‘Old Friends’ by Shusaku Endo: Short Story Analysis
‘Old Friends’ by Shusaku Endo is a story centered around the tragedy of the Second World War in Japan and Poland. Endo was a convert to Roman Catholicism and a well-known novelist of a few books. In this story, he mentions about his returning from Poland, a place which was very much devastated by the Second World War and the concentration camps. He receives a telephone call from an old friend, who was a Catholic priest. This friend was celebrating twenty-five years of his ordination as a priest and wanted to celebrate Mass in thanksgiving with the congregation consisting of his old friends. This meant that the old friends he was referring to were friends before the Second World War ended, a time of great turmoil and struggle in Tokyo and around the world.
This story titled ‘Old Friends’ is gentle, surreal, and partially redemptive. The main running theme is: Can a victim of the concentration camps and the horrors of the Second World War forgive their torturers? This is especially seen in the case of two victims, a dedicated French Catholic Priest Father Bosch, and a woman with onion breath Endo met in Poland. The former was in a Japanese concentration camp and the latter was at Auschwitz. Father Bosch was imprisoned when he was in his forty’s while the woman with the onion breath was imprisoned when she was a little girl. Both saw terrible hardship, and incidentally, both were Roman Catholics, the one religion that focusses very obsessively on the theme of reconciliation and forgiveness. But could these two victims forget and forgive?
Endo through this tender story tries to analyze this question: Can you forgive the person or persons who have wronged you and maybe ruined you for the rest of your life? We tend to wonder when we read this story titled ‘Old Friends’ who got the more terrible deal, the woman with the onion breath or Father Bosch. The woman with the onion breath as she flashed her concentration camp tattoo to the author Endo states categorically that she could neither forget nor forgive what happened to her. Father Bosch on the other hand, though he was ruined by Japan where he was serving as a Catholic Priest:
- Stayed on in Japan after the war.
- He became a quiet man and lived his life, but right now was in a sort of physical and spiritual depression. Most probably according to the story, the depression and uneasiness were due to what happened to Father Bosch during the time he was in the concentration camp.
- When invited to come to the mass celebrating the silver jubilee of his friend’s ordination, he did indeed come as an ‘old friend’ to the wonderful years they spent together in that region of Japan.
- According to the tone of the story and the words of Endo, it is possible that Father Bosch, after his death, would prefer to be buried in Japan, the place where he spent the maximum portion of his ministerial life.
But has Father Bosch forgiven the torture and the pain? The ending of the story says it all in a surreal, lucid manner in the haunting words of Father Bosch:
“… No, I’m fine. I only feel pain in the winter when it is cold. When the spring comes, I am fine again. That is the way it always is.”
These lines are haunting, yet redemptive. The priest was spiritually, mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and of course, physically wounded. There is a mention in the story by Endo that all the friends at the anniversary celebration had been persecuted because they were Christians but only Father Bosch was subjected to torture. From a historical perspective, we are also aware that the torture inflicted by the Japanese was far worse than that of the Nazis in Germany. Yet, as you can see, Father Bosch looks at the whole episode as a cycle. When it is winter and the ‘old wounds’ come back to haunt, the whole affair hurts him, but the coming of spring makes all the pain then go away. This is repeated year after year. Thus, it is obvious that he can’t forget but he has learned not exactly to forgive but just to let go. The Second World War has scarred people and continents yet we have not learned from the stories of the victims.
The story is beautiful, lucid, surreal, and reads like a poem. When you read ‘Old Friends’ you feel like you are going through an old album of photographs full of people who meant a lot to you. Everyone who was invited to the get-together attended including Father Bosch though he was twenty years older than the rest of the other five friends in attendance. One sees the patience in Father Bosch and his harmless nature, especially when he is trying to correct little Endo when he used to commit naughty acts when a child. One can even see the patience in Father Bosch in his mannerisms which is very much described in detail by the author Endo.
Endo himself is very reflective when he travels to the get-together. He is known as the only ‘novelist’ of the gang and he was so naughty as a child that no one could believe that later on, he would become a novelist. There is a mention of a paperback book that Endo reads while traveling on the plane. The poet’s name is Ito Shizuo, and he was a poet from Nagasaki Prefecture and had graduated from Kyoto University. The lines that Endo reads to himself on the plane are redemptive and show that life takes you on different paths but always leads you sometimes back to the place where you truly belong.
There are many takeaway points that one can dwell upon in this short story:
- When the horrors of the Second World War struck Japan, Endo had already left Tokyo and so was not in touch with his childhood friends. When the Catholic Priest calls him after so many years, Endo wonders whether all the other friends are alive or not indicative of the many people who died in hordes during the war.
- The real reason that Endo goes to the get-together is that he believes that he may never see his old friend ever again indicative that he would never return to his past. This could also be because they were getting on in years.
- When Endo saw his friend after so many years, he was unable to picture him as a child which is indicative of how age, worry, and time changes everyone.
- When Endo is about to enter his old church, he sees a bespectacled boy playing in the compound and having a bad time and that reminds him of himself. There are many other beautiful instances of memories, redemption, and salvation throughout the story.
- Father Bosch was taken away by the secret police during the Second World War for merely having a photograph of an airfield in his old albums. That shows how terrible the secret police were and how despotic.
This was the first time I read a story by the writer Shusaku Endo. I hope to read more stories written by him; he is indeed a wonderful writer. Do pick up your copy of this short story titled ‘Old Friends’ today. I hope to buy his novels Silence and Scandal soon, and after reading them I shall analyze them for you.
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