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THE SEA AND POISON
By SHUSAKU ENDO (New Directions; 1958/72)

This early work by Japanís eminent Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) is generally regarded as the novel that made his reputation. Itís also one of Endoís darkest and most disturbing works, a harsh and unforgiving account of personal responsibility in time of war.

     Viewers of the films MEN BEHIND THE SUN and PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE will recognize this novelís reality-based subject matter: the amoral WWII-era medical experiments the Japanese carried out on unwitting prisoners. THE SEA AND POISON was apparently inspired by actual accounts of Japanese medical practitioners active during the era.

     The prose, as it typical with Endo, is unerringly smooth and uncluttered, and was skillfully translated by Michael Gallagher. The narrative, alas, is a tad clumsy in its undisciplined juxtaposition of different eras and viewpoints. It begins in modern-day Tokyo with the veteran Dr. Suguro, whoís haunted by a horrific wartime experience. We then flash back to that experience, which involves the vivisection of an American POW. The event is recounted through various POVs, including that of Dr. Suguro, a naÔve intern at the time, as well as those of Oba, a lovesick nurse, and fellow intern Toda, whoís a bit of a sociopath.

     As it happens, Nurse Oba is too preoccupied with her own problems to give much thought to her actions, while Toda views the torture with a detached objectivity fully befitting his sociopathic bent. Itís the sensitive Suguro who (as revealed in the present-day prologue) is most affected by his participation in the vivisection. Suguroís crisis of conscience commences upon meekly agreeing to take part in the operationÖand, Endo intimates, that crisis will continue unabated throughout the remainder of Suguroís life (and beyond).

     The details of the vivisection are uncomfortably graphic, and conclude with the filching of the prisonerís liver for an even nastier purpose. Endo was a committed Catholic (a rarity in Japan), and itís as a study of morality and personal responsibility that THE SEA AND POISON is at its most affecting, ranking with Leonid Andreyevís THE SEVEN WHO WERE HANGED in its pitiless insight and sheer horror. 

     

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