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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

When I Whistle

Endo Shusaku

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To purchase When I Whistle

Title: When I Whistle
Author: Endo Shusaku
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974 (Eng. 1979)
Length: 273 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: When I Whistle - US
When I Whistle - UK
When I Whistle - Canada
En sifflotant - France
Eine Klinik in Tokyo - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 口笛をふく時
  • Translated by Van C. Gessel

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Our Assessment:

B : neat contrast of different generations and attitudes in modern Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 16/7/2016 Iain Maloney
The NY Rev.of Books . 19/2/1981 Garry Wills
Sunday Telegraph . 15/4/1979 Janice Elliott
Sunday Telegraph . 3/1/1993 David Holloway

  From the Reviews:
  • "To Endo, this conflict is bigger than father and son. Eiichi embodies the materialist side of modern Japan: a soulless and selfish generation pursuing economic success with little regard for the consequences." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "(A) touching story of the erosion of innocence and of faith somehow kept. (...) A pity about the price and a translation (by Van G. Gessel) that tries madly to be colloquial but, with its guys, gimme and big cheese, seems to have been picked up from an American B feature of 20 years ago. It won't do. No. Nope." - Janice Elliott, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Although Van C Gessel's translation is not entirely satisfactory, the slow development, moving backwards and forwards in time, is masterfully controlled." - David Holloway, Sunday Telegraph

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:

       When I Whistle centers on the father and son in the Ozu family, still living in the same household. Eiichi, the son, is a career-driven young doctor, bitter that his father doesn't have the position or connections that would afford him a leg up in his chosen field but determined to find success, one way or another; as his sister Yumi notes: "He always says he's going to make it in the world no matter what it takes". With single-minded focus, he does what he can to work his way up -- and: "for Eiichi the world was this hospital, and here his fate would be decided". He's not particularly warm to his family, treats the nurse he's been having an affair with callously, and isn't particularly interested in his patients as human beings; typically: "When he went out of the room he could no longer remember what this patient's face looked like".
       The narrative moves back and forth between the present-day, where the focus is on Eiichi, and the past, as his father recalls his own wartime childhood and youth. In particular, Ozu recalls a friend named Flatfish, who became enamored of a girl named Aiko, and went to great (but largely futile) lengths to try to impress her and possibly win her over -- but barely seemed to make any impression on her. After high school, Flatfish tried to get a spot in the Naval Academy, hoping to make himself worthy of her, but he fell short and got a job instead; with the war raging on he was eventually drafted, and was yet another wartime casualty. Ozu also was no great student, but at least got into a private college, before eventually also being sent to the front, to Manchuria; though his military experience is a miserable one -- the focus, interestingly, on the abuse inherent to the system on the Japanese side, rather than any enemy -- but Ozu is lucky both in where he is stationed and then captured, avoiding becoming a Soviet POW and making it back to a devastated Japan relatively quickly and safely.
       After the war, Ozu managed to establish himself, with a job and then family, leading a seemingly satisfying if unexceptional life. Certainly, he lacks the ambitious drive of his single-minded son (who complains: "I've got a man wallowing in mediocrity for my father") -- though he remember Flatfish, and Aiko, and feels compelled to seek out the family of his friend as well as the war widow, going out of his way to do so. Though Flatfish's life was unremarkable, and cut short, he lingers in Ozu's mind and memory:

     He hadn't been a bad fellow. He hadn't been brilliant or outstanding, but he had been one of Ozu's closest friends. No. He was my only friend, Ozu thought as he wiped away the tears with the palm of his hand.
       When I Whistle is a novel of different times and generations. When Ozu and Flatfish went to Nada Middle School it was "more relaxed", an institution where students lacking ambition or smarts also found a place. Meanwhile, it has become the elite Nada High School, "that attracted only the most brilliant students and was a feeder school for the country's top universities -- a place where Ozu and Flatfish would no longer fit in. This is typical of the change in Japan Endo's novel examines.
       Eiichi has found success at the hospital, but worries about rivals who are better positioned -- especially because of their connections -- to succeed, and who stand in his way. Ruthlessly, he plays games behind the scenes to position himself -- with the welfare of his patients not exactly his top concern. He woos the head doctor's daughter, even as he takes advantage of the nurse who is devoted to him. He makes sure his idealistic colleague Tahara going behind the back of the doctor and changing a prescription -- from a useless one -- comes to the attention of the hospital authorities in such a way that Eiichi's hands seem clean and Tahara is shipped off to the provinces. And when the testing of a new drug goes wrong, his maneuvers help ensure a rival takes all the blame.
       The odd Japanese medical practice of lying to patients about their condition, especially when it comes to cancer, plays a significant role in the novel. Eiichi is, of course, completely untroubled by this: "Eiichi had got used to lying to cancer patients. Lying to them was part of a doctor's job". But they take it up a notch with a new patient, using her as a guinea pig to test out a new drug -- without informing her or asking her consent. The patient happens to be Aiko, and Ozu comes to learn that she is one of his son's patients -- bringing the different timelines, generations, and very different attitudes to life together.
       Endo presents Ozu and especially Flatfish as happy-go-lucky dreamers, not without ambition, but more moved by emotion than cold calculation. They contrast with Eiichi, for whom others seem mere chess pieces, to play as best he can for his own advancement. A representative of the new Japan at its careerist ugliest, Eiichi is determined: "I'm going to make it in this world. At all costs. At all costs ...".
       The story is fairly simple and straightforward, but Endo's character-portraits, of Ozu, Eiichi, and Flatfish, as illustrated by their actions and experiences, are rich and quite well done. There are odd near-blanks, such as the rest of the Ozu family, who figure in some of the story but are mere presences, without back- or other story; Ozu's present-day household is presented only as it is at this point in time, with essentially nothing as to how it got there (or, for example, Ozu's career to this point). The hospital conflicts are realistic enough -- determined, in no small part, by Japanese attitudes, of taking responsibility, accepting consequences, and deferring to seniority -- with Tahara a sympathetic figure who suggests that there are possible alternatives (even if only on the periphery).
       When I Whistle is a bit rough -- also in its translation -- and somewhat simplistic, but also quite appealing, a successful contrast of generations and attitudes -- critical of soulless careerist contemporary Japan -- that doesn't force the issue too hard but is nevertheless crystal clear about it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 December 2019

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When I Whistle: Reviews: Other books by Endo Shusaku under review: Other books of interest under review:

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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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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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