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Foreign Studies- Shusako Endo

October 6, 2018

In the early 1950s Shusaku Endo spent several years as an exchange student studying in Paris. Around him existentialism, Sartre and Beckett were making the city the literary and philosophical capital of the world. But for Endo the experience was deeply alienating and he came away infected with tuberculosis, his studies incomplete and convinced that there could be no cultural commerce between East and West. Foreign Studies consists of three linked narratives exploring this theme.

The first part, ‘A Summer in Rouen’, concerns Kudo, a Japanese student invited to France in the 1950s. It is a lucid snapshot of a young man who feels adrift in a Western country. The second part, ‘Araki Thomas’, sees Endo on familiar territory as he tells of an apostate Japanese Catholic who has visited seventeenth-century Rome. ‘And You, Too’, the third part, is the story of Tanaka, a Japanese scholar of French literature who visits France in the 1960s to research the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. We soon come to see that Tanaka’s quest is not simply a literary one but spiritual and cultural too.

The solitary, obstinate Tanaka, like Kudo and Araki, cannot reconcile East and West until, in a brilliantly symbolic scene, he climbs up to Sade’s castle near Avignon in the snow. As Tanaka wanders among the ruined rooms, a red stain catches his eye. In his imagination, it was left by Sade, a positive link between himself and that mysterious world. As he stumbles wearily down the hill, he coughs and a blob of red blood falls on the snow. He too must return defeated to Japan.Endo’s delineation of isolation, of feeling terribly and irrevocably foreign, is moving and effective, with implications that go beyond the specificity of his Japanese characters to the wider problems of communications between all cultures.

Endo himself converted to Catholicism at the age of eleven, studied French literature in Japan, before going to Lyon on a French government scholarship, and then becoming one of the rare Christian Japanese writers. While it is not always easy to sympathize with Endo’s characters, they do bring out the best in this genre which speaks to issues of identity and displacement of individuals whose lifes are swept by different cultural currents.

It seems that the form of Christianity taken to Japan was too Westernised – that is implied here and in ‘Silence’ – if only Francis Xavier had been given more leeway to inculturate.

Ostensibly, ”Foreign Studies” tackles the vast separation between East and West, but there are constant undertones of this more personal theme. The hardest problem for Christian creative artists is to avoid imposing their moral code on their characters. In an introduction to ”Foreign Studies,” Mr. Endo describes the change in his point of view over the last 20 years: ”As a result of continuous consideration of the concept of ‘the unconscious’ in my literature, I am now convinced that meaningful communication between East and West is possible. I have gradually come to realize that, despite the mutual distance and the cultural and linguistic differences that clearly exist in the conscious sphere, the two hold much in common at the unconscious level.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“insuperable distance between the cathedral at Chartres and the Horyuji temple, the unfathomable disparity between the statue of St Anna and the Maitreya Bodhisattva.

From the outside they may appear similar, but the blood of those who created them was very different.”

“we cannot receive blood from those of a different blood group”

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