by Shusaku Endo
ISBN: 4-8053-0376-X237 pp
At first light comedy, then fast-moving thriller, Wonderful Fool gradually focuses on its Christian Japanese author's favourite theme, the suffering and redemption of the common mass of humanity, but is never bogged down by overt religiosity. Its central figure, the eponymous fool, is a Frenchman with the physique of a sumo wrestler and the heart of a child, reminiscent in his dogged innocence of Dostoyevsky's similarly named Idiot. Like Prince Myshkin, Shusako's Gaston Bonaparte is descended from noble stock, but where Myshkin is feeble in body, Gaston's lumbering form betrays no Napoleonic dignity. What Gaston shares with Myshkin, apart from a lack of wits, is an instinctive, Christ-like need to help those around them that first exasperates, then dumbfounds, and ultimately enriches the people who are fortunate enough to come in contact with him.
When devil-may-care bank-clerk Takamori, living in Tokyo, receives a letter from an old penpal, he has no idea what impact his French friend will have on the life of himself and his haughty young sister. Nor does Gaston realise that his unselfish desire to come to Japan to help others will lead him into the clutches of a ruthless killer who is out for revenge on those who framed his brother during World War II. Shusako employs cinematic-style parallel storytelling that contrasts two worlds of Japan to good effect - the quarters of comparative ease and affluence in a quickly modernising Japan of the 1950s, and the accompanying poverty- and crime-ridden shanty towns that fringe Tokyo like a crusty excretion of sin.
Perhaps the only fault of this 2000 printing is that the translation, first published in 1974, retains explanatory footnotes that are no longer necessary: who, for example, doesn't know what sushi is?! But Shusaku's style itself, at first playful and lighthearted, and then unswerving in its recording of sordid incident, is served well by Peter Owen's prose. Some may find Gaston, like prince Myshkin, a tiresome do-gooder, but Shusaku's unsentimental approach does much to give his misadventures a ring of reality. Gaston's fate is ambiguous, but his effect on those he has touched - which may well include the reader - is decidedly positive.