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.

And that is all it is – a cloak, a guise. The publisher’s blurb-writer is wrong, and does the book an ultimate injustice, to call the story ‘a psychological thriller’, if ‘thriller’ implies excitement, suspense and the tricky leading and misleading of the reader through a detective maze. The book very quickly ceases to be thrilling, perhaps because anyone with a reasonable measure of literary competence can see what the solution has to be. There is some question, raised no doubt with the aim of keeping the reader in a healthily irresolute state, as to whether the doppelgänger experience is a physical or metaphysical reality: but Endo’s heart, one senses, is not really in the working-out at different levels of a notion that is no more than a vehicle for his observations on the nature of evil. The last thing of any importance about doppelgänger tales is the likelihood, the theoretical basis, the scientific documentation, of the doppelgänger. The first I thing is their acknowledgment of a maleficent energy in the human personality, so reckless and destructive, so elusive of moral control, that we can hardly bring ourselves to consider it.

Throughout his life Suguro, a fastidious and melancholy man, has been obsessed and appalled by the human capacity for degradiation, but his art and his religion have persuaded him that sin is the prerequisite of salvation. Thus he comes to terms with the demons in his own head. But then, with life achieved and death summoning (always in the shape of a telephone that rings in the night), there comes the spoiling perception that evil is not comprehended and certainly not controlled by a comfortable doctrine of the necessary sin. There is something that rages and gorges and is cold to all compassion or loving-kindness, and it is this that Suguro must face. His tutor – one might say his guide to the provinces of Hell – is a hospital worker, a Mrs Naruse, a woman almost complacently aware of her own divided nature. I am not certain how Endo wishes us interpret this ambivalent character, or if, indeed, we are obliged to resolve the ambivalence: but her apparent approval of Gilles de Rais and other historical horrors does not recommend her, and I have the feeling that if I saw her coming I would run for the rectory as fast as my prayers could carry me. She is, however, a kind of salvation to Suguro, for she brings him at length to the knowledge of himself. How this happens is not for a reviewer to disclose – and in any case the book does not end in certainties, with all questions answered and all ambiguities resolved. Its last event is the telephone jangling unanswered in the night.

That ultimate spoiler, Death, pesters Suguro in sleep and invades his dreams. He records one of these visitations:

Recently I had a dream in which I met Akutagawa Ryonosuke. He was wearing a rumpled summer kimono, and sat with folded arms and his eyes downcast. He did not utter a word, but suddenly stood up, parted the bamboo curtain behind him, and went into the next room. I knew that the neighbouring room was the world of the dead. But soon the curtain opened again and Akutagawa came back into the room where I sat.

Thus Suguro, and no doubt Endo himself, acknowledges the dead master whose meditations on the slippery incomprehensibility of evil are perhaps best-known to Westerners through his Rashomon, or rather through Kurosawa’s film of Rashomon. That story, it will be remembered, is an exercise in relativism: the ‘facts’ of a killing are rehearsed in different perspectives, until it seems that no facts are ascertainable, that no experience is real, that the most ordinary perception is a hallucination at the edge of madness. The hallucinatory drift to insanity and death is the theme of ‘Cogwheels’. The figurative reference of the title is to those spinning whorls of light and blackness, filling and filtering the vision, that migraine sufferers will recognise as warning signals of the onset of pain. For the narrator of this existential tale (‘unstory’ might be the appropriate literary category), the cogwheels are not only precursors of pain but also harbingers of insanity and messengers of death. He walks through a wood, sees a concrete foundation where a house used to stand, meets an odd-looking man on a bicycle, comes across the dead body of a mole-banal encounters made sinister by his disordered mind:

That something was aiming at me began to make me with each step more uneasy. Half-transparent cogs gradually began to block my view. Fearful that my last moment was finally at hand, I walked on and kept my neck rigid. As the cogs increased in number, they began also to turn. At the same time the pine wood on my right began to seem as if seen through fine cut glass with the branches quietly intertwining. I felt my heart throbbing and tried many times to pause on the path. But it wasn‘t easy to pause, as if I were being pushed on by someone ...

This painfully precise description of a migraine attack also describes the plight of an artist (Akutagawa himself, of course) so intensely observant of the world that its shiftiness and arbitrary occurrences, like symbols of the unintelligible, begin to drive him mad. As to the madness itself, that is perhaps no subject for literature; what is touching and terrible is the writer‘s awareness of madness coming on – as the cogwheels begin to turn – and his fight against it.

