Volcano and When I Whistle by Shusaku Endo

Posted May 28, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 6 Comments

Volcano, by Shusaku Endo
Title: Volcano
Author: Shusaku Endo
Format: Paperback
Length: 175 pages
Genre(s): Fiction
Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers – March 2012
Source: publisher

Goodreads | Amazon

Synopsis from the back cover:

One of Shusaku Endo’s finest works of fiction, Volcano is a powerful novel of ideas as well as a sensitive and moving depiction of the trials of old age, set in the central region of Japan.

With masterly portraits of two men who have lived their lives–both physically and metaphorically–in the shadow of a volcano, Endo’s novel charts the conflicts between them and poses profound questions about man’s relationship with nature. Rich in symbolism and enhanced by two of the author’s most remarkable characters, Volcano is unforgettable.

In Volcano, Jinpei Suda has just retired as Surveillance Section Chief of the Weather Bureau in Kagoshima, Japan. Durand is an excommunicated Catholic priest who also lives in Kagoshima and who is dying of lung disease. Both men have a personal relationship with Akadaké, the fictional volcano in Shusaku Endo‘s story: Suda has been observing and analyzing the volcano for many years, and sees the volcano as a kind of mirror image of his own aging self; Durand views the volcano as the culmination of all the evil in the world, as Evil-with-a-capital-E. At the time that the story takes place, both of their lives revolve around wondering what the volcano will do next and each are hoping for different outcomes.

Shusako Endo was a Japanese Catholic at a time when Catholics represented less than 1% of Japan’s population, and he had a very hard time reconciling Catholicism and the traditional Japanese culture and religion. Because of this–and because Endo suffered from lung disease for much of his life–the themes of serious illness and the question of whether or not the Japanese can be true practitioners of Catholicism are recurring themes in Endo’s work. Volcano deals with both of these themes, and it’s a rather depressing read. (What could be more depressing that Catholicism and serious illness? Heh.) “Depressing” doesn’t equate to “bad,” though, and Volcano is quite good. I can’t say that there’s anything I disliked about it–it’s a relatively quick read, I enjoyed the story, the characters were well written, and I genuinely felt bad for Suda and Durand.

When I Whistle, by Shusaku Endo Title: When I Whistle
Author: Shusaku Endo
Format: Paperback
Length: 277 pages
Genre(s): Fiction
Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers – March 2012
Source: publisher

Goodreads | Amazon

Synopsis from the back cover:

One of Endo’s most unusual and powerful novels, When I Whistle is set largely in a modern hospital. On a commercial visit, a jaded businessman has a chance encounter that reminds him of his best friend at school, and memories are stirred of a former love interest, Aiko. His doctor son is contemptuous of the outmoded values of his father’s world and ruthless in pursuit of success at the hospital. The story moves towards a terrible climax when Aiko, now middle-aged and suffering from cancer, is admitted to the hospital and Ozu’s son chooses to lead the way in experimenting on her with dangerous drugs.

At times romantic and elegiac, When I Whistle is a shocking exposé of the war between new and traditional values in Japan.

The story in When I Whistle alternates between the present–in which Ozu and his son are constantly at odds because of the differences in their values–and Ozu’s past. While Ozu’s son is busy working and scheming about ways to make himself a name in the hospital where he works, Ozu has been reminded of his past and can’t stop thinking about Flatfish, his best childhood friend. By telling the story using two different threads, Endo is able to highlight the chasm that exists between two generations in Japan: that of Ozu, which was largely shaped by World War II; and that of Ozu’s son, a generation that doesn’t seem to take seriously the values of integrity, close relationships, or looking out for one another.

I wanted to continuously kick Ozu’s son in the seat of his pants, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Ozu’s and Flatfish’s childhood days together. Flatfish is a terrific character; his life story is a bit sad, but Endo didn’t seem to be the kind of author who believed in writing happy-go-lucky, fairytale-ending books, which is fine with me. It stands to reason that if Endo was going to write what he knew, then his books weren’t going to be the most cheerful books ever written. But that makes his books all the more realistic, because they stay more true to the kinds of things that go on in real life.

I liked When I Whistle more than I liked Volcano, mainly because I think the storyline of When I Whistle is more interesting, and because it’s slightly less depressing. I would probably recommend this book over Volcano for any first-time Endo readers. Endo is a good storyteller, if these two books are good representations of his larger body of work, so I’ll definitely be reading more of his books in the future.

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This was my first experience reading anything by Shusaku Endo; before being contacted about reading Volcano and While I Whistle, I didn’t even know Endo existed. I’m glad I accepted these books for review–Endo is a very good writer, and I’m rather intrigued about the whole Catholicism-in-Japan subject now. From the little bit of research I did on Endo before I started reading the books, the same themes run throughout the majority (if not all) of his work, and while they aren’t necessarily heartwarming themes, they are definitely interesting and realistic.

(I received these books from the publisher in exchange for honest reviews.)

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  • Fine reivews giving us interesting perspectives on various issues. I’ve never read any Japanese author and I’m sure I never thought that the Japanese may be Catholics, though I know that there are Christians over there. I will be on the look out for this and other Japanese authors to broaden my horizon. Thanks for sharing.

    • I must say, I liked both of these books more than I thought I would. The only other Japanese author I’ve read is Haruki Murakami, and I love his books.

  • your taste in books never fails to amaze me.I’ve read quite a few japanese writers, but never Endo, so I’ll take your advice and start with While I Whistle

    • Thanks for stopping by to read my reviews. Endo has written quite a few books, so I’m looking forward to reading more of them in the future.

  • Now I want to read both books! I’m going to see if my library has these.

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