An Old Writer's Last Prayer : SCANDAL by Shusaku Endo; translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel(Dodd, Mead: $18.95; 261 pp.)

At a decorous reception in his honor, Suguro, a distinguished Japanese novelist, finds himself confronted by a leering, tipsy woman, her front teeth smudged with lipstick, who insists she knows him from Shinjuku, Tokyo's red-light district, and that she has even painted his portrait, which hangs in a gallery there. Gradually obsessed by the possibility of a shadowy double, the elderly writer assays the demimonde, attempting to track down his doppelganger who gives every indication of having a life of his own. In the course of his pursuit, Suguro develops a relationship with the elegant and fascinating Madame Naruse, by day a dedicated volunteer in a children's hospital ward, by night an equally dedicated adventurer in sadomasochism.

This is a book about perversion. It is stark, spare, and compulsively readable. Set in contemporary Tokyo, it is from the hand of Shusaku Endo, one of Japan's foremost novelists and, in the opinion of Graham Greene, "one of the finest living novelists."

It is appropriate to cite Greene, for, although many share his estimate of Endo's work, few could approach that work more intimately. Endo sounds like Greene--or rather, reads like Greene in translation. And this is true no matter who the translator may be (and Endo has had five so far). In "Scandal" we find ourselves walking the fog-bound streets toward a revelation that will (inevitably) occur at night, in darkness. We are admitted to the arcana of human corruption. Amid the writhing and the stench we are brought to acknowledge the depths of our own depravity. Hypocrite lecteur, in addition to these elements, there is the Greene-like thrill, the ever-present razor edge of danger.

It would be unfair, given such a plot, to divulge the resolution, for, although this is something more than a mystery story, it is surely nothing less than that. But it is a mystery that works on three levels--the narrative (or old-fashioned plot) level, the psychological level (the mystery of human motivation and dreams), and the moral level. One may say, "But all good mysteries work on all these levels," and that is true as far as it goes. But in Endo the psychological level has none of the comic-strip simplicity it tends toward in most mystery novels. Rather, we are brought face to face with real human beings attempting to grasp their profoundest problems. The moral level, too, is given to us in all its depths. The question of good and evil is put boldly, but nuanced by a lifetime of reflection.

Because everything about Suguro mimics the known facts of Endo's life, we are reminded repeatedly that this novel is a confession. Toward the close of "Scandal," Suguro even has a conversation with his editor in which he tells the younger man that he wishes to write a (for him) new kind of novel: "I want to shake the foundations of the literature I have built up over the years, to find out whether the whole thing will collapse or not." The novel he plans is to be called "Scandal: An Old Man's Prayer."

Endo has succeeded in shaking the foundations: In "Scandal" he is writing not just about sin (which has always been his subject) but about the kind of sin that does not yield to redemption--undiluted Evil. But he shakes the foundations without destroying the edifice. All the same, we cannot doubt he is looking Evil full in the face, an old man standing up to the blasts of hell. Although Endo, ever the consummate storyteller, cannot bring himself to write a plotless book, "Scandal" is more discursive than his earlier novels, more meditative, more . . . prayerful. He dares to conjoin extraordinary literary elements: Dante, Baudelaire, the Sermon on the Mount, Thomas Mann, Poe, Dostoevsky, and Gilles de Rais, the brutal comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He speaks with the unsettling authority of the old: "There are several rooms inside the human heart. The room at the lowest level is like the storeroom you have here in your home, Mari--it has all kinds of things stored up in it. But late at night, the things you've got locked up and forgotten in there begin to move." He analyzes contemporary psychological theories of cruelty and deftly sets them aside; they explain nothing.

Endo has written greater novels than "Scandal": "The Sea and Poison," his shuddering tale of Japanese medical experiments on prisoners of war; "Silence," his masterpiece, about the persecution under the Shoguns of a Portuguese missionary; and "The Samurai," a high-wire historical novel set in 17th-Century Japan, Mexico and Europe. But never has he combined profundity with entertainment to such a degree, for a good mystery cannot fail to entertain. (One can imagine the story as a successful film.) And never has this most Western and approachable of Japanese novelists shown us more fully his Japanese self: "Suguro listened to the ringing of the telephone. His wife, too, seemed to be listening anxiously in the darkness. The sound impressed him as being like a groan from the depths of a human heart. The fathomless pit yawning at the bottom of that heart. The echo of a wind coursing through that pit. Something he had not yet described in any of his novels."

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