I notice when I read Japanese fiction that it tends to read like conventional Japanese films – a lot of lingering shots at grassy fields and static wide shots of rooms in rural areas, along with the ubiquitous hum of crickets – a surefire sign that you’re watching a Japanese production. There’s a certain deliberation to the writing, as if everything is chosen and thoroughly masticated before being set down for print, it’s not an old school Japanese novel until it’s a meditation. No stream of consciousness here.
Perhaps that’s the best tack to take in the case of Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison, a meditation on moral convictions in wartime Japan. The novel revolves around the inner turmoil of Suguro, a surgical intern tasked to assist in the horrific vivisection of an American POW – carried out without anesthesia and for the express purpose of seeing how much lung can be excised before a man dies. (Sidenote here: Not to downplay the obvious terror of such an experiment, but most of us have probably heard worse stories from the occupation. Just curious if the Japanese are aware of everything their grandfathers did in the war, if vivisection is the worst Endo can think of.)
We see the building guilt and gradual breakdown of Suguro, whose lack of courage to refuse brings him all the way to the operating room. Also involved is fellow intern Toda, who’s trying to provoke a hitherto non-existent conscience into action, and Ueda, a nurse on a mission of misplaced revenge. As expected, the event is horrific but the emotional consequences are not as absolute as one would think they might be.
Endo is known for his essays on the difference between Japanese and Western morals. Raised as a Catholic, he contends that the pantheism of Eastern religions don’t lend themselves as easily to the black and white, good and evil dichotomy of Catholicism or Christianity. I disagree though, moral ambiguity is not at all exclusive to us Asians.
Disregarding contemporary cases like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, the US served up its fair share of horror in WWII – the US’s firebombing of Tokyo, the Enola Gay – these were to the Americans as morally gray as vivisection seems to be to the Japanese. Whatever Endo’s case is, it is clear to me that our capacity for evil is more common and mundane than we might think, and not at all confined to cultural or racial boundaries.
My next book will be Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain.