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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Deep River

Endo Shusaku

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To purchase Deep River

Title: Deep River
Author: Endo Shusaku
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Deep River - US
Deep River - UK
Deep River - Canada
Deep River - India
Le fleuve sacré - France
Wiedergeburt am Ganges - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 深い河
  • Translated by Van C. Gessel

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if overly preachy tale of spiritual journeys

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 25/6/1994 Euan Cameron
The LA Times . 22/5/1995 Michael Harris
The Washington Post A 25/6/1995 Andrew Greeley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Endo has always sought to interpret the proselytising spirit of Christianity for oriental sensibilities. (...) Now, in this beautifully crafted, mature work, his standpoint has changed. Understanding is possible, he now implies, and the path seems to be one that combines the Christian faith with Buddhist acceptance." - Euan Cameron, The Independent

  • "Deep River is a story of a kind usually dared only by veteran writers -- a direct, seemingly guileless inquiry into the meaning of life. (...) Endo's achievement here is mixed. Kiguchi, Isobe and Numada are realistic characters, and their stories are quietly effective. Otsu and Mitsuko, though, are the sort of people we bump into only in religious novels." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Endo is one of the world's great novelists, a wizard with plot and character and description who writes a simple story about simple people and packs it densely with drama, challenge and finally faith. (...) Endo has written so many wonderful novels that it would be patronizing to suggest that one is better than others. But surely Deep River, this moving story about a pilgrimage of grace, must be rated as one of the best of all of them." - Andrew Greeley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Deep River is a novel of spiritual journeys. Lots of spiritual journeys. It begins with the wife of Isobe being diagnosed as terminally ill, with only a few months to live. In typical Japanese fashion, the diagnosis is kept from her (though she catches on pretty quickly, wasting away in hospital), while Isobe realizes he has never really been that close to her and has, in many senses, failed her as a husband. Her dying demand of him is that he look for the reincarnation she is certain she will return to the world as.
       It's a tall order for Isobe. Sensibly:

Because he lacked any religious conviction, like most Japanese, death meant to him the extinction of everything.
       Nevertheless, he makes a sincere effort to follow her wishes, looking into this whole reincarnation idea and even corresponding with academics who study it. Eventually, this leads him to join a group tour to India, in 1984, where he thinks he might find what he's looking for.
       Among the others on the tour happens to be a woman who volunteered at the hospital while Isobe's wife wasted away, Mitsuko. She is pulled to India because she is also looking for a spiritual encounter. Specifically, she hopes to again meet a man from her past, Ōtsu. An oddball Christian at the university she went to, she seduced him on a whim and challenge -- and demanded he gives up his religious ways if he wanted to be with her. When she dumped him, he turned all the more devoutly to Christianity, going to France to become a priest. A few years later she visited him in France -- while on her honeymoon ! -- and they've corresponded occasionally over the years, and now that he's in the Indian holy city of Vārānasī she wants to seek him out again. (Unsurprisingly, her marriage failed, and obviously she's also been looking for 'meaning' in her life -- hence also her penance cum charity work dealing with patients at the hospital.)
       There are others on the trip too, including a veteran of the war who suffered greatly during the Japanese campaign in Burma, a successful author who writes "stories with dogs and birds as their main characters", and a couple on their honeymoon. They have a Japanese tour guide, Mr. Enami, who studied for four years in India and then found to his great disappointment that no Japanese university was interested in having him preach that kind of eastern wisdom, reducing him to this; he does his job dutifully, but is immensely frustrated.
       India offers a spiritual contrast to Japan, and by bringing in Ōtsu's experiences in France -- where the Church derailed his ambitions to become a priest because his theology was too eastern-tinged to meet with their approval -- allows Endo to cover a wide spectrum, from Buddhism through Hinduism to Christianity. Ōtsu is the central spiritual figure -- and ultimately the Christian martyr, too -- but significantly his religious belief isn't by-the-Book Christianity. As he tells his French superiors:
I don't think God is someone to be looked up to as a being separate from man, the way you regard him. I think he is within man, and that he is a great life force that envelops man, envelops the trees, envelops the flowers and grasses.
       Predictably, they dismiss this as pantheistic mumbo-jumbo; as to why Ōtsu spends so much of his life as a seminarian when his basic understanding of religion differs so from the official line, that is left unexplained.
       Ōtsu explained to Mitsuko:
I can't help but be struck by the clarity and logic of the way Europeans think, but it seems to me as an Asian that there's something they have lost sight of with their excessive clarity and their overabundance of logic, and I just can't go along with it. Their lucid logic and their ways of explaining everything in such clear-cut terms sometimes even causes me pain.
       It's hard not to see Deep River as Endo's own religious summa. Japan's most famous Catholic writer, he also had a difficult time in Europe (and also had severe medical issues which are also echoed in this book), yet clung to his Christianity. The East-meets-West aspect of Deep River, and the suggestion of how Christianity can meld with eastern religion -- the way how he, near the end of his own life, fit all the pieces of his experience together--, frequently threaten to overwhelm the book -- but then, of course, that basically is the book.
       Endo is a fine writer, and much of the novel is quite good. An interesting feature is that he times the India-trip so that they are there when Indira Gandhi is assassinated (by a Sikh bodyguard -- another religious complication he has a bit more trouble with). But this remains a book a book about spiritual journeys -- which would be fine if it weren't so freighted with a specific message, which can make it tough to take. Granted, being entirely unspiritual, I am hardly the ideal audience for such a story, but it's the preachiness on offer here rather than the focus on the spiritual that weighs the books down so terribly -- belief, after all, is a common enough human condition, and can readily be conveyed even to those who don't share it without becoming too irritating, but Endo too often is more preacher than novelist here. Simplistic notions of 'east' and 'west' also grate -- this is a late-twentieth century novel by a worldly writer, and are thus considerably harder to excuse or accept than in fiction from an earlier time. And the martyring of Ōtsu -- christ, another guy who dies for 'our' sins ? give me a break ... -- predictable though it was, is certainly the final straw.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 January 2013

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Deep River: Reviews: Other books by Endo Shusaku under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion
  • See Index of Travel-related books
  • See Index of books from and about India

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About the Author:

       Catholic Japanese author Endo Shusaku (Endō Shūsaku, 遠藤周作) lived 1923 to 1996.

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© 2013-2023 the complete review

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