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Shusako Endo: Silence

© 1969
– Mar. 19, 2023
Posted to the Adversaria Jan 5, 2022

For a review of Scorcese's film, see here.


A review — a brief critical review — of Shusaku Endo's Silence (1966). A review perhaps coming close to having spoilers, as it were, but really nothing here is not presented by the time the action is fully underway. Indeed, it is all present in the quips on the back of the book if you look hard enough. It might be worth saying that Endo is compared to Graham Greene, and people knowing that might have expectations. I know nothing of Greene; he has never breached my interest; so, I cannot speak to any comparison except to that _Silence_ is a book about Roman Catholicism, though it is also about Christianity in general, and, it can be argued, religion across the board.

The story is that of a Portuguese priest, Father Rodrigues, who (in 1637), accompanied by two other priests (who are really minor characters), decides to be smuggled into a historically acurate Japan that has outlawed Christianity, and that has brutally eliminated all surface evidence of it, and pushed what remains of the religion underground. Their purpose is to find out what happened to their once teacher, Father Ferreira, who is said to have apostatized, to have wholly renounced Catholicism — something the three cannot believe.

Only two complete the sea journey and make it on land in Japan, there to find themselves taken in by a small village of peasants who are themselves Catholic and happy to once again have a priest in their number. But their time there is short, and the inevitable happens — inevitable not only that the plot must progress but also because their mission is from the start a fool's errand — and their presence is discovered and, after the two priests decide to split up, Rodrigues is captured. Which leads, ultimately, as one of the quips on the back cover says, to "the Calvary of Father Rodruigues."

(To note, the whole of that quip, from the Jesuit magazine America, makes me question if the reviewer fully understood the book.)

There are three themes put forward by Endo. The first, perhaps the simplest, is the titular silence of God in the face of suffering. Not merely as regards the torture or execution of the Christians, but also in the lives of the peasants, who live in squalor, under oppressive taxes, barely able to eek out enough food from their farms to escape starvation. That silence has two faces for Rodrigues: the first, what if God is silent because there is no God? But, even worse, what if there is a God and he is yet intentionally silent in the face of intense suffering? That latter is, for Rodrigues, the more damning, that which most pushes forward the questions plaguing his mind.

Second, there is the theme presented in the introduction of the book, written by the translator (William Johnston, 1969), that of the "swamp of Japan," the idea, explicitly put forward in the book, that Catholicism cannot survive in Japan because Japan is like a "swamp" in that matter: there is no possibility of root taking hold, no possibility of the tree of Catholicism finding nurishment. Inevitably, the tree will of its own die. This is the theme that made of _Silence_ such a controversial book on its publication in Japan, as it called into question the beliefs and faith of the Catholic populace in Japan at the time. Endo himself was raised a Catholic, though, according to the introduction, he himself questioned if he really could be said to be a true Catholic. And the book questions if it is possible for any Japanese person to be a true Catholic. That theme, Johnston points out, can be extended: is it possible at all for a religion to be translated from its native ground to a different culture without it undergoing significant modification. (In Silence, for example, it is pointed out how Catholics tend to modify "God" into a kind of sun-God, similar to a deity previously present in the land.)

One of the central images of the book is that of a butterfly in a spider's web. It may look like a butterfly, says one of Rodrigues's captors, but it is dead and empty on the inside. And that is the nature of Catholicism in Japan: the people may follow the external customs and rules, but within it is not a butterfly at all.

Which leads to the third theme of the book, one presented almost from the start and which for a long while I thought one that Endo did not realize he was presenting — that is, until it is made explicit at the end. That is: the arrogance of the Catholic church, the arrogance of its rites and dogma, the arrogance of its priests, and, especially, the arrogance of its missionaries. It is seen in Rodrigues's sense of self-importance; in how he speaks of the world around him, of how he perceives of his role within Catholicism, especially among the Japanese Catholics. Every time he speaks the word _infidel_ he speaks that arrogance. Every time he speaks of "glorious martyrdom" he speaks that arrogance. It is that arrogance that turns the captor's analogy of a butterfly in a spider's web back upon itself, creating the question of is Rodrigues's own Catholicism an empty shell? Ultimately, it is that arrogance that Rodruigues must confront on his "Calvary." It is a biting critique of the religion — indeed, of all religions. There is only the question of if it was intional, or if Endo was accidentally revealing an unspoken secret. In the end, in the voice of one of the captors, it is laid bare.

What is the result of that final confrontation? I will leave that to the reader.

A word about the book itself. It ic considered Endo's masterpiece, and if you believe the quips on the back it is high literature. I am not so sure. There are strange shifts in person (jumping from third to first and back again), there are places where terminology gets confused (as with considering astrology and astronomy interchangeable). There are moments of odd syntax and grammar. The language itself I did not find terribly elegant, though the book may be intentionally undecorated. Of course, all of that could also be an issue of translation. I would not recommend the book as literature; though, I highly recommend it as a book of ideas. The arguments it puts forth, particularly that final theme, which to me is the dominant theme, are well developed both in exposition and in narrative, and the climax of the book is indeed a climax.

As for the film, I shied away from it because reviews rather concentrated on it being a depiction of a world of brutal torture and supression, which generally turns me off a film. (I remind you of my review of _Twelve Years a Slave_, which saw the film as nothing more than torture porn.) That element is not as prevelent in the novel as the discussion about the film led me to believe. Having read the book, I very much now want to buy the film to see what Scorsese did with it. I very much admire his Last Temptation of Christ (a book I also admire); though, I have only seen Kundun (the second in this religious trilogy) once, and remember little of it. Silence was on the shelves in the used I visit. If I am lucky it is still there.

In brief: if you are at all interested in the question of religion — and this book, though in context about Roman Catholicism, is a critique of every religion — read it.