Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Kiku's Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, translated by Van C. Gessel


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Kiku’s Prayer is told through the eyes of Kiku, a self-assured young woman from a rural Japanese village who falls in love with Seikichi, a devoted Catholic man. Practicing a faith still banned by the government, Seikichi is imprisoned but refuses to recant under torture. Kiku’s efforts to reconcile her feelings for Seikichi’s religion with the sacrifices she makes to free him mirror the painful, conflicting choices Japan faced as a result of exposure to modernity and the West. Seikichi’s persecution exemplifies Japan’s insecurities, and Kiku’s tortured yet determined spirit represents the nation’s resilient soul.
Set in the turbulent years of the transition from the shogunate to the Meiji Restoration, Kiku’s Prayer embodies themes central to Endō Shūsaku’s work, including religion, modernization, and the endurance of the human spirit. Yet this novel is much more than a historical allegory. It acutely renders one woman’s troubled encounter with passion and spirituality at a transitional time in her life and in the history of her people. A renowned twentieth-century Japanese author, Endō wrote from the perspective of being both Japanese and Catholic. His work is often compared with that of Graham Greene, who himself considered Endō one of the century’s finest writers.

Just when you think you might be getting somewhere with your knowledge of history, a book comes along such as Kiku's Prayer. Thanks to Endō Shūsaku, how little I know of the history of the world was glaring me in the face from the first until the last page of this novel. I am still incredulous how history teachers (among other people)  never failed to pound into my head the Catholic Church's cruelty during the Inquisition. The other side of the coin, the hundreds of thousands of Christians made to apostatize under some of the most awful torture practices and thousands upon thousands of Christians persecuted and killed across the Asian continent alone, had never been presented, discussed or even mentioned in passing to me until Kiku's Prayer. Incredulous and grateful at the same time are two emotions that are prevalent in mind as I think about  Endō Shūsaku and his book.

Admittedly, Kiku's Prayer's begins slowly and it requires a bit of patience to keep going. However, the subject - the persecution of Japanese Christians (Kirishitans) in 19th century Nagasaki - is fascinating, worthy and deserving of notice and our attention. Not every book has to be a distraction and the effort you invest in reading Mr. Shūsaku's novel will be well paid off in the end.

Besides the subject matter, there are a couple of intriguing aspects of Kiku's Prayer that I was surprised to notice. I'm certainly not an expert in Japanese or Chinese literature. But nor am I a novice to it. I've read I think enough to see a  distinct quality to it, quite apart from the western tradition. The writing of Endō Shūsaku is the first time I encountered a change from what I became to identify as an Asian style of writing.  Here, there is a lot more emphasis on plot development than on descriptive, albeit always crisp and to the point, narrative where the physical surroundings, the mystical power of nature and landscape and how they relate to the growth or decline of human character. It was a different reading experience but by no means of inferior quality.

The narrative style takes an unusual turn as well. The narrator comes off as a kind of a documentary commentator/historical archivist living in the present but describing events from the 19th century. On the one hand it gives a reader confidence in the accuracy of historical events written about in Kiku's Prayer. Equally important is that this technique escapes the dangers of becoming an overtly moralizing tale whose message wouldn't or couldn't touch the hearts of readers in a way the essence of this novel will. On the other hand, the  side effect (and the only negative side of Kiku's Prayer) is the awkward and sudden switches of narrative from smooth retelling of the story to dry enumerating of the events in the fashion of almost a newspaper article. Overall, it doesn't detract from the importance and quality of Kiku's Prayer and from why it matters that you read it.

A Note On Translation

Kiku's Prayer by Endō Shūsaku has been translated into English from Japanese by Van C. Gessel for the first time. Below is a short description from Columbia University Press about this esteemed translator.

Van C. Gessel is professor of Japanese at Brigham Young University. He is the author of Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata; coeditor of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature; and translator of seven literary works by Endō Shūsaku, including The Samurai and Deep River.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Kiku's Prayer from the publisher, Columbia University Press via NetGalley.


  1. This looks fascinating! I love historical fiction with unusual settings as well as translated lit, so this should be right up my alley. Thanks for the review!

  2. Thank you, Susanna! I hope you get to read it soon :)