The Samurai

Shusaku Endo

translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel
Peter Owen 2010 [1981]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013 http://dannyreviews.com/
At the beginning of the 17th century four Japanese envoys, low-ranking samurai, sail across the Pacific to New Spain (Mexico), cross the continent, sail across the Atlantic, visit Madrid and Rome, and then return the same way. During their journey they convert to Christianity, only to find on their return that that religion has been proscribed.

This story, based on historical events, is compelling and The Samurai renders the worlds of 17th century Japan and Europe, as seen through both native and foreign eyes, quite vividly. A Catholic himself, however, Endo makes it more an exploration of the nature of religious faith than of the world.

The Samurai switches backwards and forwards between two perspectives. Half of it is told in the first person, as the journal of Franciscan missionary Velasco, who accompanies the envoys; he dreams of being appointed bishop of Japan and his worst enemies are not the Japanese lords attacking Christianity but the Jesuits who take a different approach to missionary activity and send scurrilous reports about him back to Europe.

The other half, in the third person, follows one of the Japanese envoys, Hasekura, who is mostly referred to as simply "the samurai". A low-ranking samurai whose domain consists of poor marshlands, his family hopes for restoration of wealthier lands lost when they took the wrong side in a war, though he himself is quietly accepting.

Some of the other envoys are also finely drawn, but these two are the central masterpieces and their authenticity prevents Endo's account lapsing too far into the confessional. Velasco's greatest sin is his pride, while Hasekura, whose loyalty and trust in his superiors epitomises contrasting virtues, converts only as a matter of convenience. In their different ways they both wrestle with their doubts and they both find martyrdom.

July 2013

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%T The Samurai
%A Endo, Shusaku
%M Japanese
%F Gessel, Van C.
%I Peter Owen
%D 2010 [1981]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780720613537
%P 272pp