Preaching Endo’s theme of a maternal divinity

Endo Shusaku has helped Japanese Christians to assimilate their painful past and has weaned them away from narrow concerns with dogma or sexual guilt to project instead a broad and humane vision of the faith, sensitively attuned to the Japanese context.

KIKU’S PRAYER, by Endo Shusaku, translated by Van C. Gessel. Columbia University Press, 2012, 328 pp., $29.50 (hardcover)

In “Kiku’s Prayer,” dating from 1981, he interweaves a boy-girl romance with the true story of a group of French missionaries, at the dawn of the Meiji Era, seeking to make contact with the heroic Hidden Christians who had survived the centuries in which their religion was forbidden. Deftly plotted and well researched, the novel is tinged with affection for Nagasaki, which Endo calls “my heart’s homeland.” Since Endo is a storyteller rather than a stylist, all that the reader will lose in this translation is the use of Nagasaki slang and the snatches of ballads of the time.

The “prayer” of the title is offered by the innocent and “spunky” Kiku to a statue of “Santa Maria” in the missionaries’ new church. She prays that the Christian youth she loves will abandon his evil beliefs, or at least escape punishment for them. She scolds the statue: “I prayed every day that nothing terrible would happen to Seikichi … but you made terrible things happen to him.” Then, hearing that he has apostatized and been released, she prays: “You’re wonderful! I’m sorry for hating you. Forgive me! Thanks to you, Seikichi has cut his ties with the evil Kirishitan faith.”

The author comments: “Kiku did not know that the Blessed Mother also had had someone she loved very much taken from her … Kiku did not know that just as she herself was doing now, this woman had wept in pain and torment.”

So far, the novel could be taken as a harmless edifying tale, for the threat of persecution seems to be receding. But it turns out that “the Fourth Persecution of Urakami” is not just the shogunate’s last kick; it continues into the first years of Meiji, despite international protests. The Meiji methods are softer at first. Recalcitrant Christians are taken to a re-education camp and admonished to apostasize with arguments drawn from Confucianism and Kokugaku (National Learning).

When this fails they are dispatched en masse to Tsuwano, a place-name inspiring the same dread as Guantanamo today, where they are “tortured” with many fatalities. (My scare quotes defer to enlightened modern leaders who have redefined torture out of existence.)

The chief torturer, Ito Seizaemon, makes the same bargain with Kiku as Scarpia did with Tosca in Sardou/Puccini’s “cheap shocker.” But Kiku is unable to dispatch him with a deft knife-thrust, and must submit to the last outrages. A fallen woman, she works henceforth as a prostitute. Finally she expires, coughing blood, before the statue of the Blessed Virgin, who sheds tears (as in Akita) and assures her: “Even though you gave your body to other men … you did it for just one man. The sorrow and misery you felt at those times … has cleansed everything. You are not the least bit defiled. You lived in this world in order to love, just as my son did.”

Meanwhile, Ito succumbs to self-hatred, realizes that he loved Kiku, and becomes a Christian. This plot twist is in rather questionable taste, as is Endo’s comment in an afterword: “I began to sympathize with this despicable man — and I felt not just sympathy but even a love for him.” What Western readers of Endo relish are the portraits of tormented souls, assailed by doubt, divided identity, and the sense that the Christian message can only be distorted in the warm mud swamp of Japan. The character of Ito is too crudely drawn to meet these expectations, and the other characters are extremely simple people.

At an award ceremony at Sophia University in 1990, Endo pointed at Father Georges Neyrand and said, “There is the model of my Gaston,” referring to the lovable protagonist of “Wonderful Fool.” The historical Father Petitjean does not provide such lively inspiration in the present work. He is a stereotypical zealous missionary, and his musings on the silence of God are but a faint echo of the theme handled so powerfully in “Silence.”

The novel would have been subtler if it probed the irony that his eagerness to discover the Hidden Christians brought persecution upon them, or if it examined the misgivings among many of them about the unfamiliar modern version of Catholicism the missionaries brought.

But the novel forswears subtlety in order to preach a strong message, as it rehearses Endo’s signature theme of a maternal, compassionate divinity in its simplest form. The figure of Mary stands in for the apparently absent God, and casts a mantle of mercy over human crimes and sufferings.

Perhaps Van C. Gessel will go on to translate the sequel, “Sachiko’s Case,” which is set in 20th-century Nagasaki and features another of Endo’s icons, St. Maximilien Kolbe, the “martyr of charity at Auschwitz, who was a missionary in Japan.

Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian, professor of English Literature at Sophia University.