The Sea and Poison
by Shusaku Endo
In BriefAgainst the backdrop of World War II, Japanese writer Endo explores the nature of morality. In this novel, originally published in Japan in 1958, the author examines the inner lives of three characters in the central drama, a grisly vivisection of an American prisoner of war, in an attempt to understand what conscience, or lack of conscience, allowed them to participate in such an atrocity. Through the character of Suguro, an unsophisticated medical intern from the country bullied into acquiescence in the crime by his colleague, Toda, the cynical son of a wealthy doctor, we see how pangs of conscience are not enough to save one from the consequences of participation--even as only an observer--in an unethical act. Endo's finely wrought descriptions of place and the monotonous routine of daily life in a hospital subtly but powerfully evoke the despair and terror of a people at war. He presents here a decidedly postmodern world, where individuals exist in a state of disconnected anomie.
Why you should read itDespite its bleakness, the novel is compulsively readable. We are fascinated even as we are repelled by these characters' moral corruption and their slow, inevitable decline.