This evening, I finished reading Shusaku Endo’s novel Scandal. (I very much enjoy Endo’s writing; his excellent novel Silence is fairly well-known, and The Samurai would rank as one of my top five favorite novels.) I’m still trying to process exactly what Scandal “means;” feel free to read along as I mull over the novel. Spoilers will undoubtedly abound, so proceed with caution.
Scandal tells the story of Suguro, an aging Christian novelist who has, at the twilight of his literary career, found both critical success as a writer and personal fulfillment in an ordered and moral life. (I don’t know enough about Endo’s personal life to recognize which parts of the story are autobiographical and which aren’t, but I have a feeling that the protagonist’s life and thoughts bear more than a passing resemblance to Endo’s.)
Unfortunately for Suguro, just as he is preparing to “settle down” for a well-deserved rest from his long and difficult literary career, his reputation is threatened by scandalous rumors. Rumors surface that Suguro has been spotted in Tokyo’s “red light” district frequenting S&M clubs and other unsavory venues. Suguro is disturbed by the persistant rumors even though he knows they are untrue, and something about them seems to threaten the neatly-arranged, happily-married moral life he has constructed for himself over the years. The novel tells the story of Suguro’s search for the suspected impersonator, but also walks us step-by-step through Suguro’s reasoning as he comes to grips with his own morality and Christian beliefs.
That’s the surface story, at least. Beneath the surface, Endo is exploring a lot of difficult issues. A number of questions and themes surface briefly or are hinted at throughout the story: what it means to be a Japanese Christian; how a Christian artist can approach his craft with artistic integrity; how can Christians relate to and talk about a world tainted to its core by filth and sin. It seems clear to me that these are all issues that have troubled Endo, and the lack of firm resolution to any of them makes me suspect that he was still looking for answers himself while writing this novel.
But while these issues get some treatment in the story, the core of the novel is about one thing: sin. Sin, depravity, the unspeakable desires and urges that live at the heart of every human being. Suguro, and the characters he meets during the story, are walking contradictions: on the one hand, they can be polite, kind, generous, or innocent on the surface, but beneath each mask is an insatiable corruption that renders every good deed, every happy marriage, every kind word, every noble achievement hollow and meaningless.
As Suguro’s investigations continue, the actual question of whether or not he committed the scandalous acts becomes almost irrelevant–because the deeper he looks into himself, the more he realizes that he, the good husband and influential Christian Suguro, is as hungry for depravity as the worst rapist or murderer. Suguro has made it almost all the way to the end of his life living morally and righteously, but in the end he is utterly undone by sin. The perfect life he has created is a joke, a mask, a meaningless act of self-deception; in his heart, he is utterly depraved, a monster.
As Suguro learns about the nature of sin, we, the readers, learn with him. Endo is saying something profound about sin in Scandal, something that I haven’t seen since my college readings of Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Connor. Endo wants to break down any notion that we can save ourselves. As the novel begins, Suguro believes that man’s capacity to sin contains the seeds of his own salvation–he believes that sin can have noble intentions, that it is undertaken in a twisted but nevertheless sincere desire to find spiritual fulfillment. Suguro sees sin as the misguided excess of humans who want salvation but don’t know quite how to attain it.
It’s a comforting notion of sin; it’s a sin that God will surely forgive, because He can understand why you’re doing it. That’s an attractive idea to me, at least. But after luring you into this mode of thinking, Endo springs his trap. Sin, Endo shows us, is not natural or misguided: it is vile. It infects every corner of our heart and every thought of our minds; it’s ugly and destructive and hateful. For Endo, real sin–the kind that lives in the human heart, that separates us from God–is not the moral failing of the disciples who doubted Jesus but who later felt bad for their actions and repented after the cock crowed. No–sin is the person who stood at the side of the road to Calvary and jeered at Jesus for no reason other than the pleasure of defiling something that’s pure and innocent. The kind of deliberate depravity that no just God could possibly forgive, let alone tolerate. The kind of sin that offers no hope of salvation or escape.
That’s the message Endo leaves for us: no resolution, no easy answer, just an awareness that human beings are truly and utterly wretched. Endo does not question that God forgives our sin, but he does not profess to understand it, either. What kind of love looks at the human monster and chooses to purify it? What kind of God could stand to look at a creature so corrupt with rebellion?
Flannery O’Connor famously hoped that, by exposing the dark heart of humanity in her stories, she would shock her readers into crying out for God. Endo, while his writing style is very different from O’Connor’s, bears a similar message in Scandal. Humans are never more aware of God’s mysterious, incomprehensible grace than when they have hit the absolute nadir of the soul.
Through the large glass window of a tearoom next door, he saw a cheerful group of three or four young women seated around a table. One of them noticed Suguro and pointed him out to her neighbor, not even knowing he was a monster. –from Scandal