The struggle for sanity is also recorded in ‘A Fool’s Life’, a series of 51 recollective descriptions, some no more than a few lines in length, none longer than a page, randomly juxtaposed, or so it seems, like snapshots in a casually-kept album. These entries (it is difficult to know what to call them) are often enigmatic, sometimes charming, always full of poetic intensity. In his preface to this volume Jorge Luis Borges refers to ‘a certain restrained sorrow, a certain preference for the visual, a certain lightness of stroke’, and calls these qualities ‘essentially Japanese’. This describes well the texts that make up ‘A Fool’s Life’, and could also be applied to many passages in ‘Cogwheels’. On the other hand, these narratives make frequent allusion to, and in their style sometimes echo, European literature of the 19th century, particularly of the Fin de Siècle; the writing often suggests not so much an assimilation of Western literature as a confrontation, a settling of accounts. What emerges from this confrontation is a complete and evidently conscious mastery of narrative technique.

That magisterial power is genially apparent in the story called ‘Hell Screen’. This is told as a folk-tale, by an author who from time to time makes seemingly artless comments on the story and on his own narrative procedures, apologising for an ineptitude that is in fact a precise stylistic calculation (‘I am afraid that in my hurry to tell you about this ... I have reversed the order of my story’) or innocently remarking on his own inventions of plot and character (‘I need not take the trouble to tell you that she was Yoshihide’s daughter’). Such interventions of an authorial voice have the effect of setting the fable at a respectful distance: which is just as well, since the tale is in substance almost unbearably violent and cruel, a manifestation of what Robert Frost calls ‘design of darkness to appal’. The central figure, Yoshihide, is a painter, a wholly disagreeable man who loves only two things: his art and his daughter. The daughter is a Lady-in-Waiting to the Grand Lord of Horikawa, whose particular design of darkness is to make her his mistress. When it becomes apparent that he will fail in this, he at first treats Yoshihide with some coldness, but then unexpectedly gives the artist a commission. He is to paint on a screen a picture of Hell. The narrator, who has seen this ‘consummate work of art’ in its finished form, describes the central passage in the design: ‘The most outstanding of all the horrors, however, was an ox-carriage falling in mid-air grazing the tops of the sword trees that had branches pointed like animals’ fangs, through which heaps of dead souls were spitted. In this carriage, with its bamboo blinds blown upward by the blast of Hell, a court lady as gorgeously dressed as an empress or a princess was writhing in agony, her black hair streaming amidst flames and her white neck bent upward.’

Yoshihide’s obsessive realism is charactersed by an ability to paint only sur le motif. He needs corpses about him if he is to paint the dead, sufferers if he is to represent torture; he subjects his own apprentices to fearful ordeals in order to make an exact record of terror. He will go to any length of cruelty to achieve graphic authenticity, and through all this he appears to be entranced by a hellish power. Gradually the design of the screen is filled out, until only its master episode, the representation of the courtesan in the burning carriage, remains. For this Yoshihide has no model, and is obliged to ask the Grand Lord to supply one: ‘Please, my Lord, burn a nobleman’s carriage before my eyes, and if possible ...’ The unspoken conclusion amuses the Grand Lord, who promises to furnish a suitable model. Yoshihide gets his burning carriage, and with it an occupant, writhing in agony; the ‘gorgeously dressed’ lady is – of course – his daughter. The anguish he feels as a father is almost instantly overtaken by another emotion, the dreadful joy of the artist in the moment of clear perception:

In front of the pillar of fire, Yoshihide stood still, rooted to the ground. What a wonderful transfiguration he had undergone! A mysterious radiance, a kind of blissful ecstasy showed on the wrinkled face of Yoshihide who had been agonised by the tortures of hell until a minute before ... No longer did his eyes seem to mirror the image of his daughter’s agonised death. His eyes seemed to delight beyond measure in the beautiful colour of the flame and the form of the woman writhing in her last infernal tortures.

This is the apotheosis of the ruthless artist. Yoshihide’s total dedication to painting now passes, even among those who have detested him, for a kind of holiness. The Grand Lord is ravaged by the consciousness of his own crime, the theologians are baffled and repelled, Yoshihide himself pays the world its due by committing suicide, but there remains the appalling and uncompromising fidelity of the images which he has painted on the great screen.

