Silence by Shusaku Endo [A Review]

Silence is considered to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century. A story of religious persecution in seventeenth-century feudal Japan told by an idealist Jesuit priest. It is a fable of idealism and its victims, of suffering and cruelty, of betrayal, disillusionment and ultimate sacrifice.

In 1640, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealist Portuguese Catholic priest, is about to embark on a perilous journey to the end of the Earth and the dangerous frontier of Christian missionary work. A member of the Jesuits, Rodrigues is to follow in the footsteps of the order’s co-founder, St Francis Xavier, and journey to Japan via Goa and Macao.

Truly this is the end of the earth.

Beneath the light of the candle I am sitting with my hands on my knees, staring in front of me. And I keep turning over in my mind the thought that I am at the end of the earth, in a place which you do not know and which your whole lives through you will never visit. A throbbing sensation fills my being, and behind my eyelids arises the memory of that long and terrible sea journey so that my breast is filled with pain. Certainly my being in this utterly remote and unknown Oriental town is like a dream. Or rather, if I begin to reflect that it is not a dream I feel like shouting out that it is a miracle.

While Francis Xavier helped establish Christianity in Japan, leading to the building of churches and seminaries at one point, Japan has since brutally suppressed its Christian minority, particularly following the Christian uprising known as the Shimabara Rebellion. Ever since, Christianity in Japan has been outlawed, Christians have been tortured and executed and ships from known Catholic states such as Spain and Portugal have been banned. But rumours persist that many Japanese continue to be secret Christians at heart, but without priests, bibles, relics or a church hierarchy, they are an abandoned flock.

It is to the aid of Japan’s persecuted Christian minority that Rodrigues wishes to make this dangerous journey, but there is a second motivation he has in mind. News has reached Portugal that Father Ferreira, another Jesuit missionary in Japan and Rodrigues’ former mentor, has renounced his faith and apostatised under torture. That he now resides in Nagasaki with a Japanese wife in service to the authorities who continue in their attempts to exterminate the foreign religion. Rodrigues cannot believe the rumours of the man he holds in such high esteem and is determined to discover the truth.

Surviving the perilous sea journey, refusing to be dissuaded by those who argue against his mission, he succeeds in smuggling himself into Japan and hiding near a village of secretly-Christian Japanese. But with high rewards on offer for information on Christians, it is only a matter of time before Rodrigues’ presence is betrayed to the authorities. It will not be Rodrigues or fellow priests who will suffer the most from the authorities, but the Japanese peasants who gave him hiding, increasingly the misery of an already impoverished people, while he escapes unharmed.

You came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.

Rodrigues finds his time in Japan has parallels with events from Jesus’ own life. Like Christ he finds himself alone in the wilderness, he is betrayed by someone close to him, he is put on trial and is made to travel through a town while people throw stones and insults at them. Even more horrific than what he experiences is what he witnesses in the poverty, suffering, torture and execution of Japanese Christians. He stubbornly endures, expecting, like Christ, to have a glorious martyrdom.

Yet, he knows he cannot be as good as Christ. He cannot forgive betrayers, he cannot love the downtrodden and sinful. It is much easier to be a Christian leader in a Christian country than to suffer persecution as a hated minority.

What do you understand? You Superiors in Macao, you in Europe! He wanted to stand face to face with them in the darkness and speak his own defence. You live a carefree life in tranquillity and security, in a place where there is no storm and no torture – it is there that you carry on your apostolate. There you are esteemed as great ministers of God. You send out soldiers into the raging turmoil of the battlefield. But generals who warm themselves by the fire in a tent should not reproach the soldiers that are taken prisoner.

Once captured, the authorities seem to be in no rush to execute him. Through the delay he is plagued with questions. What is the point of suffering and martyrdom? Why create men weak and condemn them for succumbing to weakness? Most of all, why does the benevolent God he believes in remain silent while his followers suffer terribly?

God asks me to imitate the strong even though he made me weak. Isn’t this unreasonable?

Why have you abandoned us so completely? He prayed in a weak voice. Even the village was constructed for you; and you have abandoned it in its ashes? Even when the people are cast out of their homes have you not given them courage? Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me? Why? At least tell me why. We are not strong men like Job who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial. There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering.

Faced with having to choose between betraying his God or his fellow Christians, Rodrigues reaches his crisis point when the suffering of fellow Christians becomes too much for him to bear, when he finally meets his mentor who has faced the same crisis and when he comes to realise that his zealotry and his education in Christian Portugal has blinded him to what Christ’s life message means when those comforts are stripped away.

Author Shusaku Endo is a member of Japan’s Christian minority. As such, he endured anti-Christian prejudice at home and anti-Japanese bigotry in the West. It prompted a personal crisis of faith and created a perspective of suffering as central to Christianity. It became the major theme of his writing, culminating in Silence which is considered his masterpiece. It is considered both a great work of historical fiction and theological fiction. This edition has an introduction by Martin Scorsese, who is currently making a film of Silence, in which he describes his love for the novel which has persisted over twenty years.

Silence is a fine novel; simply written and at times elegant and I have very little to say in criticism. I also have to give considerably credit for the misdirection that persisted throughout and had me fooled until the very end.

If it has a fault it is that it is not a very universal story, which should not be surprising given its overtly theological themes. The interpretation of all art is very subjective but enjoying novels like this is more subjective than most. The issues it addresses such as theodicy, the problem of Judas, the difficulties of reconciling faith with scepticism and belief in the supernatural with reality; are issues that only exist if you have faith. For the rest of us, while we can admire the novel for what it is, empathise with personal crises and abhor religious persecution; that is about as far as it goes. Or, alternatively, compare it to the novels of Yann Martel. Martel’s novels tackle their theological themes indirectly and subversively, making for a more inclusive experience. Once I finished the novel and read Scorsese’s introduction I was reminded of a quote from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is a beautiful garden. Whether you find it as beautiful or powerful as the author intended may depend on a mutual belief in fairies.

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