I picked up Deep River on sale from Audible a while ago but it did not listen to it up until Beauty and Silence by Makoto Fujimura was about to be released (reading Beauty and Silence now).
Even though I read Endo’s more well known Silence over two years ago, it is a book I still frequently think about. I wanted another book to give more context to Endo’s work because Beauty and Silence is largely based on Fujimura’s interaction with Endo. There are only three of Endo’s books available as audiobooks and only 3 other books available on kindle. Late 20th century authors often did not negotiate digital book rights and their estates seem to be slow to re-negotiate. I am hoping that the Martin Scorsese movie of Silence (expected to release in Nov) will bring out new editions of all of Endo’s books.
Deep River is not an easy book to describe. There are four interconnected story lines. The reader gets a brief introduction to the India tour before the separate back stories. I was bogged down about a quarter of the way through the book and set it aside for about six weeks before returning to it. The initial background stories are full of hard to like people. This is part of the set up for what might be transition and growth later in the book, but I really do not like reading about unlikable people.
These are four very different stories. One disconnected ‘modern’ Japanese woman that is happy to take advantage of sex starved men. One man the other end of life who has missed much of his life until his wife dies and he realizes what is gone. One veteran of WWII that is still suffering the effects of war (this is set in the 1980s). And a final man who’s sickness has left him isolated and lonely.
Once the background is completed and we return to the India tour I was fascinated. A subtext of the book is the multi-religious nature of the world. Different characters are Christian, Atheist/Agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu and none. It is easy to read Deep River as a universalistic call to see all religions as a similar path to enlightenment, but I think that is too flat of a reading.
What might be most challenging for Christians is the Christian Otsu. He is not one of the main four characters, but a fifth character that we only really see from the outside except right at the end. Otis attempts to be a Catholic priest, but has been influenced by eastern ideas and is prevented from becoming a priest because of what is perceived as pantheist tendencies. Otsu is trying to work through his understanding of his Christian faith as enculturated within an eastern worldview.
There is certainly more than a hint of universalism and pantheism. But there is also a significant critique of Western Christianity as being too structured and resistant to eastern concepts. There is also a real critique of ‘modern’ Japan’s distraction from the more important things in life.
I do not think this is a great book. There are interesting and challenging ideas here. There is real hints of greatness in the writing. However, some of the characters seemed too one dimensional and there seemed to be too many characters to allow for their full development.
But I also do not think this is a book of heresy as some Christians have suggested. This is a book that I think will take a second reading to get to some of the more subtle points.