Sachiko by Endo Shusaku
Sachiko (女の一生<２部>: サチ子の場合, lit. A woman’s life part 2: Sachiko’s case) is a novel by Endo Shusaku (遠藤 周作) that was first published in 1982. The English version, translated by Van C. Gessel, was published in 2020.
This historical-fiction is set in Nagasaki, mostly during the years of WWII. Although this is a sequel to Kiku’s Prayer, it is not absolutely necessary to read that before Sachiko. The titular character of Sachiko is a grandchild of Mitsu, Kiku’s cousin, and therefore obviously related to Kiku, but other than a few key references to Kiku and Mitsu, there is no direct plot connection between the two novels.
The story begins before the war when the Japanese and Americans interacted freely. And unlike the previous centuries, the practice of Christianity is permitted in Japan.
Young Sachiko is part of the local Catholic community and is friends with the Americans, including a boy named Jim. I half-expected the story to explore the difficulties of that friendship, particularly growing up and growing apart in the midst of a war. The story does, but not with Jim since he and his family return to the US in 1939, so Jim is a minor character.
The focus is on Sachiko and Shuhei, another childhood friend within that Catholic circle. Sachiko is generally a sensible girl. She soon learns of Kiku’s story. Whilst she does not have an idealized view of love and romance, she admires, perhaps naively, the chivalric aspects of Kiku’s actions. Shuhei, on the other hand, is a bit of a rebel and troublemaker, a mostly harmless prankster who would use cats to interrupt mass.
As the two grow, there comes the complication that often occurs in one-on-one opposite-sex friendships. In addition to the usual difficulties of growing up and coming to terms with their feelings for each other is the impact of the war. Although the legal status regarding the practice of Christianity does not change, some nonetheless view Christians with suspicion because they are practicing a “foreign religion” of the enemy. And not surprisingly, Shuhei, although a university student, is eventually drafted, thus making their relationship even more difficult to manage.
If one assumes Endo has his usual theme of the meaning of suffering, then it is not immediately apparent. Sachiko and Shuhei enduring life’s difficulties does not mean the story explores the question. If the arc of these two is considered the A-story, then there is the B-story that follows Father Maximilian Kolbe (b. 8 January 1894 – d. 14 August 1941), a Franciscan priest, who had spent some time in Japan. This arc follows Father Kolbe’s time in Auschwitz so the question of the meaning of suffering is obvious there, especially when the author spells it out for the reader.
Although the shifts between Nagasaki and Auschwitz keep the novel interesting, it is structurally a little crude. Once Father Kolbe is killed, that arc simply ends with no further commentary.
In any case, as the relationship between Sachiko and Shuhei develops and the situation in Japan gets more difficult, the question of the meaning of suffering takes form, however subtly. In a more matured version of his earlier childish rebelliousness, Shuhei questions the Church’s apparent silence, the lack of advice and answers regarding the war and killing in war; that is, he cannot reconcile killing with what he has been taught regarding the fifth commandment. In this respect, there is some mild resonance with the novel Silence.
As a sidebar, given that Endo often sympathizes with his characters by focusing on the subjective and relative aspects of morality, it is a little surprising that the character of Shuhei takes a strongly objective, maybe even a simple, view of morality. This does not make his struggle with his religious doubts less realistic, but it is different to some of Endo’s other works.
As Shuhei struggles, so does Sachiko who is worried about him, not just for his safety whilst in the military but also for his spiritual state.
She climbed the stone steps and quietly opened the door to the chapel. Two lighted candles at the altar fluttered like moths; the mass had just begun. Besides the priest who was performing mass, the chapel was deserted except for two nuns and an older woman who did cleaning for the church.
The two nuns noticed Sachiko and looked at her in surprise. They had not expected this young woman, whom they had known since her childhood, to come to this early morning mass.
Sachiko crossed herself and knit her hands in prayer. And just as Kiku had done many years before when she entered this chapel, she directed her eyes to the right of the altar. There stood the state of the Immaculata, looking unblinkingly in Sachiko’s direction.
“Blessed Mother, please do something to help Shuhei. If you help him, I will come to mass every morning for a month.”
She wasn’t sure how to explain her feelings to the statue of the Blessed Mother. She was expressing her personal anguish, so perhaps it was not a prayer in the usual sense of the word. No—it really was a prayer. The sort of prayer in which a child tells her mother everything.
Whilst taking very different approaches, both Sachiko and Shuhei take steps to address their doubts. Neither denies nor runs away from their struggles. So, perhaps their arc is not so much about the answer to the meaning of suffering (which some of Endo’s other works, including Kiku’s Prayer, at least hint at) but more about the importance of persevering in faith. Although Father Kolbe’s arc ends abruptly, Endo provides a more complete and therefore satisfying conclusion to the story of Sachiko.
Sachiko is a decent novel, mundane and not overly dramatic but nevertheless captivating and moving. It is a worthy follow-up to Kiku’s Prayer which, out of the two, is arguably the more refined novel, structurally and thematically.
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