A Year in Reading: Yan Lianke


Translated by Carlos Rojas

When the Japanese author Shusaku Endo passed away in 1996, two of his novels, Silence (1966) and Deep River (1993), were placed in his coffin. This past year, I finally had an opportunity to read Chinese translations of these works.

These two novels moved me.

They also infected me.

At the end of the day, literature always derives out of a sense of “suffering because of love, and love because of suffering,” which is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s notion of painful lyricism, and in Endo’s Silence, the appearance of the character Kichijiro expands the avenues for expressing the author’s suffering, love, and compassion. Actually, a precedent for the extraordinary religious oppression described in Silence (translated by William Johnston) can be found in Graham Green’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which leaves readers extremely disoriented. Green’s and Endo’s respective novels are both cruel and unsettling, and the works’ narrators are similarly passionate and repressed. However, whereas in Green’s novel, the “whisky priest” is elevated to martyrdom even as he is slipping into decadence, in Endo’s novel, by contrast, the Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues takes the opposite route—in that as he is approaching a pinnacle in life, he cannot help but fall into depths of despair as a result of his concern for the lives of other believers.

If this were the only connection between these two works, it would simply be a case of two stories of religious repression each written with different narrative styles and set in different historical periods and in different locations. Fortunately, Endo’s novel also contains another element that further enhances the work. In addition to Rodrigues, Silence also features the character Kichijiro, who has abandoned his faith and repeatedly sins and confesses, then sins and confesses once again. This character, who in doctrinal terms is viewed as a dog, is described as having yellow teeth, bad breath, and timid, lizard-like eyes. Under the author’s “painful lyricism” writing style, however, he is granted power deriving from experience with pain and darkness. For instance, the novel describes how Kichijiro, after having been forced to trample on a sacred Christian image, entreats a priest in a voice “like that of a child pleading with its mother,” saying:

“Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians…

“God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak…

“Father, what can I do, a weak person like me? . . .

“Father, listen to me. I have done something for which I can never make amends. And you officials! I am a Christian. Put me in prison.”

this point, Kichijiro’s soul reaches its highest position, the way that distant
stars can still produce a dazzling light. Rodrigues’s suffering was a result of
the darkness of external religious repression, while Kichijiro’s derives from
own betrayal of his faith, combined with his inability to truly abandon that
same faith. Yet in the dark depths of Kichijiro’s heart, the flame of his faith
and his belief is never truly extinguished.

This is Kichijiro’s soul!

Regardless of how devoted Endo may have been to his religion, or whether he gives the impression that literature was his greater faith, he nevertheless managed to make Kichijiro’s weak and dirty soul sparkle with a thrilling radiance. Nevertheless, the sense of forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion that Endo clearly feels for this character, whose soul has never been extinguished, makes readers realize that Endo never stopped embracing pain and darkness. We thereby appreciate how Endo, either as an author or as a believer, maintained a tradition of respect and humanism in his love of all people, even the sinners. 

In his 1993 novel Deep River (translated by  Van C. Gessel), meanwhile, Endo takes the sort of heavenly love that one finds in this sort of pure religious literature, and brings it down to the mortal world. Compared with other great religious novels—such Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, Green’s The Power and the Glory, together with Yukiko Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion—it is Endo’s Deep River that best succeeds in taking a religious story about God and Heaven, and bringing it back to the mortal world. The novel portrays the lives of several different sorts “nonbelievers”—including Osamu Isobe, who has recently confronted his wife’s death; Mitsuko Naruse, who for years has lived irreverently and mocked religion; Kiguchi, who is trying to recover from wartime experiences; and Numada, who is a relatively simple children’s book author—all of which represent the sufferings of ordinary people deriving from their entanglements and desires outside the immediate sphere of religion. Apart from the priest Augustine Otsu, the non-religion of these sorts of “non-believers” represents the novel’s confrontation between belief and non-belief. Like Silence, Endo’s Deep River uses a priest (Otsu) to narrate a purely religious story—namely, Otsu retains a sense of respect and stubborn skepticism toward all religion, but when it comes to his life, he continually proceeds further and further toward a deep love. On the other hand, all of the secular characters begin with a skepticism toward life and fate, but in the end they all embrace religion.

In Deep River, the entanglement of these two contradictory elements contributes to the work’s attraction and its ability to stimulate readers’ interest. It is not so much that the novel’s strength lies in the way it presents the parallel narratives of four different characters who all visit India’s Ganges River, where their fates become intertwined, but rather that the novel’s (overly) intricate structure is used to take the four protagonists’ frustrations and desires, and transport them to the Ganges River, where they undergo a religious purification and spiritual cleansing. At this point, discriminating readers might be dissatisfied with the way the author deploys this parallel structure—finding that it relies on too many coincidences, to the point that readers may fear that the work might collapse under the weight of excessive melodrama. After finishing the novel, however, one cannot but respect the author’s composition, and specifically the way that he manages to deploy the sort of “embracing suffering” that we associate with Dostoyevsky in order to defuse this melodramatic narrative. This will make readers appreciate how the author, in taking a sense of great religious benevolence and transposing it from a divine position to the position of ordinary individuals in the mortal world, has once again used an unweakened Christian spirit to fill the nihilistic and anxious fissures of mortal existence. In addition, readers will also be reminded of that saying that many people often forget and which authors who overemphasize technique often tend to mock:

The size of one’s heart, corresponds to the size of its significance; and the weight of one’s spirit corresponds to the weight of the corresponding literature. 

In the end, Endo’s two novels give readers the sense of narrative that is swamped by lyricism, while this lyricism makes people feel that suffering is but a romantic shout that inevitably culminates in an ear-piercing scream.

Carlos Rojas is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University, and the translator of several works by Yan Lianke, including Yan’s memoir Three Brothers: Memories of My Family (Grove Atlantic, 2020). 

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