Singular Rebellions

Walter Nash

  • Scandal by Shusaku Endo, translated by Van Gessel
    Peter Owen, 237 pp, £11.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7206 0682 9
  • Hell Screen, Cogwheels, A Fool’s Life by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
    Eridanos, 145 pp, £13.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 941419 02 9
  • Singular Rebellion by Saiichi Maruya, translated by Dennis Keene
    Deutsch, 412 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 233 98202 7

You can be sure that sooner or later one of them will appear, a spoiler: some truth-babbling child, some derelict lover, some malcontent in his artfully rowdy cups. And just at the moment when the bride is about to cut the cake, the chairman is on the point of presenting the cheque, the octogenarian is smiling moistly at the photographer, this intruder will speak out loud and clear, terrible words of revelation and accusation. Then the room will fall silent, the sunlit garden will freeze to a photographic still, and while some fix embarrassed eyes on the dahlias or the water-colours, others will experience a warm access of cheerfulness. This happens in dreams and fictions; sometimes it happens in life.

It happens to the principal character in Shusaku Endo’s Scandal. Suguro is in his sixties, a successful man, methodical, self-disciplined, attentive to household obligations and the needs of his ailing wife, a man in the midst of life, with the taste of death on his tongue and the shapes of death in his dreams. He is by profession a novelist and by religion a Roman Catholic, circumstances not easily compatible for a Japanese. ‘None of you has any idea how difficult it is for a Christian to write fiction in Japan,’ the young Suguro reflects, when colleagues criticise the intellectual artifice of his writing. And now for more than thirty years he has been publishing novels distinguished for the power of their Christian apologetic, particularly in their presentation of the concept of sin: Suguro’s creative belief, the conviction that informs and gives peculiar merit to his stories, is that within each act of sin there is a yearning for rebirth, and that consequently even sin has a beneficent meaning in an ordered universe. Though this doctrine seems unfamiliar and even repugnant to his fellow Japanese, Suguro’s evident integrity has at length brought him respect and recognition. He is an honoured man of letters, a somewhat austere and reserved figure, a personage regularly acknowledged by the deferential form of address, sensei. He has made his mark; and to prove it, he is about to be given a literary prize.

Then, in the moment of fame, among the plaudits, the tributes of peers, enter a spoiler: a woman, tipsy, leering, with a raucous account of Suguro’s cavortings in the red-light district, to which, she alleges, he is a regular visitor. Suguro can only mutter embarrassed disclaimers while cameras flash and colleagues stare and the inevitable newshound ponders a mudslinging campaign. The episode is only the first in a developing scandal. There are more sightings of Suguro, in mean streets and dubious company, a Suguro whose features are marred, made brutal by the imprint of vice, but Suguro unmistakably. By this time, even close friends and admiring disciples feel occasional doubts. Suguro, after all, is a rather special Japanese case, a man who has built a career on his commitment to Christian morality, a teacher who has attracted a reverent following. As one of his closest colleagues puts it to him, ‘wouldn’t your readers feel betrayed if they heard a rumour like that?’

Endo’s readers, at least, do not feel betrayed, because the opening pages of the novel have conditioned them to accept without question Suguro’s dry-stick decency. It is, however, this firm initial documentation of the character, putting us on Suguro’s side, that forces us into predictive speculation. How to explain these rumours of Suguro-sensei’s aberrant behaviour? A simple error of identity, a fancied likeness, a conclusion falsely drawn from the cut of a coat, a walk, a mannerism? This is possible, though not very plausible; and Aristotle tells us that a plausible impossibility is better than an implausible possibility. Then perhaps we might prefer to guess that here is the work of some enemy, an embittered rival driven by motives yet to be revealed, bent on discrediting and ruining the man of honour by hiring actors to show their mimic faces in brothels and back alleys? This can be worked into plausibility, though it is barely possible. If we reject that prediction, only one answer remains: the alternative Suguro, the fiend with the Dorian Gray physiognomy, the libertine playing Hyde and seek, is nothing less than a doppelgänger While the good Suguro goes about his honest business, cherishes his ailing wife, is kind to servants, meticulously plans his immaculately moral tales, his delinquent self rampages in debauchery and sadism and never cares who sees him at it. The plausibility of this impossibility is a little frayed at the edges, but it is a good enough cloak for a spiritual excursion.

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