of disease.” (In their married life of over 40 years, he was hospitalized for over 10 years). She says that he left her with three tasks: to let people know that death is not the end of life; to make Jesus Christ appreciated properly by the Japanese; and to develop the program of reform that Endo started to make Japanese hospitals more “warm-hearted and friendly with regard to their patients, patients’ families and friends.”

Endo’s Christocentric faith was increasingly fortified by his perception of the creative nature of the suffering of the tortured Christ. Japanese Christians, he thought, might come to give to the West greater appreciation of the virtues of moderation, humility and benevolence.

On May 13 this year, a museum to commemorate Endo will be opened in Sotome Town, Nagasaki Prefecture, on a beautiful hill (famous for its sunset views) overlooking the East China Sea. Graham Greene will surely be there in spirit.

The museum to commemorate Endo will be on a site chosen by Mrs. Endo after five municipalities had announced their candidacies. Sotome takes in one of the villages of “hidden Christians” who kept but curiously modified their faith during centuries of persecution. On this village, Korosaki, Endo modeled the fictitious village of Tomogi in his grim, spiritually disturbing novel “Silence.” Designed by Jiro Hirashima to symbolize Japan’s cultural gifts to the West, the Endo museum will contain a reading room, an exhibition hall, Endo’s manuscripts, a collection of about 7,000 books and the desk and chair he used when writing “Deep River.”

Junko Endo, who has been persuaded by Endo’s publishers to write two books about her husband, would like visitors to go there to reflect in serene and beautiful surroundings by the sea on their own lives, and on the life and writings of a novelist who strove: “to present to the incredulous Japanese, with their distinctly different spiritual background, a new face of the Christ and of the Christianity first introduced into Japan into the 16th century.”

Writing to me in 1991, “as a good friend in England, a country far from Japan, who loves literature as I do,” Endo had briefly touched on his own feelings about Japan’s future. Japan’s role, he hoped, would soon be to help the world’s sufferers: “We have seen and experienced too many cruelties and gone through too many hardships during this century.”