Friday, 4 November 2016

Book Review: Silence by Endō Shūsaku

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Like it or not, in our modern western world we are surrounded by people from many different cultures and almost imperceptibly society changes or rather it adapts to its new composition. Many would gladly stop this cultural globalisation and build insurmountable barriers to keep immigrants out following the successful example of seventeenth-century Japan. Only decades after Western ships first reached the country, Japan closed her borders, drove most foreigners out to smother their influence (and interference) and forbade everything Western including Christian faith. Set against the backdrop of the persecution of Christians in Japan during the seventeenth century, Silence by Endō Shūsaku – that I’m reviewing for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X – shows a Portuguese missionary who is captured and forced to witness the cruel martyr death of his fellows in faith in order to make him apostatise. And along the way he realises that his God is different from theirs because their cultural background is another than his.

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作) was born in Tōkyo, Japan, in March 1923. The year after his parents’ divorce in 1933, his mother and he converted to Roman Catholicism. Thanks to his poor health, he was spared fighting as a soldier in World War II and in the late 1940s/early 1950s he studied French literature at renowned Keiō University in Tōkyo, Japan, and Catholic fiction at the University of Lyon, France. Soon after his graduation, in 1955, he brought out his first novellas White Man/Yellow Man (白い人 / 黄色い人) in 1955. A great number of novels followed, most notable among them The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬: 1958), Wonderful Fool (おバカさん: 1959), Stained Glass Elegies (十一の色硝子: 1959), Volcano (火山: 1960), The Girl I Left Behind (わたしが・棄てた・女: 1963), Foreign Studies (留学: 1965), Silence (沈黙: 1966),  死海のほとり (Banks of the Dead Sea: 1973), A Life of Jesus (イエスの生涯: 1973), When I Whistle (口笛をふく時: 1974), The Final Martyrs (最後の殉教者: 1974), The Samurai (: 1980), Kiku’s Prayer (女の一生 キクの場合: 1982), Scandal (スキャンダル: 1986), and Deep River (深い河: 1993). Following a brain hemorrhage Endō Shūsaku died in Tōkyo, Japan, in September 1996.

The beginning of Silence is in May 1639 when the Portuguese missionaries Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe furtively set foot on Japanese soil to find out if their much revered Jesuit teacher Christovao Ferreira indeed apostatised as reported or if not as they believe. They know that their religion is now forbidden in Japan and that Christians, notably priests like them, are subject to cruel punishment if they are discovered. With them is a Japanese called Kichijiro. They think that he may be Christian, but they can’t be sure and they don’t really trust him. He takes them to the fishing village Tomogi not too far from Nagasaki. Having practiced their Catholic faith all on their own and in secret for six years, the villagers are happy to see two priests. However, they are afraid that the gentiles might hear about them and hide Rodrigues and Garrpe in an isolated charcoal hut on the mountain. There the missionaries pass several months.
“… At dead of night we offer Mass, just as they did in the catacombs; and then when morning comes we climb the mountain again and wait in hiding for any of the Christians who may want to visit us. Every day two of them bring to us our ration of food. We hear confessions, give instruction, teach them how to pray. During the day we keep the door of our tiny hut tightly closed and we refrain from making the slightest noise lest anyone passing outside may hear it. …”
Of course, their presence doesn’t remain unnoticed and an informer tells the gentiles about the two foreign missionaries. This is when the raids of the villages and the examinations, the tortures, and the executions of the Christians begin. Many apostatise trampling on the fumie – the holy icon – as ordered, among them Kichijiro. Rodrigues and Garrpe leave to make their way to Nagasaki and Father Ferreira at last. To improve their chances they separate, but Rodrigues is soon captured because Kichijiro betrays him. From then on the priest is imprisoned, questioned and made witness of the cruel torture that the Christians suffer at orders of Magistrate Inoue, the Governor of Chikugo, and all the while Kichijiro seeks his proximity. Rodrigues feels increasingly grieved by the unrelenting silence of the Lord and begins to waver in his faith. Just then the guards take him to meet Ferreira in a Buddhist monastery…

The plot of Silence (that is preceded by an introductory prologue) begins with letters that Rodrigues sends to his superiors in Portugal. However, as soon as he is captured and thus prevented from writing further reports, the narrative perspective immediately shifts from first to third person. By this means, the author succeeds in giving his historical novel the appearance of an authentic chronicle of events, an impression that is still increased by the fact that from beginning to end he skilfully merges known historical facts with fiction. Not only the cruel methods of torture and execution described at different stages of the story are historically true, also some of the characters are real historical figures. Magistrate Inoue and the Jesuit missionary Christovao Ferreira, for instance, existed in fact under these names and played a major role in the tragic history of Christianity in Japan. Rodrigues, on the other hand, is only loosely drawn after the model of a real missionary who entered Japan in 1643. Despite all, the psychological depth of this character is amazing, notably as regards the inner struggle for his faith in view of Christian suffering, the silence of God and the unexpected revelation that cultural tradition transforms, even distorts religious doctrine.

Silence by Endō Shūsaku is a historical novel that convinces with its well-thought-out plot, deep psychology and unpretentious language. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Moreover, it has been an agreeable change for me to read a book that allowed me to see Catholic faith from a genuinely Japanese instead of the (usual) European point of view. Its historical setting, however, wasn’t entirely new to me because as a teenager I read Shōgun by James Clavell that is set in more or less the same period of Japanese history and that includes a character who is a secret Christian. Both novels are excellent in their own way, but I particularly recommend Silence by Endō Shūsaku.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. I read this book several years ago, and it really impacted me. Great review.

    1. I agree that Silence is a very impressive novel, also because it touches many questions that many Christians in the western world ask themselves today - nearly four hundreds years after the historical period in which the book is set.

      Thanks for your comment... and for the praise of my review! Glad to know that you liked it.

  2. I like the sound of this. I also read Shogun, though it was many many years ago. Since Silence was published in 1966, I will add it to my reading list of books published then. You are a great resource for me because you don't just read the latest stuff!

    1. In fact, Silence is an extraordinary novel in many ways and except the setting it has hardly anything in common with Clavell's Shōgun. It's all that I like about a novel: intelligent, thought-provoking, instructive.

      Thanks for another comment!


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