"Foreign Studies" by Shusaku Endo

Japanese author Shusaku Endo traveled to Paris in the early 1950s - shortly after the end of World War II - as an exchange student. This trip, and his feeling of alienation, inspired this interesting novel. It’s technically not a “novel” in the truest sense, more like three separate, thematically linked stories in which the author expresses and explores the subject of alienation, displacement and the striking differences between the West and the East.  A respected author in his native Japan, Endo had the odd distinction of being raised a Catholic (rare in Japan) and because of this his detractors often dismissed him as a “Christian writer”. His catholicism figures heavily into this work but not overtly. In the same way his characters are searching for understanding between the two differing cultures it almost seems as if the author is seeking understanding between the two different “cultures” within himself. 

 

The three stories within: A Summer in Rouen, Araki Thomas, and And You, Too all explore this theme. In “Rouen”, the narrator arrives from Japan and stays with a middle class French family in order to learn about French customs but winds up feeling even more alienated at his perceived “exoticness”; “Araki Thomas” is a story about a Japanese Catholic apostate who visits 17th Century Rome; and the last and longest section “And You, Too” follows the Parisian life of Tankara, a Japanese exchange student in France as a professor of French Literature and to study the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. The same theme applies to this story but more in depth. Tankara not only feels alienated from this foreign culture but also from his fellow Japanese expats who hang around Le Dome and other Parisian literary cafes as they talk smack about one another and generally pose as serious intellectuals. Tankara’s only friend - Sakisaka - is also alone and alienated, and suffering from TB. As Tankara pursues his study of Sade, the more alone and displaced he feels and what begins as a literary and philosophical investigation soon becomes a spiritual one.

 

It’s a sad story about loneliness, rejection, displacement and alienation, set in a brutally cold Parisian winter which only enhances this feeling of isolation, allowing the reader to feel this claustrophobic, lonely world of Tankara.  While not a perfect novel - there are moments where the narrative tends to drag a little - there is a lot of interesting information about the life of the Marquis de Sade and his more libertine lifestyle, which in contrast to the more monastic lifestyle of Tankara, only reenforces his inner conflict for the reader. Definitely worth the read and Endo is an author I look forward to exploring more of in the future. 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com