Ambassadors

Pat Rogers

  • The Samurai by Shusaku Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel
    Peter Owen, 272 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 7206 0559 8
  • The Obedient Wife by Julia O’Faolain
    Allen Lane, 230 pp, £7.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1467 X
  • Pinball by Jerzy Kosinski
    Joseph, 287 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2133 3
  • Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido
    Gollancz, 218 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 575 03112 3

By the Western calendar, the events chronicled in Shusaku Endo’s latest novel take place between 1613 and 1624. But of course that is an artificial way of looking at the matter. Half the book takes place in Mexico and Europe; Endo has the cosmopolitan range of a partly ‘Westernised’ figure, educated in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, the heart of the issue concerns Japan, ‘a wall with windows no larger than gunports, windows to keep an eye on those coming in, not to look out upon the wider world’. We are encouraged by the translator’s postscript, and by one or two unguarded phrases in the text, to see the book as a metaphysical disquisition, a scrutiny of the nature of politics in any time or place. But the specifics are more imaginatively vital than any abstract moralising. Endo is, pace many commentators, pervaded by history: the morality emerges from that history.

The titular hero of The Samurai is an impassive middle-aged man, no more than a ‘lance-corporal’ in the social hierarchy, who leads a party of four envoys and some merchants on a voyage to New Spain. Hasekura’s commission is mysteriously set up by his local overtord, in the province of Tohoku at the northern end of Honshu island. Nobody is very clear about the exact motives for the embassy, or the aims of the ruler in Edo (later Tokyo), Ieyasu, who was to achieve lasting importance as the founder of the Togukawa shogunate which survived until 1867. At Mexico City, the party learn that no decision can be taken by the Viceroy without reference to Madrid. One of the envoys remains with the group of merchants, whilst the three others press on to Vera Cruz and ultimately to Spain. Even then, they have not reached the end of their quest, for it now appears that Rome must be consulted. Despite an audience with the Pope, the embassy proves fruitless, and the party endure an equally laborious journey back along almost the same route. One of the samurai commits suicide: the leader Hasekura survives, but is liquidated on his return for political reasons. It becomes clear that during the period of the embassy Japan has ctosed in again, and that the proposed trade contacts with the West were little more than a decoy. At Madrid, the samurai had been baptised into the Church, but they had regarded this as nominal Christianity, adopted to aid in the success of their supposed mission. By the time of his return to his homeland, Hasekura has come to embrace the faith at an inward level.

But the samurai himself is far from being the most emphatically drawn character. He reacts stoically to all the misfortunes of his journey: Endo does not shrink from presenting him as an unreconstructed inscrutable oriental – but what (to paraphrase Thurber) does he want to be inscrutable for? In some sense, to live up to a code as unexplained and as inexplicable as that of Lord Jim. Much more frontal treatment is reserved for the Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velas-co. It is he who believes that he understands the situation: who wheels and deals with the Japanese, tries to outwit the Jesuits, seeks to persuade the hierarchy in Europe. Most of the way he is portrayed as manipulative, self-seeking and spiritually vain. But his end is a noble one, and his part in the mission has at least ensured a hearing for the faith amid all the diplomatic skirmishing. Hasekura is at first baffled by the worship Christians accord to ‘this ugly emaciated man’ ... ‘devoid of majesty, bereft of outward beauty, so wretchedly miserable’. A renegade monk in Mexico (unmissable echoes here of The Power and the Glory) tells him that Christ ‘understands the hearts of the wretched, because His entire life was wretched ... He was not in the least powerful.’ Though the Church as an organisation comes out badly, the Christian religion is treated with sympathy. Its impending banishment is a blow to Japan, which will remain apathetic towards the wider world, cunning and prudent, acting swiftly ‘like a lizard pouncing upon its prey’. In their different ways, both the priest and the samurai witness to a mode of spirituality which was lost to Japan for a further two centuries.

At the other end of that stage in the history of the Church comes religion, California-style. The priest in The Obedient Wife wears the dress of the laity, he is contemplating leaving his orders, and he proposes marriage to the wife, Carla Verdi. She is educated, rather under-employed, living on the Santa Monica side of LA with her teenage son: her aggressive and confusedly liberated husband is pursuing his business interests back home in Italy. Irritated messages keep arriving from Viareggio and points north, urging Carla to sort herself out. Which is what she would like to do anyway: but her son Maurizio doesn’t help, especially when he gangs up with the daughter of a feckless hippie ménage across the way. Carla’s other neighbours are equally awful, whether they be shallow advice-mongers on local radio or self-dramatising actresses. Julia O’Faolain is good at rendering their excesses without falling into caricature.

