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Japan Bitten by Europe : FOREIGN STUDIES <i> by Shusaku Endo; translated from Japanese by Mark Williams (Linden: $18.95; 232 pp.) </i>

Richard Eder

Who is this Japanese traveler, wearing a beret and thick glasses, standing outside the airline terminal in Paris, drenched by the freezing rain and too wretchedly shy to hail a taxi?

He is Tanaka, that’s who. Tanaka: lecturer in literature at the university back home, protege of the powerful Professor Ueda, and owing to this and to his foresight in selecting a specialty not already spoken for (the works of the Marquis de Sade), conqueror of one of those intermediate positions of vantage on the academic chess board: a year or two of research in France.

Tanaka has it made, in other words, or temporarily made. He has bested his fellow players; particularly Suganuma, who is only an assistant, and who has not yet been chosen to come to France but cannot be entirely dismissed, since his mentor, though junior to Tanaka’s, may in chess terms be more strategically placed.

Homesick, splashed, bewildered, Tanaka thinks of his colleagues who had gone to Europe to study. “On their return, they made no mention of feelings of shame and self-pity when they had spoken of their experiences abroad. . . . It was as though, from the moment they had arrived in Paris, they had as a matter of course been respected as members of the intelligentsia.”

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Whereas “The man who now stood at his wit’s end in the pouring rain on a Paris street corner with heavy luggage in both hands, totally incapable of hailing a taxi, was not the university lecturer who had left Japan. . . . What was left of him was like a statue from which the plaster had been ripped off, leaving only an ugly skeleton. But at least, with a statue, the skeleton remains even after the plaster has been torn off.”

Tanaka is no misfit sailor run aground on his own timid incompetence. He is the true circumnavigator, sailing nakedly around the world and finding it is flat and you fall off. It is his colleagues who are trimmers, and who survive by never leaving their own shore, even while having aperitifs at the Dome and boasting that Sartre had nodded to them.

Tanaka’s story, entitled “And You Too,” is the comic and disquieting is the centerpiece of “Foreign Studies.” Like its two companion stories, but more profoundly, it is a statement by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo about the pain between East and West. Each, experiencing the other, misappropriates the other.

“And You Too,” novella-length, begins by watching Tanaka from the point of view of half a dozen Japanese businessmen at an in-flight airport bar at Hamburg. They are Philistines; camera-wearers, clinging together and boasting of their prospective exploits with French and German prostitutes. Tanaka, sitting alone, won’t join them. Pretentious snob, they figure. Un-Japanese.

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But there is another kind of Philistinism. Tanaka and his academic colleagues may speak of France as their spiritual home, visit all the right places, read the right books. But these are acquisitions; goods bought at an intellectual duty-free shop to be exchanged, once back home, for promotions and prestige.

Tanaka, who finally gets his taxi and registers at a modest hotel, is a would-be duty-free shopper as well. But something strikes him down. Perhaps it is the fact that his hotel was the house where Proust shut himself up to write and die. Perhaps it comes from following the tracks of Sade--that other artistic extremist--from the prison at Vincennes to the madhouse at Charenton, to the ruined family castle near Avignon. Perhaps it is Sakisaka, the odd, ill compatriot who stays at the same hotel.

Sakisaka, an architect, is in Paris to better his prospects by studying at the Sorbonne. He is a loner, though, pale and distracted. He is a man with snakebite. The snake is European culture. Sakisaka has not merely filled his notebooks with useful sketches of Gothic cathedrals and Baroque palaces. He has filled himself as well. He has experienced what he calls the profound “flow” of the European soul. It has devastated him; he has, not incidentally, caught tuberculosis and will be shipped home.

“But here is the real pain that is all part of the experience of studying abroad,” he tells Tanaka. “In order to enter that great flow, we foreign students have to pay some sort of a price. . . . I’ve paid for it with my health.”

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“And You Too” is a battle for its protagonist’s soul. Like most real battles, the results are both devastating and ambiguous. Tanaka tries to hold onto his purposes. He follows avidly his wife’s mailed reports of his rival, Suganuma, and is horrified by the news that he too will come to France. He visits the cafe where the Japanese writers and academics hang out--as clannish as the businessmen and, in their own fashion, as crass.

But his heart is not in it. He has caught Sakisaka’s illness; figuratively at first, then literally. His entanglement with Sade becomes more and more profound, and finally, on a second visit to his ruined castle, he finds himself spitting blood. He too will have to be shipped home, a failure; his rival, meanwhile, is doing all the right French things--just lightly enough.

There are oddly awkward bits in the story; among them, an unremarkable 10-page essay on Sade that dams up its fictional current. Sometimes, Tanaka’s anguished reflections seem stagnant, sometimes repetitive.

Yet the cumulative effect is astonishing. “And You Too” wields a variety of effects, from a comedy of academic intrigue, to a Jamesian portrait of cross-cultural misunderstanding, to the hauntingly surreal quality of Tanaka’s pilgrimage around France in pursuit of Sade’s presence, to a real and profound sadness.

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Of the two lesser companion pieces, “A Summer in Rouen” is a beautifully suggestive account of a Japanese boy brought to a French town just after World War II. He--like the author--is Catholic; his sponsors hope he will study and return to Japan to propagate a French provincial brand of Catholicism. He finds himself and his culture totally misperceived by his well-meaning bourgeois-provincial hosts; polite and sweating, he retreats into himself. When the daughter tries to teach him “correct” table manners--eat slowly, make conversation--his head feels “like a waste basket.”

“Araki Thomas,” much sketchier, sets a similar theme back in the 17th Century. A Japanese youth, converted by Catholic missionaries, is sent to Rome to study. When Japan’s rulers begin to persecute its small Catholic community, he returns unwillingly to face what his Roman sponsors glowingly prescribe as glorious martyrdom. Upon arrival, he promptly abjures the faith.

In an introduction, Endo notes that these stories, written 25 years ago, present a starker picture of the divide between Japanese and Western culture than the one he has come to hold. Now he sees hopes of transcending it, he writes, perhaps by studying the subconscious.

Yet to the Western reader, the flash of revelation is as remarkable as ever. There are moments in these stories where the author is able to make us feel Japanese ourselves. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. But he does make us feel, at times, as much of a suffering stranger inside our own culture.

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