Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Cover of "Silence"
Cover of Silence

When I was in college, a friend invited me to her apartment for tea.  I had always admired her faith, and we naturally began to talk about that topic.  At one point, she mentioned that she was at a point in her faith in which she was unafraid to be martyred for her beliefs; but she wasn’t so far that she would allow a loved one to die in her place.

At the time, I didn’t really understand what she meant.  And how likely would an incident like that occur anyway, in which someone else would die in her place?

This precise situation, however, is a vital part of Shusaku Endo‘s 1966 novel, Silence.  Although not related to anime, I felt it appropriate to review this book on my blog, as it is an enduring classic of Japanese literature and is about Christianity.  The story revolves around Sebastião Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who is sent to Japan to encourage the hidden Christians there and to find more information about his mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, who has apostatized.  Rodrigues and Ferreira are based on real historical figures, and the book revolves around their decisions regarding apostasy. 

In real life, Ferreira’s apostasy was a major event in the decline of the Christian faith in Japan.  By the early 1600s, the Japanese government had outlawed Christianity, torturing and killing those of the faith.  The story occurs in 1638, shortly after the Shimabara Rebellion, led by Christian rebels, which resulted in the tighter enforcement of anti-Christian laws and further seclusion of the country.

The novel begins with Rodrigues and his companion, Francisco Garrpe, accepting their mission and preparing to sail to Japan.  In preparations, they encounter Kichijiro, who becomes a Judas-like figure for Rodrigues.  Though their early days are met with some success, even in hiding from the authorities, events soon become disturbing, as the government takes the lives of its own people to burn out the hidden missionaries.

Throughout the trials of hiding, running, and ultimately, imprisonment, Rodrigues battles with his faith.  From the early going, we see that Rodrigues isn’t a perfect Christian (who is?).  His struggles mirror our own, as he is quick to judge and quick to doubt.  As the story barrels on toward difficult circumstances, Rodrigues questions God more and more – not so much His existence as much His lack of answer to the prayers of the faithful.  Thus, the novel of the story takes center stage and throughout, even with the presence of the leader of the witchhunt, there is one enemy above all:  God.

Rodrigues wonders why God is silent in all the troubles.  His cries become our own as the innocent are killed in horrific manners. 

This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions.  And like the sea, God was silent.  His silence continued. 

Endo doesn’t give us many details about the tortures – he uses a description of scars here and there; almost-pristine imagery of the environment surrounding execution; description of senses; and psychological battles to demonstrate the immense cruelty that accompanies martyrdom. 

However, translator William Johnston has already educated us on the vile means in which the government tortured Christians, and so we understand the weight of it all.  This adds to the unexpected intensity of the novel.  There were multiple scenes which, when I read them, caused my heart to beat loudly in my ears and a nervousness to surround me.  I’ve never read a historical novel in which I felt this way so often.  Johnny Tremain, this is not.  Endo develops this mood particularly through describing the oft-pastoral settings of the novel, which work as a stark contrast to the death of individuals, which he always treats as a real experience, rather than as another number.

I don’t know much of the discussion surrounding the novel, but I imagine it’s conclusion has led to much debate.  Some Christians may not like the message conveyed through it, while others will.  Endo, a Christian himself, wrote the story partially as a response to religious discrimination he endured, but it was not well received by the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) it described.  No matter how one feels about the breaking of silence in the book, I believe its importance lies in the question of God’s silence in difficult situations.  Christians know the bookish answer to this problematic idea, but Silence presents faces and people and will challenge the faithful to reexamine their beliefs.

Non-Christians will gets just as much out of the book.  Besides admiration for Endo’s beautiful writing, most of us can relate to feelings of compassion and inadequacy which fill Rodrigues’ mind.  I also think the story will convey to all what many persecuted individuals feel even today in countries where their faith is outlawed.

Endo’s masterpiece doesn’t need my kudos in addition to the cascade of awards and acclaim it has received.  It’s a much-honored book, and for good reason.  For any lover of literature, history, or Japan, Christian and non-Christian alike, Silence is a significant and wonderful piece.  But be prepared – when you read Silence, your thoughts and emotions will be anything but.


10 thoughts on “Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

  1. It’s been probably twenty years since I read the book, but I’m not sure that non-Christians will get as much out of the book as you seem to think. For me, the priest’s long refusal to comply with the authorities — freeing other innocents from torture — was hard to understand, perhaps even idolatrous.

    It seems to me that his Christ would have known what was in his heart, no matter what he was doing to a portrait.

    Had it been a question of the priest’s own martyrdom, I could understand, but he was making other people into martyrs (willing or no, he did not know).

