Posts Tagged ‘shusaku endo’

‘How about it Suguro?’  His rimless glasses shining, Asai leaned his face close.  ‘You’re perfectly free, you know.  Really.’

Afterwards, the short, plump medical officer had returned to the room and laughed, ‘The bastards, what did they do but bomb indiscriminately?  They’ve already been sentenced to be shot by the Western Command.  Wherever they’re executed it’s the same.  Why, here they’ll get ether and die in their sleep!’

(from The Sea and Poison, page 76 — I read a different version than pictured.  I couldn’t find an image of the old hardcover from the library.)

The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo was first published in 1958.  The novel takes place in Japan during World War II at Fukuoka Medical School and is told from a few different viewpoints but mainly follows Suguro and his interactions with fellow intern Toda, and the few doctors and nurses with whom he works.  Suguro treats tuberculosis patients, and he shows compassion for a dying elderly woman and is conflicted when the doctors plan to do an experimental surgery that they know will kill her, all in the name of research.

‘Oh come off it!  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!  Right now in the city all kinds of people are dying all the time in the air raids, and nobody thinks twice about it.  Rather than have the old lady die in an air raid, why not kill her here at the hospital.  There’d be some meaning in that, boy!’  (page 51)

The Sea and Poison is a hard book to describe because its structure is very odd, and for that reason alone, I didn’t really like the book.  It opens with a prologue in which readers are introduced to a man living in a suburb of Tokyo who needs pneumothorax treatments.  Suguro is the only doctor in the community, but he strikes the man as very odd…and then he learns the truth about Suguro and his involvement in war crimes committed at the medical school.  When he confronts Suguro about it, the book then shifts to the past when Suguro is working at the hospital and tells the story from his viewpoint in the third person.  The book later shifts to the first person to tell the story of a nurse, Ueda, and then in the following chapter to the first person viewpoint of the other intern, Toda, before returning the the third person and Suguro.  Endo never comes full circle to revisit the man from the prologue, and the two chapters in the first-person narrative showcase Ueda’s failed marriage and events from Toda’s school days, rather than their work in the hospital.

The introduction to the characters through their work in the tuberculosis sanatorium shows how they are numb or unfeeling or pushed along a path they don’t necessarily want to take or simply seeking career advancement.  The hospital is not what we would consider a hygienic environment, which could be related to the era in which it takes place or the culture or both, and the doctors have a horrible bedside manner.  The patients, particularly the welfare patients, are viewed as burdens or possible research subjects that could lead to a promotion for the doctors.  But with all of this, Endo is merely warming up.

Suguro, Toda, and Ueda are all asked by the head physicians to participate in some important research that will involve the vivisection of eight American POWs.  With the tuberculosis patients, one could argue that the research was justified because they were going to die anyway, but now you’re talking eight, healthy young men who will be brutally killed for the sake of science and the furthering of these doctors’ careers.  The three of them are asked — not forced — to take part, and they all agree, though Suguro has some reservations.

Endo based The Sea and Poison on a true incident that took place in 1945 at Kyushu Imperial University, but there was no mention of the historical incidents in the version of the book I read.  Halfway through the book, I was wondering where it was going, so I started to do some research online and was horrified by what I found.

The book opened my eyes to another aspect of World War II that I hadn’t known about before, but it was a challenging read.  The structure was confusing at times, and I’m sure some things are lost in the translation from the Japanese.  There isn’t anything special or lyrical about the writing.  However, it is short, not overly graphic (though some descriptions made me squeamish), and interesting in that it generates much thought and discussion about medical ethics, guilt, and conscience.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Sea and Poison from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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