Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

The first novel by Shusaku Endo I read was “Scandal”, which he wrote late in his career.  It’s set in Tokyo, and is a surreal story of an aging writer discovering the underworld of extreme sex and at the same time the darker, hidden side of his own psyche.  It was quite a radical introduction to one who is usually identified with the Christian aspects of his novels.  Afterwards, while searching a library here in Thessaloniki for “Silence”, which they didn’t have, I came across “Deep River”, a novel about a group of Japanese tourists on a tour to Varanasi, the sacred city beside the Ganges in India.  I greatly enjoyed this one; Endo explores the backgrounds of each of the characters so that when they are brought together in Varanasi their reactions and interplay and destinies are inevitable.

But the story I had most wanted to read was “Silence”.  Many consider it to be his masterpiece.  Martin Scorcese has for years been planning to film an adaptation of the novel; rumor has it he has signed Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro, which would make it a major project indeed.  Finally during my last visit to the States I bought a used copy at Strand Bookstore in New York and decided to give it a try.

It starts slowly, if truth be told.  Endo is not an action writer; he carries on his tales at an even, thoughtful, well-crafted pace, with poetic description so that the reader is immersed in the landscapes and the experience.

It’s set in the 1600s, and is based upon real events and people.  The main character is a priest named Sebastian Rodrigues, usually referred to simply as “the priest”.  Hearing that a former mentor of his who is now a missionary in Japan has apostatized, that is, renounced his faith under torture, he is unable to believe it.  With two other companions he determines to journey to Japan to find out the truth.  After a voyage of many months, with stopovers in Goa, India, and Macau, China, two of the priests (one succumbs to illness and is left behind in Macau) arrive in Japan and are smuggled into the country, where they find small villages of Christians being hunted down and executed for their faith.  As Rodrigues sees these simple souls being tortured and killed he wonders at the silence of God through it all, and why God does not intervene more directly.  Finally he is himself captured.  He is not tortured, but he is unable to bear the pitiful cries of Japanese peasants being tortured in his stead, and apostatizes to save them.  As a symbol of his apostasy he is asked to step, or “trample” on an image of Christ, and as he, in tears, hesitates, he finally hears the voice of God, telling him to go ahead and trample, that it was to share humanity’s pain that he endured the cross.

Shusaku Endo was raised a Catholic in Buddhist Japan, and many of his works reflect the experience of being one of a minority, an outsider, an outcast.  In his prose he explores the contrast between East and West, and the difficulty, even near-impossibility, of the two cultures existing harmoniously.  Both as a Christian in Japan and as a Japanese in Europe he was despised, bullied, rejected, alienated, misunderstood.  His works show a deep appreciation of the underdogs, the persecuted, the castoffs.

Though I do not wish to delve much into the theology of the situation, a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read must be mentioned.  First of all, as one Japanese magistrate in the novel pointed out, the various Christian denominations that arrived in early Japan to set up missions were like a bunch of squabbling concubines each vying for the attention of their master.  Though the Christian religion professes love and unity, each of the four
countries claimed a different, and better, brand of Christianity, and ridiculed  and tried to turn their hosts against the others.  What were the Japanese to think of such a situation?
As for the priest and his Catholic religion, it was imported as-is; the Japanese were expected to conform to the customs and rituals from the West without any concession at all to the uniqueness of their own culture and traditions.  These factors of warring
denominations and all-or-nothing demands to absorb starkly alien ways made it much more difficult for the proud Japanese to accept or at least tolerate the strange foreign religious presence.  If the Christians had been more flexible, more malleable, and especially motivated not so much by politics and trade and self-righteous pomposity but by a sincere desire to offer the illumination of Christianity to Japan in a spirit of unity,
they might have done much better and avoided the persecution and expulsion of

Be that as it may, in the end Endo’s goal is not to criticize the missionary effort but to present a Jesus whose love encompasses the beggars, the lepers, the criminals, the outcasts, and yes, even the apostates.

Regardless of the Christian theme, which may appeal to some and be unappealing to others, this novel is a worthwhile read for the excellence of the writing, for its depiction of the juxtaposition and clash of cultures, and for the intense and brilliant portrayal of its characters.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

  1. A great review of a great book. You really hit the nail on the head in describing how the novel springs from Endo’s experience of being an outcast in two very different worlds. I have a feeling that the Japanese magistrate gives voice to many of Endo’s own observations and complaints about the way Christianity infiltrated Japan.

    • John Walters says:

      Thanks for the comment. It’s a deeply touching book, and Endo deserves to be much more widely read. As far as the magistrate’s comment is concerned, yes I think that Endo himself was conflicted about many of these issues, seeing things from both perspectives, and uses his characters to articulate his own inner turmoil.

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