Friday, July 9, 2010

Shusako endo

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The Sea & poison
by Shusako Endo
The book starts as a prologue, with the visit to a  “ shabbily constructed house, more like a shed than a Dr’s surgery” by an unnamed man seeking a Doctor for a routine injection. He meets Dr Suguro, whose faultless technique, but cold distant attitude, piques his curiosity. A while later, whilst at a  family wedding, he meets another doctor who is a fellow guest, they get chatting & he finds out that the other doctor knew Suguro & through his tale we learn about Dr Suguro’s past.
During the 2nd world war, Suguro worked as an intern at Fukuoka  medical school & whilst there became involved with medical experiments on some American prisoners of war, these included live vivisection & injecting air into their veins to find out how quick they’ll die. Although, when it came down to it, Suguro couldn’t  do it, he couldn’t stop it either, he froze.
“ I didn’t do anything at all; Suguro made an effort to shut out the voice. I didn’t do anything at all; But this plea seemed to reverberate within him, churning itself into a whirlpool devoid of meaning”
It’s this inability to act  against his superiors  that overrides everything. This leads  to a lack of resolution that paralyzes  his ability to act  according to his ideal of what a doctor is. Creating the humiliation that will  dictate his future.

Shusako Endo

There is another character in the book called Toda, who appears to have none of the qualms of Suguro. He is guided purely by his ambition, to him the patients are merely another instrument to assist him on his chosen path. Toda discusses his lack of concern & chides Suguro for his compassion, even when it comes to killing the prisoners Toda is only concerned with how he would be perceived by his peers.
“After doing this will my heart trouble me with recriminations? will I shudder fearfully at having become a murderer? killing a living human being. Having this most fearful of deeds, will i suffer my whole life thru?
“ I looked up, both Dr Shibata & Dr Asia had smiles on their lips, these men were after all no different from me. Even when the day of judgement comes, they’ll fear only the punishment of the world, of society”

So what is a moral dilemma for Suguro, even if it’s one that through his submission he cannot act upon, causes Toda a momentary concern of how society would view his actions.                                           
It’s this apparent contradiction, on the one hand almost total subservience & on the other an ambition that has no brake, that seems to  stunt the growth of any moral or ethical perspective from both Suguro & Toda. In the end, although both reacted differently to the situation they were in, the result was the same.
This book was written in the late 1950’s & was set in the 2nd world war.  Yet having recently finished Haruki Murakami’s – Underground ( Tokyo gas attack & the Japanese psyche) pub’ 1997,  i  was constantly amazed by how similar they were when referring to the society they were set in ( all though they are separated by about 50 years). There was this  constant sense of isolation & alienation of the individual & an obedience to authority, regardless of whether it was detrimental to the person involved.
What also struck me about both books, was that no one had any sense of personal responsibility. With The Sea & Poison, the reasoning was there was nothing I could do, it was the medical authority, the military or the war etc. With a few name changes (the Aum, work ethos) this could have been Murakami’s Underground. In fact, whilst researching how a massacre of Japanese troops led to slaughter by their superiors during an invasion of Mongolia (1939), Murakami writes
“ I was struck by the fact that the closed, responsibility – evading ways of Japanese society were really not any different from the Imperial Japanese army operated at that time”

For information on the translator


NancyO said...

nice review, as usual! I really liked this book but it was tragic.

@parridhlantern said...

Thank you,this was my first Shusako Endo it's definitely made want to check out more. It was tragic, made more so I believe by the lack of any resolution.

Mel u said...

I recently complete the same author's Silence which I liked a lot-I am very into Japanese literary treatments of WWII and now have this book on TBR list

@parridhlantern said...

Hi mel, Silence is on my TBR so would be interested in your view (have you reviewed it?)
thanks for your comment.

@parridhlantern said...

Mel u, just checked out your your review, it definitely has my interest now, thanks again

Unknown said...

Definitely looks good, although very different to 'Silence' - and (of course) any reference to Murakami automatically has me interested!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi tony of the 2 I've posted on Stained Glass elegies sounds like it could be closer to Silence in subject matter. The Murakami link is merely the similar idea of avoidance of responsibility & possibly the attendant idea of loss of face. This is a good book although my personal favourite is the stained glass elegies.

Caroline said...

We read this book during last year's readalong. Thank for leaving a comment. I have now added your review to my post.
There was quite a bit of a discussion, espeacially due to the fact that most people were not aware that Endo based his novel on true events. It impressed me a great deal. The writing is unusual.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Caroline if the writing in this impressed try his short story collection The Stained Glass Elegies, which is my favourite of the two.
Thanks for adding me & will check out the other responses.