I think Sachiko (1982, transl. 2020) has been my first 5-star novel of the year. In some ways, it doesn’t “deserve” it. Clocking in at 464 pages, it’s long and meandering, more “tell” than “show,” without the brilliant brevity of The Sea and Poison or the pithy structure of Silence. But just like those two novels, Sachiko will inspire and haunt me forever. The subject matter is, in my reading experience, completely unique, and the characters are heartfelt. The plot led me on a wave of emotions, with an ending that utterly astounded me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Childhood Dreams, Cold Realities
Transitioning neatly from Sōseki’s The Gate, we enter a Japan that has changed dramatically over the course of WWI and the Interwar period. While foreigners are viewed with suspicion, a group of Polish priests nonetheless attempts to set up a mission and printing press in the city of Nagasaki. Father Kolbe and Brother Zeno soon befriend the Catholics there—among them, a young girl named Sachiko.
Sachiko’s Catholicism is devout but romanticized. She often daydreams about her great aunt Kiko, who was mysteriously executed in the same church Sachiko attends. This family legacy leads her to identify with Kiko and with Kiko’s love of a young man. In Sachiko’s case, this love manifests itself in her devotion to the boyish misfit Shūhei, who is more known for his pranks on the priests and nuns than for any heroism. They spend many happy hours playing with American children, until the threshold of WWII.
Father Kolbe’s journey ultimately leads him away from Japan, towards a brutal existence in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Sachiko tries desperately to hold on to Shūhei, who seems to be growing farther and farther away from her. As the war goes on, all three are put to the test, threatened for their despised “Western” faith and seeking love where there seems to be only hatred.
While simplistically written, this novel was emotionally and psychologically very challenging. It throws out question after question on issues we still have today, such as:
- What is national identity and patriotism, and how far should you go for it?
- What is love? Between a man and a woman? Between human beings?
- Why does God seem to be silent during times of war or Christian suffering?
- When the church fails to guide you, what should you do as an individual?
We follow three very different people on their journeys in these questions.
Father Kolbe is based on the real-world priest Maximilian Kolbe, whose incredible travels, service, and endurance were all ended by his murder at the hands of the Nazis. Kolbe’s portrayal is human but respectful and seems to me the right balance of fidelity vs creative liberty for a historical fiction novel. Endō did not put a lot of words in his mouth but rather described Kolbe mainly through his actions. I found this extremely powerful.
Young Shūhei is a fictional character but no less compelling and complex. He takes us from one perspective to another and rationalizes his choices in a way that seems oddly consistent with his character and outlook. I actually got angry with him in the end and yet could not bring myself to dislike him. I suppose that’s the sign of a good character.
I thought Sachiko, too, was beautifully portrayed. The dynamic between her and Shūhei was so well drawn, I could hardly believe a male author had written it—Endō seemed to know so well the woman’s perspective. I liked how she, like Shūhei, was an imperfect character and by no means a model Christian (she lies quite often to avoid her mother’s censure). Still, she seems like a character who is growing, and I felt that very strongly by the end of the novel. Which, by the way, was quite heartbreaking.
Fiction or Autofiction?
This book has a remarkably good introduction by the translator Van C. Gessel. One thing Gessel mentions is that some aspects of Shūhei’s life were likely autobiographical. Like his character, Endō was a university student during WWII. He experienced the same kind of discrimination for being a Christian, which was considered by some Japanese to be treacherous (in spite of the fact that Christianity’s roots in Japan went back hundreds of years and were at one point sanctioned).
… [Endō and his brother] were repeatedly accused of being traitors to their country, of worshipping a being more exalted than Japan’s “divine” emperor, of following an alien religion that made them somehow less Japanese.
Endō would also have had to face a similar choice as Shūhei when students were drafted. Fortunately perhaps, Endō’s health was poor enough he was not ultimately forced into the same terrible dilemma.
Love: it was a word that men used in times of peace. —Ch. 8, A Conversation About Love
“When you kill another human being, you’re wiping out every part of that man’s life. Once you’ve read literature, there’s no way you can cancel out another man’s life.” —Ch. 9, Anguish
He signed the permission form. It was simply a matter of growing accustomed to these things. It was a matter of adapting to the situation. Even so, a heavy dark stone fell with a dull splash into the well of his heart… —Ch. 12, A Summer Ablaze. Endō describing the double life of a Nazi soldier. And also: Within the confines of his home, he was first and last a good husband and a good father. —Ch. 13, The Death of Kolbe
“No matter how many fancy words they use to describe it, no matter whether they present it as a just cause, ultimately war is about killing people.” —Ch. 14, Step by Step
Sugii says, “Just don’t think about it. Thinking about it won’t do you any good. Thinking about it will just cause you to suffer.” But evidently I am a man who has a serious side in me somewhere. —Ch. 18, Letters from Shūhei
In spite of the dark subject matter, there was a lot of lovely humor in Sachiko. The part where Shūhei and Sugii went on an “adventure” inspired by Hesse was hilarious and a very timely literary reference for me, having just read Beneath the Wheel and Steppenwolf. Moments like that emphasize that no matter what happens, we can (and should) always find joy in the little things in life and in the companionship of close friends and family.