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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, December 26, 2016

An Endo story of expiation (reminds of William Maxwell stories)

Another fine Shusaku Endo story ("Life" - had to look up the title)  in his collection The Final Martyrs examines his childhood. Like so many of his stories this one seems to be autobiographical, though it's not a memoir and he structures the story like a work of fiction, with a strong narrative voice and overlapping layers of incident and imagery. Endo, and his narrator, lived in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s; his father had a professional job - in banking, I think - and this story (and at least one other in this collection) discuss the crumbling relationship between his parents, constant fighting that became more severe. In this story, Endo focuses on the boy's loneliness and isolation; he begins to do poorly in school, delays going home because he can't stand the constant marital warfare. Things begin to change when they hire a Manchurian teenager to work at petty wages as a "houseboy" (their Japanese servant left for home, fed up with the family fighting and perhaps w/ the mother's instability). This young man is protective of the much younger narrator; in a touching passages he walks the boy to school, sheltering him from a gusting snowstorm (while himself wearing tattered clothes unsuitable for the weather), and speaking to the boy in broken Japanese, encouraging him on his way. At one point, the child, in anger at his parents, steals a ring from his mother and sells it for a nominal sum, using the money to buy candy. As we can see from a mile a way, the houseboy gets blamed for the theft and tossed aside. The narrator is questioned about the missing ring, but never speaks up - and this memory haunts him throughout his life. The story - there are parallel elements as well, including an encounter with some Japanese soldiers bound for the fighting in central Manchuria, which the boy realizes much later means most of them would die - feels a lot like one of the great stories by William Maxwell, a story written as a form of confession, penance, or expiation - we know the boy did wrong, but we see his suffering. We pity, and we forgive.

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