Shusaku Endo: Wonderful Fool
Author: Shusaku Endo
Title: Wonderful Fool
Just how gorgeous are the sleeve designs for Peter Owen Modern Classics? So gorgeous they can use pictures of a bespectacled middle-aged Japanese author on the front cover, with the colour scheme and layout instantly making it a thing of beauty, something you want to own.
And how good is the writing of that bespectacled middle-aged Japanese author? So good he can justify the description ‘Japan’s Graham Greene,’ and still manage to put a contemporary giant like Haruki Murakami into the shade. As Shusaku Endo is not only a great writer, but also a great novelist, something he achieves with an effortless ease.
Like Greene, Endo’s work is often deeply rooted within his Catholic faith. In particular, reflecting the difficult time Christianity has fond in gaining acceptance within Japan. A subject he tackled brilliantly in his masterpiece Silence – a book of such genius that even a committed agnostic as myself could enjoy it all the more, the further it dipped into theological waters.
Echoes of Christianity can also be found in Wonderful Fool, as a Christ-like figure arrives in humble circumstances and effects everyone he meets, before leaving at a moment of salvation. There’s even betrayal for thirty pieces of silver. Well, some silver bars purloined during the Second World War anyway.
Wonderful Fool is set in late 1950’s Japan and begins with the arrival in Tokyo of Gaston Bonaparte, a distant descendant of Napoleon, who has come to stay with his long time pen pal Takamori. Gaston has travelled by ship in fourth class, possesses little money and is so unfamiliar with Japanese manners and etiquette he immediately proves an embarrassment to his hosts. He is a large, ugly man, described by Takimori’s sister, Tomoe, as “Horse-Face” and one who gives the impression of being a bumbling simpleton. But what Gaston does posses is a purity of heart, a naïve trust in the innate good in people.
Simple Gaston was constitutionally incapable of harbouring resentment or hated towards anyone. Even when a child, no matter what trick his companions played on him or how cruelly they treated him, he was of such a temperament that he could not hate his persecutors. To hate was for him the most odious of tasks. Instead, he was quickly moved to trust in the goodwill and friendship of others, or at least to want to trust in them.
It is whilst travelling through the seedy underbelly of Toyko, befriending stray dogs, beggars and prostitutes as he goes, that Gaston encounters a mob hit man, Endo – someone that carries not only the author’s name, but also his childhood illness, tuberculosis. Endo is a cold, bloodless man, at the opposite end of the moral spectrum to Gaston, and one who is both emotionally and physically enfeebled. He is also driven by a determination to exact revenge on those who shifted blame for their war crimes onto his brother.
In Gaston, Endo sees an unwitting accomplice to this revenge, but as with so many other people in Japan, he has underestimated the moral and physical courage of the Frenchman. As at every turn he is hindered by Gaston who doggedly follows Endo in the belief he can reach out to the good within.
For the first time in her life Tomoe came to the realisation that there are fools and fools. A man who loves others with an open-hearted simplicity, who trusts others, no matter who they are, even if he is deceived or even betrayed – such a man in the present-day world is bound to be written off as a fool. And so he is. But not just an ordinary fool. He is a wonderful fool. He is a wonderful fool who will never allow the little light which he sheds along man’s way to go out. It was the first time this thought had occurred to her
As the story reaches its strangely beautiful climax, we learn just enough to explain the motivations of Gaston and Endo. Leaving Wonderful Fool as a novel that mixes prose, characterisation, humour, plot and pacing together to give a wonderfully satisfying reading experience.