FOREIGN STUDIES

By Shusaku Endo

Translated from the Japanese by Mark Williams

Simon & Schuster. 232 pp. $18.95

I HAD just finished teaching Shusaku Endo's novel Silence in an undergraduate course on Catholic fiction when Foreign Studies arrived for review. As always, Silence provoked a variety of responses among the students who found its hero, the 16th-century Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues, alternately an arrogant Westerner intent on winning glory as a missionary or martyr, and a sympathetic victim of a cruel religious persecution and a culture he little understood. In the end, Rodrigues accepted the judgment that Christianity could not flourish in the "mud-swamp" of Japan -- a judgment enunciated by his canny inquisitor, Inoue, but clearly shared by the novel's author.

Foreign Studies was originally published in Japan in 1965, a couple of years before Silence. In his preface to this translation, the first in English, Endo describes "And You, Too," the third and by far longest of the stories that make up this book, as "a prelude to Silence." What he means is that his own experience as a foreign student in France after the war, the germ of that story, convinced him that East and West could never really understand one another on the deep level of "culture," only on the relatively superficial level of "civilization." Rodrigues, then, became a European mirror image of the unhappy Tanaka, the alienated Japanese student in Paris who attempts to insinuate himself into the French world of thought and feeling by studying the life and works of the Marquis de Sade. Cruelty in theory for the Japanese student, cruelty in practice for the Portuguese missionary. A nice symmetry.

Curiously, however, there are even stronger parallels with Silence, unmentioned by Endo, in the two brief curtain-raisers that introduce "And You, Too." In both instances young Japanese Christians, one a seminarian, find themselves uncomfortably welcome in Europe as exotic specimens of the success of the church's missionary efforts. As such they feel constantly under pressure to live up to their status and beyond their personal convictions. Indeed the 17th-century seminarian, Araki Thomas, is confidently expected by his hosts to return to Japan to become a martyr; he becomes an apostate instead. His counterpart, Kudo, comes to Europe three centuries later, like Endo, right after the war, but encounters the same overestimation. It is summer in Rouen, and the oppressive heat Kudo suffers from reflects the naive passion of his hosts for the conversion of his country. Unable to master enough French to explain the subtleties of Japanese culture to these self-confident French Catholics, Kudo silences his objections and accepts his uneasy situation.

In "And You, Too" Tanaka has no such theological problems to deal with in Paris in the mid-1960s. His are entirely cultural and psychological. But the underlying dilemma of cultural incomprehension remains, heightened for him by doubts about the value of his profession as a student of foreign literature and about his status in his own university in Japan. Early in the story, Tanaka engages in a heated exchange with his fellow Japanese expatriates. Mocked by a mediocre novelist for being a detached critic rather than an engaged artist, Tanaka responds: "The world is full of writers, but the only time they justify their existence is when they create a masterpiece." If that weren't provocative enough, he confirms his countrymen's deepest suspicions when he awards the palm to French writers and critics as unquestionably superior to the Japanese. And all this on his first night in Paris.

Shunned and shunning, Tanaka becomes ever more isolated in his attempt to penetrate French culture through the writings of Sade. His one Japanese friend, the failed architecture student Sakisaka, takes him to his favorite museum filled with skillful reproductions of cathedral statuary arranged in chronological order. Sakisaka is ill and knows he will have to return to Japan an apparent failure, but he wants Tanaka to be drawn into what he has experienced in this "insignificant little museum" -- "the great flow of European history spanning all those centuries." In ominous words, he spells out for Tanaka the cost of such discipleship: "In order to enter that great flow, we foreign students have to pay some sort of price. I've paid for it with my health."

After Sakisaka leaves Paris, Tanaka occasionally returns to the museum, but his special shrine becomes Sade's ruined castle at LaCoste and other sites connected with the master. At each of these, Tanaka feels moved to a kind of giddy sexual ecstasy which he promptly subdues but recognizes as "the most real" part of himself. Near the end of the story, as he becomes aware that he, too, is ill, Tanaka climbs through the snow to the ruins of LaCoste: "Like a blind man groping in the dark, Tanaka passed his frozen hands over the remains of the walls and windows. He just wanted to touch and squeeze his lips against something that still retained a hint of the fragrance of Sade." He then notices a spot of red on the wall and recognizes it as blood, but of a vividness that calls up the "lips of someone sated with pleasure" -- Sade or one of his victims.

But the blood does not long remain merely a sexual symbol. As Tanaka descends the hill he begins to spit up blood on the white snow. Art and life meet here in a disconcerting symbiosis, and the initial sexual identification with Sade turns pathological. Tanaka has paid the same price as Sakisaka and must now face the similar disgrace of returning to Japan with his work incomplete. WRITING a quarter century later Endo admits in his introduction that he now views his former self as "a pitiful younger brother," who did not fully appreciate that "at the unconscious level" East and West have much in common. This seems to imply that, even deeper than "culture," there exists a human dynamic that unites individuals; but, Endo suggests, it is as often demonic as celestial. Tanaka's shadow-figure here is Sade, just as, in Endo's most recently translated novel, Scandal, it is a perverse doppelganger who haunts a popular contemporary Japanese novelist. Endo has moved inwards in his quest for the line that divides good and evil, but the awareness of the struggle remains the same. History helps us to localize the conflict, but it deceptively suggests that the forces of evil may be precisely identified. Not so, Endo insists, and offers again and again his own fictionalized story as proof.

John B. Breslin, S.J., is director of Georgetown University Press and the editor of "The Substance of Things Hoped For: Short Fiction by Modern Catholic Authors."