Book Review: Silence
Author: Shusaku Endo
Date: 1969 (Japan), 1980 (U.S.)
Publisher: Taplinger (1980)
Length: 201 pages
Quote: “They bind you in such a way that you can move neither hands nor feet; and then they hang you upside down in a pit.”
During the twentieth century Shusaku Endo was considered Japan’s leading novelist. critics say that his books, though “mainstream” rather than denominational, were “controversial...deeply psychological,” depicting “the anguish of faith and the mercy of God.” In the novel Chinmoku, which translates as Silence, he opened an historical bucket of worms many Buddhists and Christian-phobics would have preferred to keep covered up: the persecution of Christians by nominal Buddhists in Renaissance-era Japan.
During the sixteenth century, Portugal briefly competed with Spain in the rush to colonize South America. Then they backed off...partly because Spain was more aggressive and partly because the Portuguese had made successful contact with Japan. A “civilized," though alien, nation that was eager to trade exotic goods was more interesting to some than the junglas of Brazil. To facilitate business, Portugal even sent a few missionary priests to Japan. At first this mission seemed successful; about 150,000 Japanese converts were reported in 29 years. By 1614, however, the ruling shogun became completely convinced that the goal of the “Kirishitan band” was to “overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land.” (This was probably true; while missionaries themselves were sincerely interested in preaching what they call “true doctrine,” they have usually been sponsored by businesses and governments with different priorities.) After twenty years of simple persecution failed to stamp out Christianity in Japan, the ruling class resolved to end the conversions by devising tortures that would force the Portuguese missionaries themselves to denounce Christianity.
In the historical preface to this edition of Silence, translator William Johnston explains that, in historical fact, a priest called Cristovao Ferreira did apostatize while hung upside down in a cesspit. Not much documentation about the rest of his life has survived; his role in Silence is based on one of two somewhat disparate stories. Sebastian Rodrigues, the protagonist of Silence, is a fictional character. Endo based the facts of Rodrigues’ story on the history of a real missionary called Giuseppe Chiara. Chiara officially apostatized under torture, then lived another forty years in Japan, and finally stated before his death that he was still a Christian. In the fictional letters of the fictional Rodrigues, Endo explores what Chiara might have thought he meant by this.
Needless to say, this novel is the sort of serious, intense story older reviewers called “harrowing.” Rodrigues was born in a poor country; he took vows of poverty and celibacy; he travelled halfway around the world on a wooden sailing ship to preach his religion to people who were willing to accept it partly because they were poorer than he. His audience are not the silk-draped aristocrats we can see in paintings, nor the military elite idealized in martial arts clsses. They are ignorant, overtaxed, oppressed, despised dirt farmers. “The Buddhist bonzes treat them like cattle,” Rodrigues fumes, noting by now that the seams of his clothing, too, are “white with lice” after a few days preaching to the crowds who packed into the bare huts of his hosts. To these people the Portuguese had offered a “college,” probably to be understood more as a colegio than as a college within a university system, but still the only place where they could learn to read. As an undercover priest Rodrigues has little to give his flock beyond a modicum of self-respect, a suggestion that some sort of Higher Power might be at all interested in their squalid lives. He gives them this, and feels very humanitarian. And then the torture begins.
Rodrigues, like Chiara, hardly wins the traditional martyr’s crown. By telling Rodrigues’ story in terms like those attributed by eyewitnesses to Chiara, Endo implies some acceptance of Chiara’s position. Rodrigues is a tragic antihero, and yet in Christian terms there remains some hope of spiritual redemption for him. In the end Silence can be read as an affirmation of Christian faith. It does not, however, become a fun read.
Who should read Silence? Ideally, Americans who have been cherishing a delusion that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christians were the persecutors rather than the persecuted. Endo graphically presents the historical proof that Buddhist spirituality doesn’t cure the urge to dominate or manipulate others any more reliably than Christianity, or Humanism, or the latest version of “faith in my own lack of faith” that’s going around.
More likely, however, Silence will appeal to readers who want others to know how tough-minded, and/or how multicultural, they are. And to those who get some sense of emotional relief from meditating on the idea that others are a great deal worse off than themselves. Almost everybody in this novel is a great deal worse off than almost any modern English-speaking, or Japanese, reader. At least, anyone not currently dependent on an artificial “respirator” for breath can be considered better off than Rodrigues is at the pivotal point of the novel.
Also, perhaps, those who question just what Christianity can mean in Japan even today. For me, Silence is a book-length discussion of a part of history I might prefer to limit to a paragraph. But it needed to be written; a Japanese man born in 1923 needed to have written it. I salute the courage it took for Endo to write this book, and for his Japanese audience to make it a multilingual success. Read this book if you want to see what a Japanese Christian process of self-examination and penitence looks like.
In 1969 most of the literary world was still trying to sell the world the idea that the Japanese could be nice, quiet, hardworking people who loved their children, and Endo and his audience were admitting, “No—actually—some of us, sometimes, have been as evil as the English-speaking world wanted to think we were in 1942.” Whatever our ethnic background may be, in order to be nice, quiet, hardworking lovers of children we need to acknowledge and reject our potential for evil.
Shusaku Endo no longer needs the $1 that would be his fair share of the $5 plus $5 shipping for which I can offer this book. Online readers can get a better deal on Amazon. I'm posting about this book here because I've posted reviews for a lot of cheerful and funny books this summer, and although I don't like books that wallow in nastiness I do handle books that aren't cheerful or funny.