Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Volcano by Shusaku Endo
Jinpei Suda has spent a lifetime monitoring the volcano Akadake, which looms over a small town in southern Japan. Conventional wisdom, to which Jinpei subscribes, says that the volcano, which has killed thousands in the past, has not gone dormant, but died for good, and become nothing more than a mountain. When he retires, Jinpei believes that his diligent stewardship of the local weather bureau has brought him a middle-class respect and prestige. But when he suffers from a stroke, he learns that his son and daughter-in-law see him as a burden, his wife resents him, and his friends and colleagues are all too happy to forget about him.
The only sympathetic figure he finds is the volcano itself, who seems as old and utterly spent as Jinpei himself. But to maintain this pathetic fallacy, the illusion of sympathy, Jinpei must ignore the suddenly troubling signs that Akadake is set to erupt: the animals dying, perhaps from the release of sulfur gas, the opening fissures in the side of the mountain. Sneaking into the weather bureau when everyone else is gone for New Year's, Jinpei even swipes a troubling bit of ticker-tape from the seismometer. Akadake is very much alive, but if that's true, it means that Jinpei is left to slip quietly into death, alone.
I read Endo's Silence a couple years ago because I had heard him referred to as the "Japanese Graham Greene." As a practicing Japanese Catholic, Endo is a rare bird, and his outsider status surely does align him with Greene, who never seemed to feel like his Catholicism connected him to a larger community. Volcano becomes even more Greene-like than Silence by introducing an apostate French priest named Durand, who might have been cut wholesale out of a Greene novel. It's Durand who voices the idea, prevalent in Silence, that the Japanese character is incompatible with Christianity. To this outsider, Jinpei seems like a criticism of a specifically Japanese way of living, characterized by extreme politesse and an outsized pride in semi-respectable, bureaucratic achievements. Durand's insistence that the Japanese character is foreign to guilt or sin sometimes seems designed to indict Jinpei's inability to face the possibility that he has been a bad husband or a bad father, or that his self-delusions about Akadake threaten the lives of others.
But Endo never contrives to put the two characters together in more than a perfunctory way, and the connection between them is really just my speculation, spun out of pretty thin cloth. Are we supposed to wonder what Jinpei might have done, or been, if he had been a Catholic? Endo's cynicism about Catholicism in Japan seems to preclude that. More often, Durand seems like a character dropped in from another universe, Greene's maybe, who only touches the main plot in oblique ways.
That's one of the big flaws of Volcano, which I generally enjoyed. The other is that it never seems to build on the big idea it begins with: Jinpei is wrong about the volcano, but he can't face it because it would involve learning something frightening about himself. Endo hammers that point home, but does little with it beyond that. Unlike Silence, whose characters are forced to face difficult questions about their own faith and character, Volcano seems as committed as Jinpei to not facing anything at all.
Posted by Christopher at 2:30 PM