Silence ( 沈黙 )

Written by Shusaku Endo
Translated from Japanese by William Johnston
Published in 1966
Length: 201 pages
Grade: A


Japanese Sensibility vs. the Hellenistic Christianity

This supreme novel about Christian faith in 17th century Japan won the prestigious Tanizaki prize when it was first published half a century ago. Perhaps, it is best to begin this book review with the first paragraph of the novel:

“News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of ‘the pit’ at Nagasaki had apostatized. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty-three years in Japan, had occupied the high position of provincial and had been a source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike.”

Shusaku Endo

Christovao Ferreira is an actual figure. His apostasy had actually occurred also, according to the historical facts. This novel traces the journey of Father Rodrigues, who enters Japan for missionary works. He is a Jesuit priest from Portugal and a seminary student of Ferreira. At the time, Japanese Christians are hiding in fear of persecution wrought by the government. His ostensible purpose includes finding out the truth about his teacher’s said apostasy. Ferreira was a person of indomitable faith. Is it really true that he gave up his faith of the lifetime?

“It is because of you that they must suffer.”

This novel is an amalgam of many forms, including an epistolary form, 1st and 3rd person narration, journal entry, and not to mention the introduction by the translator whose input clarifies the historical background in 17th century Japan. And these all together form the novel which works magic. It’s an intense mediation on the incorrigible mysteries of faith, the clash of East and West in relationship to the religion, and the frailty of human beings.

“There was not a breath of wind. Just as before, a fly kept buzzing around the priest’s face. In the world outside there was no change. A man had died; but there was no change.”

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but to compare this book to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In both of these fictional yet historical novel, Christian missionaries (a form of colonization behind a benign mask) enter a new continent to effect a change. The difference? In Achebe’s novel, the indigenous African villages are conquered. In Endo’s novel, Christians, the outsiders, are conquered. However, Endo’s novel scrutinizes deeply into the nature of faith, and whether it can be universal despite the difference in culture systems. “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed. As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and no bud appears.”

“Did even Nero of Rome devise such a cruel method of death?”

The novel as deeply psychological as this one is difficult to summarize. In summary, the heart of the story, the true allegory, will be disfigured. Japan once had over 300,000 Christians when its total population was only 2 million. After the Shimabara Rebellion, the feudal lords decided to cleanse their nation of all the Christians and Missionaries from foreign lands. However, persecutors realized that in order to truly get rid of every remnant of Christianity, they needed the Christians to apostatize. Many Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries died as martyrs, but some gave up the faith. Father Rodrigues sees the hardships and tortures to which Japanese Christians are subjected incessantly. His experiences in japan force him to speculate on his faith. Is it merely a self-deception? A panacea for ignorant, poor folks with a promise of heaven? Or is everything under the control of God and we just have to believe?

“From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper, Supposing God does not exist…”

Of course, Father Rodrigues is captured. (quite early in the novel too.) And his humane yet intense mediation on what faith means to our humanity drives this novel forward. The apt metaphors and characterization throughout the novel also make this one a great read. Reading this novel will also stimulate readers to think what it means to spread the word of a specific god in the world with numerous diverse cultures in this age of globalization. Isn’t missionary work also a form of colonization? One can’t help but think so after reading this novel. Who were the bad guys in this novel? Were Japanese persecutors and torturers bad guys? Or were they merely try to safeguard their culture from outside influence which they deem as intrusion?

Surprisingly, this novel is currently being adapted into a movie by American director named Martin Scorsese with Andrew Garfield as a main character. Article Here.

Memorable Quotes:

= Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God.

= But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surged on uncannily—in silence.

= If it is not blasphemous to say so, I have the feeling that Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ.

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.