Thursday, June 10, 2010

*The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo

New Directions Publishing
1992, originally published 1958
trans. Michael Gallagher
167 pp.

Even though Endo wrote this novel in 1958, it is still appropriate all these years later, as it touches upon matters of current debate. The story is based loosely on an event which happened in Japan in May of 1945, just three short months prior to the dropping of the first atomic bomb. A group of American soldiers who survived the crash of their B-29 were taken to the Kyushu University hospital in Fukuoka where they became the subjects of vivisection.

(Fukuoka, Japan)
 In a nutshell (and there are many, many places on the internet that discuss this novel so I'll be brief):
as the novel opens, the author introduces Dr. Suguro, now a physician in a very small town, leading a quiet life. A man who has just moved and needs a physician for pneumothorax treatments asks about a doctor and is directed to Suguro, who is the only doctor around.  Finding out that Suguro is from Fukuoka, when the man goes to a wedding there, he asks about his doctor and learns that he was one of twelve people who took part in the vivisections.

Flash back to WWII and Kyushu University Hospital, where Suguro works as an intern working with tuberculosis patients. The war has taken its toll on the Japanese, both military and civilian.  It has also taken a toll on some of the doctors of the hospital. In a largely dehumanized environment, Suguro genuinely cares about the patients under his care, especially an elderly woman who should have an operation, but it gets put off in favor of surgery on a relative of the late Dean of Medicine. Tension in the hospital is high - two doctors are both vying for the vacant position, so Suguro's boss, Dr. Hashimoto (aka The Old Man) realizes that if he can perform a successful operation, he'll be looked upon with great favor when election time rolls around. However, things don't go as planned - and The Old Man and his group are set back when the surgery does not go well. The Old Man has one chance to fix things for himself and the bid for the position of Dean - and it involves scientific experimentation on a few of the recently-arrived prisoners of war.  Suguro is asked to participate, and he agrees.

Endo examines the questions of conscience, morality and personal accountability for one's actions -- or in some cases, nonactions -- under circumstances that demand participation in an act that one knows is immoral. What pushes people to the point where one's conscience stops being a factor, and how is "conscience" defined for different people? Is one who does nothing in these situations as guilty as those who play an active role?  And, after committing these acts, how does one retain (or is it even possible to do so) one's own sense of humanity when coming to terms with what he or she did?  And where does God come into all of this?

Endo wrote this book in the late 50s, but the questions the novel poses remain relevant when examining such events as the My Lai massacre of the 1970s,  the practice of genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world, or even the recent focus on torture at Abu Ghraib. Although the book is quite short, it's rather deep and extremely serious in tone.

The Sea and Poison is easy for me to recommend. It is a book you will definitely not stop thinking about for a while after you've read it.

 fiction from Japan


  1. Looks like a great book. I've added it to my list of books to look for. Thanks for the review!

  2. You're welcome, Pete. It is definitely one not to be missed.

  3. I love how Endo causes us to think, causes me to reexamine what I've believed in from a new light. I've only read his novels Wonderful Fool and Silence (just reviewed on my blog), but this looks fascinating, too.

    I'm so glad you're joining the Japanese Literature Challenge! It's great to have you along!

  4. Thanks, Bellezza! I am so lucky to have found it!

  5. Thanks so much for bringing this book to our attention-I have a special interest in Japanese novels set in WWII and I will for sure now read this one-I really enjoyed your post

  6. Hi Mel
    Thanks! I'll look through my shelves & see if I have any more I can suggest. I did just finish Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, which has ties to WWII.


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