As for Carla, she is worried not just about reaching 40 but about reaching 37. When a neighbour’s child is hurt in a swimming-pool accident, she begins to fear ‘that Fate, a clever knife-thrower, might have aimed to the side of its chosen and eventual target.’ As a Florentine, she leans a bit too much on ‘her co-citizen, Dante... surely, at such a moment, with psychic defences weak, Fate might be tempted to strike?’ Attracted to the priest, she feels leery of the passion which is his territory: in an old-fashioned way she desires to be swept off her feet and finds the pleading in her lover’s eyes ‘hopeful and, she couldn’t help feeling, unmanly’. The great strength of the novel lies in its precise evocation of a hectic and tense landscape, threatened by seismic disturbance and social violence: the ‘ill-finished city was full of menace.’ After a conflagration has destroyed the hippies’ abode, within weeks ‘a tender new growth had covered all traces of the fire.’ Subtly Julia O’Faolain brings out the invasion of the temporary upon enduring feelings.

If Jerzy Kosinski did anything subtly, it would be a surprise, and in Pinball he never comes within a million miles of it. The title, by the way, is quite pointless, despite two final paragraphs evidently written when the author woke up to its utter irrelevance. The novel concerns a once-famous composer, Domostroy; a legendary rock star known as God-dard, who has broken all records for album sales but is actually A Great Artist none the less; two girls, one black, one white, but both astoundingly beautiful and both irresistibly attracted to the men. The black girl is a pianist who ultimately wins the Warsaw Chopin competition; previous to this, Domostroy has made love to her whilst she gamely plays a scherzo in B minor. This is naturally a recognition of the profound link between eroticism and creativity in Chopin: ‘Supposedly after an orgy, Chopin actually felt better and was therefore able to go on writing music and performing and, of course, screwing around.’ This elicits a response from the white girl: ‘You obviously love all these literary aspects. You must be awfully good in your field.’

The literary aspects of Pinball may be illustrated thus... Style: ‘ “What’s more, I’m an insomniac!” ‘Macbeth has murdered sleep,” ’ she quoted.’ Description: ‘Domostroy was guided by the auditory, and his art was music, which enlarged his spiritual world by demolishing boundaries of time and space and by replacing the myriad separate encounters and collisions of men and objects with a mystical fusion of sound, place and distance, of mood and emotion.’ Analysis: ‘Musically and in terms of lyrics, Goddard is the culmination of all his rock ’n’ roll predecessors – Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen – as well as what’s best in funk, soul, reggae – and, of course, the influence of such master saloon singers as Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett. In Goddard’s music you can hear the whole vocabulary of Karlheinz Stockhausen and electronic gizmos...’ Musical information: ‘A tender nocturne with two main phrases that render the piece two-souled, like a dialogue of lovers. The modulation to C-sharp major evokes their kissing, caressing and love-making.’ Narrative: ‘The appearance of Donna in a low-cut gold lamé gown with a slit skirt left the staid, distinguished company gasping.’

Four of Kosinski’s earlier books have just been reissued in paperback, and he can afford to cry all the way to the bank. But one does feel for the wretched man, who writes like poor Poll, and strives to make his tawdry characters utter deep thoughts (‘Pornography and sentimentality go hand in hand. They both lie about sex’). His dialogue is rendered unbelievable and unAmerican by the stiffness of its syntax (the following is dialogue): ‘The counter-man, a 22-year-old musician – a recently married gentle fellow who worked there part-time – told him that the place didn’t have a public toilet.’ Again: ‘Like Leiberson, Pregel became known, not for his music, but for other reasons – in his case, primarily as a great expert and inventor in the field of atomic energy.’ Or this: ‘As I waited for her to write, I fantasised about her more and more, always imagining her naked, making love to me in clandestine meetings – after her concerts, in big anonymous hotels on New York’s West Side; in out-of-the-way hotels in Paris, Rome, or Vienna; in motels in Los Angeles; in private rooms of the secret sex palaces in Rio de Janeiro.’ Some of this is meant to be pillow talk. Kosinski unwisely introduces people with labels like ‘one of the world’s outstanding musical authorities’ (he is pathetically in awe of Pulitzer Prizes, platinum discs, record industry awards, and other such gongs). We are asked to believe that a composer would identify a Chopin mazurka to a famous pianist by reciting ‘the lyric’, feeble stuff beginning: ‘If I were the sun in the sky...’ The black girl plays (naked) so as to flood ‘the huge ballroom with Zal, that Slavic mood of hopeless rancour’. Zal mi, but the hopeless rancour is catching. No more – the text is foolish.

Brother of the More Famous Jack is a highly promising debut – fast, inventive and funny. Unlike so many first novels, it gets on with the action functionally and purposefully. The heroine, Katherine, ‘straight from the outer reaches of the Northern Line’, comes into prolonged emotional contact with the family of her professor, a freewheeling left wing intellectual briefly transplanted from his spiritual home ‘five minutes’ walk from the Hampstead Everyman’ to the countryside. Jacob Goldman rampages through the novel like a loose-living Rumpole, whilst his wife and sons become equally important in Katherine’s life. There is an interlude of sleazy living in Rome, some excellent jokes (breeding goes on too fast in Oxford because ‘there’s too much leisure...too much coming home for lunch’), and nicely pointed dialogue. The tone is not quite cynical, but certainly open, unblinking and wordly-wise: the love-affairs are all too plausibly messy, as are the gynaecological effects of these causes, and the construction is adroit. A report on experience, of the Sixties and Seventies chiefly, yet only reportorial to the extent that art can afford to be.