Review: Silence

The film Silence has been in theaters, lately.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I decided to read the book, Silence, on which it is based. The author, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic.  During World Was II, he worked in a munitions factory. After the war, he briefly studied medicine.  He lectured at several universities on the craft of writing, and he took a particular interest in French Catholic authors.  Ill health troubled him for much of his life.  His work was dominated by a single theme: belief in Christianity.  It has been said that Endo was a ‘Japanese Catholic author’ struggling to ‘plant the seeds of his adopted religion’ in the ‘mudswamp’ of Japan.

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Shusaku Endo

Silence is the story of a Portuguese, Catholic priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who volunteers to go to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Christian converts and to discover why his colleague, Christovao Ferreira, another Portuguese priest, has reportedly apostatized.  The background of Silence is historically accurate.  Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by the co-founders of the Jesuit Order, and the religion found favour with the Japanese court for the next sixty years.  However, the hostility of English and Dutch Protestant missionaries and the desire of Shugun Icyasu to destroy Christian influence in Japan led to ruthless attacks on Japanese Christians, many of whom were tortured, burned alive, or forced to apostatize – renounce their faith.

Rodrigues makes the long sea voyage from Portugal to Japan in the company of another missionary priest: Father Garrpe.  On arrival, and escorted by a shifty Japanese peasant named Kichijiro, they are placed in a remote hut above a Christian village.  As the story unfolds, Kichijiro becomes a surrogate for Judas Iscariot: admiring Rodrigues and helping him, but also so tempted by the reward in silver for leading the Japanese officials to a priest that he succumbs to the temptation.  Kichijiro goes through repeated episodes to apostatizing and then returning to his Christian faith, claiming that he is too weak to resist torture.  The strategy of the Japanese official who is the chief persecutor, Inoue, is to use the Christian peasants as hostages to wring an apostasy from the priests.  With the priests eliminated, the religion will disappear.  In one scene, watched by Rodrigues, three Christian peasants who have apostatized are wrapped tightly in reed blankets and dropped off a boat.  Father Garrpe tries to swim to their rescue, but all four drown.  Rodrigues had been invited to save all four if he would just put his foot on a plaque on which there is the face of Christ.  The psychological torture continues: Rodrigues is kept in prison, un-harmed on meager rations, but exposed to the suffering of Christian peasants.  Ferreira appears, and advises Rodrigues to take the right way out: simply trample on the image.  Rodrigues spends the rest of his life as a comfortable captive, performing translations and writing anti-Christian essays at the behest of his captors.

Silence is not an enjoyable book, but it makes one question one’s own beliefs and assumptions.  The title refers to the silence of God in the face of so much suffering.  How can that be?  And yet, Rodrigues is frequently confronted with mental images and the words of Christ.  The definition of Christianity seems to be based on the concepts of the Japanese oppressors: a flame of strange faith, driven by priestly ritual, which contradicts the warm, comfortable ‘mudswamp’ of Japan, and that a coerced apostasy extinguishes that faith.  I, personally, am not at all comfortable with this definition, which seems far too limiting.  Moreover, given that one of Endo’s objectives as a writer was to introduce his faith to his country, this definition seems unlikely to attract many adherents.  The central messages of Christianity are obscured in the focus on what is faith and the complex role of Judas, and, by extension, on the roles of Pontius Pilate and Herod.

The Daily Telegraph calls Silence, ‘A masterpiece.  There can be no higher praise.’  I disagree.  I would call it, ‘a fine, and thought-provoking, historical novel’.  Some of this divergence in opinion may be a function of timing.  Silence was first published in 1969 (in Japan), and at that time it may have caused something of a sensation.  But for me, now, it seems a dated classic, but still well worth reading.  I didn’t find the prose to be captivating – more ordinary – though perhaps this is the translation.  But, for example, I cannot blame the translator for the inclusion of the phrase ‘a number of” three times in the space of half a dozen lines.

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