The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo
I'm not sure why I have this book on my TBR shelf. I thought it was one my brother-in-law had sent me; he used to send us books from Japan and so I have several volumes of Murakami, Endo, and Oe just sitting around. But this one is a discard from the public library and I have no idea where it came from. I'm also wondering what happened to my copy of Silence, which I remember loaning out in a pile to a friend's daughter who was studying Japanese (she is living there now!). But she gave them back. So where did Silence go?
This is a really tough novel, and it's written in such a quiet, understated way that the awfulness stands out all the more. It's the story of Suguro, a young medical intern at a wartime hospital, as well as two others who work there. The hospital is near the city of Fukuoka, but it's far enough out that it has not yet been bombed. Supplies and food are short, and the hospital inmates (most of them seem to have TB) are dying; it's only a question of how long they have. Suguro is mocked for his preoccupation with one old woman's case -- what's the point? Then he is asked to assist at secret operations for the military. Three American prisoners are to be vivisected, nominally for research purposes.
Suguro is not forced to take part, but he agrees to. He ends up sickened and unable to participate, but it's too late. He is tarred with the same brush as the others. Two other participants have written their confessions and life stories: Toda, a cynical young doctor who thinks everything is pointless but nevertheless looks for ways to act upon his resentment and exert cruelty, and Ueda, a nurse who has lost everything and lives completely alone.
Endo shows us the social pressures exerted on the three protagonists and the effects of their choices. In this environment, it is difficult to resist evil, but when they do not, guilt becomes their permanent companion. Suguro's life is forever tainted by his failure to refuse.
Wrenching stuff. Be prepared when you read it.