    1. Perhaps you’re right. However, until the end of the novel, the martyrs all willingly died for their faith. The father’s struggle was within and less focused on guilt up until the final moments of captivity, when he was told Japanese who were being tortured had apostatized, but were still be hurt because of the priest. In addition, perhaps readers from today will find the government side more to blame, as they tortured their own people, evoking images of Iraq, North Korea and other dictatorships.

      The father was a trigger that led to persecution – but with the two particular sets of martyrdom in the book, the prisoners made their own choices. That said, the father is no typical hero. Like the anti-heroes of today, he is deeply flawed, and we see ourselves in him. He is not the model of Christianity, and I think that most critical readers will see this in the text.

      The question of keeping faith when others are tortured, however, is a key one the book expresses. Is it right? Did the father make the right decision? Did Ferreira? And what of their lives after each has made a decision – what that does that show? As you say, Christ would know…but would he approve? It’s not an easy yes or no question, and is one that will surely weigh on Christian readers who think deeply on this difficult situation.

      Thanks for the comments and for the food for thought!

      1. I haven’t read Silence, but I desperately want to, and need to remember to get it from the library. =) Not having read the book I can’t say about what right or wrong decision the priest may have made, but I can say that there are a few reasons from a Roman Catholic perspective that he would refuse to destroy or desecrate a picture or statue of Christ (or something else like a rosary that would be considered a sacramental):

        1) Christ is the Truth, and we are to be truthful. That doesn’t mean that everyone is entitled to know every truth, but that we should not lie, and you can avoid telling someone something without lying.

        2) Our outward actions reflect our inward dispositions. Humans are both body *and* soul. They are tied together; distinct but not separate. If a Christian denies Christ with his words, or with his body slashes a picture, mutilates a statue or a church or (Lord prevent it) the Holy Eucharist, but still believes in Him, he is not only lying to others (and in the case of the Eucharist committing a terrible sacrilege) but to himself, and he is lying with his body. The more he lies, the more that lie becomes a part of him and detrimentally affects his spiritual life. It may come to make him less faithful, and he may even come to stop believing in God. You could get to the point where you say, it’s ok to not live like a Christian. I notice in my own life that the less reverent I am in prayer, the less am I inclined to prayer and I concentrate less on it and on God. The exterior life affects the interior just as the interior the exterior. Thus we cannot just say, “I believe in Christ and I’m saved!” and continue sinning without making a constant effort to change.

        3) A Christian ostensibly believes that God is the most important person there is, even more important than family, friends, and other people. If they love and trust him, and believe that He is most important, denying him would be horrible and a great injury to God, as it would be an injury to any friend we have (though a much bigger one).

        This last point also connects with letting other people die in your place. Again, not having read the book I can’t say about this priest’s situation but I can say this: if God is the most important, then you should not deny Him to save yourself or anyone else. If you deny Him then you are denying He Who helps you to love your loved ones in the first place, denying all that you stand for. If you’re willing to deny it so people don’t die, do you really believe it, do you really love God? If your loved ones love God too, they should understand this, and shouldn’t ask you to lie just to save them. Also, not everyone is called to be a martyr. If this someone believes that God is calling him to be a martyr, then so be it (though one shouldn’t seek martyrdom by going out to say: HEY I’M A CHRISTIAN, KILL ME, PLEASE!). But if he believes that God has something different in mind for him that requires him to live especially during a time of persecution, then he should live and act accordingly.

        None of this is to say that people who lie to save themselves or others are evil or bad, or that God doesn’t love them and forgive them. It’s just to say that just because life is hard doesn’t mean you should do something bad to achieve a good end.

        Sorry that was so long! I need to work on concision >.<

        1. No need to be concise here – thank you for the long explanation! It definitely helps my understanding of the novel a bit more. Still, the novel remains a very haunting read for me and brings back frightening feelings, honestly, when I think about it. And as such, I find it to be one of the more important books I’ve ever read.

  2. And one more caveat: I’ve never been in the position of having my loved ones threatened, so I cannot say for sure that I *wouldn’t* lie or do something else like that, but I’d pray for the grace and courage not to. So I know it’s easy for me to say, and I know it would be absolutely horrible to be in that position; thus I’m not judging the hearts of the people who are.

    1. I feel the same. The book allowed me to think a bit more about my strength, though – and I’m sure for others it made them question the decision itself, though I tend to agree with you about staying true to God no matter the circumstance, if at all possible (and only then through Christ’s strength in me).

  3. Now in my late 60s I consider silence one of the most influential books I have read. I am an on the ground theologian serving the poor here in Canada that live on the Street the absolute homeless the destitute those that suffer from addictions and mental health. Silence help me sort of God in all of that.

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