White Man, Yellow Man are two novellas that are the earliest works of Endo Shusaku (遠藤 周作), first published in 1955.
White Man is set in German-occupied Lyon in 1942. The story is written in first-person, the narrator a young Frenchman who was born to a French father and a German mother. His name is not mentioned. He is physically unattractive and he knows it. He also willfully collaborates with the Gestapo. He is bitter and diabolically cruel, looking to make those around him fall just to prove the point that men are weak and the good can’t win.
His targets are Jacques, a seminarian, and Marie, a young lady who may be a little frivolous but seemingly a decent practicing catholic. The narrator plays the two against each other, particularly after their arrest.
Yellow Man is set in Nigawa, Japan, during World War II. The narration alternates between a letter written by Chiba to his former mentor Father Breau, and the diary of Mr Durand that Chiba includes along with the letter.
Mr Durand is a fallen priest who had a liaison with Kimiko, a woman who he was helping. Despite being excommunicated and ostracized by the parishioners, Breau maintains his friendship with Durand. Chiba is a lapse catholic who admits to his struggles and indifference, as well as his betrayal of his childhood friend Saeki.
In both novellas, Endo has crafted characters that are flawed, complex and not necessarily likable but nonetheless filled with pathos. All three, in different ways, are Judas figures. But Endo is very unjudging of these flawed characters—he embeds a hint of hope, a hint of the possibility of redemption in these stories.
In White Man, the narrator willfully wants to be a “Judas” and yet, during the torture of Jacques and Marie seems to have a subtle but nevertheless a real sense of pity. He even seems to ask the questions of how one’s suffering impacts others, of who “set up this gamble” (the situation between him, Jacques and Marie). The theme of suffering is one which Endo explores in his other works. In Yellow Man, Chiba is seemingly indifferent to the “foreign” God in which he was raised to believe, and yet, one could sense his struggles, however subtle. Durand is in despair and bitter at his own sin and weaknesses; he wishes all of it to end and thinks he is destined for hell. But he refrains from suicide.
These are Endo’s earliest works so it may not be as refined or as well constructed as his later works, but one can see his talent in writing relatable characters and stories that explore struggles of faith and the classic question of the meaning of suffering.
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