Deep River

I’m not sure that Shusaku Endo’s Deep River was the best book I have read in this series, but it was by far the most intense. I mean intense.

Whenever I read a really good writer – my favorite is Sports Illustrated‘s Joe Posnanski – I get moderately jealous because I could never write that well. I was jealous for a different reason when reading Deep River. I could spend the next twenty years trying to come up with an idea for a book, and it would not come close to Endo’s beautifully conceived, brilliant, deep, and intense work.

In Lost, the book appears in the opening moments of the season six episode Sundown. At the beginning of this episode, Sayid breaks into Dogen’s chambers to question him about the machine that Dogen hooked up to him after Sayid magically came back to life a couple of episodes before. Dogen seems to expect Sayid and is calmly reading Deep River when he barges in.

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Deep River tells the story of several Japanese tourists who sign up for a tour of Buddhist temples in India. Only a few of the tourists are actually Buddhist, but all of them are trying to come to terms with their own spirituality in different ways. The first half of the book presents how the characters came to India in the form of “cases” – similar to the centric flashbacks that Lost used to tell why each character ended up on Oceanic 815.

We first meet a Japanese businessman named Isobe as he sits next to the deathbed of his cancer-stricken wife. Treatment has stopped working for his wife and Isobe tries to come to terms with her impending death. He realizes that he took her completely for granted and rarely paid attention to her during their marriage. Now he can’t imagine life without her. She becomes less and less coherent until she has one final lucid moment before death. She frantically tells Isobe that she will be reincarnated somewhere and implores him to find her. He shrugs this off at first but can’t shake the idea that his wife is somewhere out there. Eventually, a few years later, he tracks down a young child who believes that she used to live in Japan in a past life. He still doesn’t really believe it, but finds himself on the pilgrimage to India anyway.

Coincidentally, his wife’s nurse Mitsuko is also on the trip. Isobe thanks Mitsuko for being so considerate with his wife in her final days. But there is much more to Mitsuko than Isobe believes. In college, she was the stereotypical promiscuous, partying student. She enticed a Japanese Christian named Otsu just for sport and still feels somewhat guilty. Eventually, she settled down and entered into a loveless marriage that ended in divorce. After the divorce, she became a broken cynic and joined the pilgrimage to India to try to find some sort of spiritual meaning in her life.

Then there’s a children’s book author named Numada. Numada has never found comfort with humans, but loves animals. He dealt with a long bout of tuberculosis in a hospital, where he was accompanied by a myna bird that his wife brought to keep him company. He came out of a risky surgery alive, but when he returned to his room, he found the myna bird was dead. He believes that the bird died in his place and joins the trip to India so he can visit a bird sanctuary and free another myna to repay his debt.

Finally, we meet Kiguchi, a veteran tormented by the horrors he witnessed in World War II. The retreating Japanese army left him and a friend behind in Burma after both fell ill. There, they experienced the devastation of the war firsthand and eventually resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Kiguchi actually handles the experience comparatively well; his friend didn’t fare so well, and became a depressed alcoholic. Kiguchi plans to go to India to perform Buddhist rituals for the fallen soldiers on both sides of the war.

So yeah, you think you have problems. There people have problems.

In India, each tourist finds what they are looking for with varying degrees of success. Kiguchi performs his Buddhist rituals and Numada takes a day trip to a bird sanctuary. But Isobe cannot find his reincarnated wife and Mitsuko remains cynical.

The group winds up at the Ganges River, a sacred ground for Hindus. Hindus migrate to the river from all over India to die. Isobe and Mitsuko find the place beautiful, and stay behind when the rest of the group moves on to another Buddhist temple. There, Mitsuko finds Otsu after all these years, carrying the dead bodies of the “untouchable” class to funeral pyres.

Otsu tried to become a Christian missionary but wasn’t welcome anywhere. He considers himself a faithful servant of Jesus, but can’t reconcile all the Western logic with his Eastern thought. His theology is sort of a hybrid of Christianity and Buddhism. As a result, he is welcomed by neither religion and spends his life hauling dead bodies of a completely different religion in what he feels is a Jesus-like role.

The group happens to be staying at a hotel near the Ganges when Indira Gandhi is assassinated. All travel to and from the country is canceled, so the tourists are forced to stay in their hotel. A few are brave enough to leave, and go to the river. Another one of the tourists, a photographer on his honeymoon, comes to take pictures of the Hindu rituals, an act that is strictly forbidden. The Hindus, already on edge around foreigners, try to attack the photographer, but Otsu steps in to try to protect him. The Hindus then brutally beat Otsu and he is near-death when the book ends.

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I’m a sucker for books that don’t have stereotypically happy endings, so I really loved the ending of Deep River. Apparently, I also enjoy books with travelers who are searching for some sort of inner peace.

Just like the Deep River pilgrims were searching for something, the Oceanic passengers all went to Australia (or were going to Los Angeles) to find something. Jack needed to come to terms with his father. Sawyer needed to come to finally let go of his parents’ deaths. Sun was trying to escape her life. Sayid was looking for his one true love. Locke needed to prove that people couldn’t tell him what he can’t do. Claire reminded me of Mitsuko, in that both were reluctant travelers; it was almost as if something beyond their control was bringing them along. And so on.

In both works, the characters found what they were looking for, but generally not in the manner that they expected. Jack learned from Sawyer that his father was thankful for what Jack had done. Sawyer had Anthony Cooper brought to him after searching for him for 28 years. Sun fell back in love with Jin. Sayid found true love with Shannon. Locke got his legs back. And Claire gave birth and loved the baby after all.

Deep River exists in a world between faiths. The book is at least partially autobiographical – Endo himself was one of the few Japanese Christians, but his own brand of spirituality was something like Otsu’s. There is a considerable amount of overlap in faiths between Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists on the trip. This is most obvious in Otsu, but shows up in other characters as well. Mitsuko embarks on the Buddhist trip for unknown reasons, but finally finds inner peace by swimming in the Ganges, the most sacred location for Indian Hindus. Kiguchi doesn’t even necessarily identify as a Buddhist, but goes to the Buddhist shrines to say a prayer for every soldier of every faith.

Similarly, Lost bounces back and forth between religious references. In the final scene of the series, when Jack meets the Oceanic passengers so they can all “move on” together, we see several religious symbols on the wall. These include the Christian cross, the Dharmacakra (a Buddhist symbol), and the Aum (a Hindu symbol), among other symbols. The last scene seems to indicate that the Lost creators viewed religion in a similar way to Endo.

And then there’s the temple, where we see the book in the first place. If I had one complaint about season six, it’s the temple scenes. They just felt disjointed for a couple episodes…and then it was destroyed. This left many fans, including myself, asking: “what was the point of the temple?”

Perhaps this book gives us some sort of clue into what the temple followers believed in. Maybe the followers practiced a sort-of hybrid religion like we see in Deep River. Maybe the temple was just thrown into the show by the creators without consideration to what they actually practiced. I may have to rewatch the temple scenes and think about them more after I read this book, so at least it gave me something to consider. Maybe the confluence of religion theory will work. Or maybe not.

Either way, go read this book. It’s pure brilliance.

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