Writings like those of Endo and Akutagawa will tend to confirm a common Western stereotype of the culture from which they spring: in their preoccupation with death, in their obsessed yet fastidious explorations of the shadow-side of the human spirit, in their rhetorical address to the violent and irrational, they will seem typically Japanese, and in doing so will raise some resistance in readers who are merely out for pleasure. They examine souls, by and large solitary souls, a process in which there can be little merriment, even of a sardonic sort; the frank belly-laugh, the wry smile of recognition, the lights and shadows of humour, come with the depiction of citizens in societies, and this is what Saiichi Maruya offers us in Singular Rebellion. The title is – as comic titles so often are – a pun with several layers of meaning. The phrase ‘singular rebellion’ is used by one of the characters in the course of an impromptu disquisition on Time and Art. He describes Dali’s painting, The Persistence of Memory: ‘That surrealist masterpiece, where the pocket watch has become soft and folded, deprived of its essential form, represents, I believe, more than any other work, the shadowy dream of the artist, of the man who lives in society and yet bears malice towards it, who constantly plans his quite solitary, singular rebellion which he calls his art, and just as constantly practises it.’ But this in fact is no more than a parodic echo of the ‘rebellion’, indeed a singular one, which is the basis of the book’s rambling plot. The apparent rebel is one Mabuchi, a middle-aged business executive who has drifted into commerce after mismanaging his career as a civil servant by refusing a transfer from the Ministry of Internal Trade and Industry to a post in the Ministry of Defence. His refusal is generally interpreted as an ideological protest against warfare and weaponry, though in fact it is only a move, however miscalculated, in his reading of the promotion game. His ‘rebellion’ is thus ‘singular’ in a particular sense, that of being not quite what it seems. But from this other singularities follow. When his wife dies, the businessman Mabuchi, free to live the night-prowling life of a Tokyo bachelor, is quickly corralled into marriage with Yukari, an enchanting baby-dollish slut of a fashion model. She joins forces with his domestic servant to establish a monstrous regiment of women, which is soon augmented through the arrival from jail of his wife’s grandmother, a determined old lady who has served time for murdering her husband and has incidentally acquired the skills of flower arrangement and heavy drinking. Mabuchi finds that he has also inherited, as forces to be reckoned with in his life, Yukari’s various friends and relatives, not least among them her father, Mr Nonomiya, professor of English and Allerleiwissenschaft, a dizzily deft hand with a hypothesis, a comic credit to our faking tribe, a splendid creation in anybody’s language.

All these people are in some way involved in singular rebellions, as individuals comically and seriously struggling against conditions their society has imposed upon them. One particularly nice touch is the rebellion of Mabuchi’s maid, who quits him after years of patient and uncomplaining service. He is astonished at her reminders of ancient slights and things taken for granted: ‘It is quite natural that you, Master Eisuke, should refer to me as “the maid”, although I must say I felt it was perhaps slightly out of place when your former wife used to do so. Don’t you agree? I had hoped she would refer to me as “the lady help”, as is normal nowadays.’ Mabuchi comments, typically: ‘I was impressed by the way the servant problem had now turned into this linguistic issue.’ His capacity for defensive irony, or sometimes for downright crassness, sustains him through various untoward events, until at last he is marginally involved in political demonstrations and almost flounders into a career as a left-wing demagogue. His misinterpreted ‘rebellion’ singularly haunts him to the last. Reflecting on its consequences, he remarks: ‘I thought it was probably like what a mountain climber must feel when he learns that a magnifying glass he lost in the mountains has caused a forest fire.’ But Mabuchi is at length rescued from rebellion and fetches up in a thoroughly right-wing and unrebellious capacity, as manager of a factory which draws for its labour on the female in mates of the prison where his wife’s grandmother served her time. The other characters are similarly dismissed to happiness, as comic convention demands, according to their deserts.

The book is very well written, and the translator, Dennis Keene, is to be highly commended for the skill with which he has rendered the narrator’s affably fluent articulations into something that might easily pass for an original English text. Typical of the stylistic flavour of the work is this opening to the fourth chapter: ‘One Friday toward the end of August I left the house, first making sure I had an umbrella since a minor typhoon was said to be approaching; which meant that, as I drove tight-lipped through the morning rush, the short black object was rolling about in the narrow space between the back seat and the rear window. As soon as I’d parked I phoned Yukari to tell her I wouldn’t be able to see her that evening because of a farewell gathering for a man going to South-East Asia which had suddenly come up.’ One of Maruya’s narrative tricks is to string out subordinate clauses in a way that seems garrulous and sometimes awkward. The two sentences of the above extract illustrate this: the words dash along busily, in the manner of the protagonist, and get nowhere in particular – also in the manner of the protagonist. Mabuchi as narrator is engagingly wordy, and this wordiness gradually becomes an indispensable property of the story, though it also makes the book possibly twice as long as it might have been. It would be ungrateful, however, to complain of a genial talkativeness that is both the effect and the cause of comic zest. This is a very funny book, not without its serious messages for those who care to hear them. But the seriousness shows momentarily and occasionally, before being dissipated in new jokes and absurdities. There is no design to appal here; no spoilers at this benign feast.