Book reviews

Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison (New Directions, 1992; originally published 1958)

The progression of medical killing from vivisection on humans and abortion to euthanasia: Endo’s novel a prophecy from sixty years ago.

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Sea and Poison is as relevant in the twenty-first century as a warning against medical killing as it was when first published in 1958.  In fact, sixty years later, Endo’s novel functions as a warning of increasing threats against human life by those who should be in the business of protecting it, physicians.

The novel’s plot is simple, yet horrifying: Dr. Suguro participates in the vivisection of American prisoners of war in Japan.  That he was sent to prison for two years for his involvement is not a spoiler alert; the author himself provides this fact on page 27, so the remaining 140 pages constitute an in medias res narrative on Dr. Suguro’s moral anguish from his collaboration in the killing of the American POWs.

Along the way, the reader comes to understand the anti-life milieu which made the killing of the American POWs possible.  Toda, Dr. Suguro’s friend, enunciates a strict utilitarian view of human life, where the ends of medical progress trump any Jewish or Christian valuation of human life as sacred, as in this passage: “Killing a patient isn’t so solemn a matter as all that.  It’s nothing new in the world of medicine.  That’s how we’ve made our progress! [….]  But if she gets killed during an operation, no doubt about it, she becomes a living pillar upholding the temple of medical science” (51).

Toda is the mouthpiece for an earlier statement on the anti-life milieu of wartime Japan when he asserts that “Today everybody is on the way out.  The poor bastard who doesn’t die in the hospital gets his chance every night to die in an air raid” (42).  That Toda cannot distinguish between killing somebody in a medical setting versus someone dying in a bombing raid is a logical fallacy easily identifiable by college students in a first-year English course.  (Determining whether it is simply an invalid syllogism, a non sequitur, or a red herring would generate a wonderful essay, wouldn’t it?)

Of course, a serious study of Endo’s novel should make the slippery slope evident.  If someone can abort his own child, then that disrespect for human life will manifest itself against disrespect for the born.  The clinical language that Endo uses to describe Toda’s killing of his own child compares with American authors, both pro- and anti-life, whose abortionist characters regard the unborn child as a thing instead of a human being:

I borrowed the necessary instruments from a friend studying obstetrics, and with my own hands, I scraped out the foetus.  To see what I was doing, I had nothing to depend upon but one flashlight.  And so with sweat pouring off me, I pulled out the small, bloody lump of flesh.  The intention foremost in my mind was never to let anyone know about this unhappy miscalculation, not to have my whole life ruined because of a girl like this.  (122-3)

The literary technique of dehumanization of both the unborn child killed in the abortion (a “small, bloody lump of flesh” and an “unhappy miscalculation”) and the callous disregard for the aborted mother, who undergoes extreme pain in the abortion (“a girl like this”), is evident twenty pages later when the first American POW is killed in the vivisection (146-8).  While the reader sees a human being, the doctors see the equivalent of a laboratory rat.  The POWs are sedated with ether and then experimented on by having saline or air injected into their veins or having a portion of the lung removed so that the various times of death can “be ascertained” (77).  The passive voice verb shows that the dehumanization affects not only the POWs, but the doctors themselves, who are the agents of the killings.

A final remarkable thing about this novel is that Endo’s religious principles are unobtrusive.  With one exception, no character (except a foreigner, whose opinions are discounted for this brief review) evinces Jewish or Christian ethical principles on behalf of human life.  There is “God talk”, but there is no preachiness in the few instances where characters like Toda question whether there is a God.  This lack of clear religious support for the protection of human life may confuse readers who know that the author was Catholic.

However, Michael Gallagher, the translator, may have resolved this dilemma when he suggests that Endo admired Catholic writer Graham Greene, who is famously quoted as saying that

He would rather be known, therefore, as a writer who happened to be a Catholic than as a Catholic writer.  These remarks were widely quoted by critics of every shade of belief and disbelief, and can, I think, shed light on Endo’s own position.  What followed, however, seems to have been generally overlooked: “When one is a Catholic, everything that one writes is imbued with Catholicism.”  (6)

Contemporary students might spend an engaging few hours reading Endo’s sixty-year-old novel but then spend weeks delving into the lack of respect for human life which this novel illustrates—and then perhaps months more comparing the doctors in Endo’s novel with physicians today who are agents of the forms of medical killing known as assisted suicide and euthanasia.  The analysis of the novel would be time well spent, since these contemporary forms of medical killing are more aggressive now, sixty years later, than in Endo’s time.

Many thanks to a Twitter colleague who suggested that I read this novel in the interests of advancing right-to-life literary theory.

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