“Meeting your doppelgänger is never a good thing,” I told an audience a few weeks back, my prelude into a long digression about a recent reading obsession, Shūsaku Endō’s novel Scandal. In the book a writer named Suguro, a Catholic public intellectual with a reputation for moral rectitude, finds his steps dogged by a man who looks just like him — apart from the evil sneer. The lookalike frequents the red light district, leading people to believe that Suguro himself is living a double life.
John Gardner once described the method by which fiction goes after truth: characters subtly embody values which are test through action. Endō’s story could have been written to that formula. In a speech in the opening chapter, a longtime friend of Suguro’s describes the great theme of his literary work: the belief that “a yearning for rebirth lies concealed within each act of sin.” The question is whether the theme delivered at the outset has any hope of reaching the book’s end unscathed. (It doesn’t.)
As Suguro hunts down his doppelgänger, psychologists and sadists weigh in on the question. “There’s magma inside people’s hearts,” the masochist Motoko explains to a journalist determined to expose Suguro. “You can’t see it on the surface, but suddenly the magma will erupt. There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born. It’s in every child …. even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that … because it’s fun. Because there’s magma in their hearts.”
Eventually Suguro’s second self (the subject, incidentally, of a Dorian Gray-ish portrait) accuses the novelist of having stopped short of depicting the real world. He has written about sin, yes, but he has ignored evil. And he has done this by ignoring the magma inside himself all along. Suguro is a moralist, a good man living a tidy life untouched by scandal. He is Jekyll to his double’s Hyde. Whatever his notion of the fall, he stands apart from it, essentially untainted. The hunt for his doppelgänger draws him into an underworld — actually, that’s not quite right: the quest has more to do with realizing that this world is the underworld.
“During his long writing career, Suguro had always felt that a token of salvation could be discerned within every base act of man. He had believed that a rejuvenating energy beat faintly within every sin. It was for that reason that he had been able to believe, however shakily, that he was a Christian. But after today he had to accept this filthiness as a part of himself. He had to begin searching for evidence of salvation even within this filthiness …. There could be no doubt that a darkness he had never depicted in his fiction was concealed inside his own heart.”
What makes all this so fascinating to me is that Suguro the novelist is a kind of doppelgänger himself. His biography — his bibliography — suggests a close identification between Shūsaku Endō and his protagonist. Like Suguro, Endō is a Catholic, best known for his novel of seventeenth century martyrdom Silence (which is being filmed by Martin Scorsese). So Endō is writing about how own double confronted by … his own double. And he seems to be doing so not out of a desire to be clever, but in order to come to grips with something difficult that can’t be approached any other way. James Wood says that the vitality of characters in fiction derives from “our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.” Suguro is nothing if not a protagonist who’s been brooded over.
François Mauriac, another Catholic novelist, told The Paris Review back in the fifties that:
“… for the novelist who has remained Christian, like myself, man is someone creating himself or destroying himself. He is not an immobile being, fixed, cast in a mold once and for all. This is what makes the traditional psychological novel so different from what I did or thought I was doing. The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of human salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.”
In this case, Suguro knows it.