Silence by Shusaku Endo is an unusual book compared to the other Japanese novels I’ve read. It’s an historical fiction novel, taking place in 1600s Japan, and it is about faith. It is about trusting in God, or not, when things get hard.
Yet, to some extent, Silence seems similar to the other Japanese novels I’ve read (Naomi, The Makioka Sisters, The Old Capital) because all occurs under the conflict of Japanese society versus western society; Silence happens to take place 300 years earlier, showing that such conflicts are long-rooted in Japan. Silence, although at its heart a Christian novel, is likewise a Japanese novel in the way it adopts the common struggle toward accepting western ideals that seems to recur in Japanese literature (at least, in the ones I’ve read: I suspect this is a common theme).
The main character in Silence is Father Rodrigues, a priest coming from Portugal to discover why the other fathers have disappeared from contact. Surely, those faithful men did not apostatize from the faith? At this point in the 1600s, Christianity has been made illegal, and anyone found practicing Catholicism is tortured, priests especially. Father Rodrigues is entering a place from which he will not emerge the same.
The novel’s writing felt uneven to me: it switched from first-person narration to third-person narration to “reports” by unknown officials. I didn’t like this writing style, I didn’t like the change in perspective, and it felt odd to constantly be searching for ground when I picked it up. I was not crazy about the novel for those reasons. The subject, however, made this a book I had to keep reading.
Although I am a Christian, I am not a Catholic. I don’t worship idols or images, nor do I consider such items sacred. The people’s specific faith and Father Rodrigues’ presence seemed very ritualistic and “western” to me. Father Rodrigues clearly had a strong faith in Christ. Yet, his relationship to the people seemed to be as a leader of ritualistic importance, from confession to providing rosaries and crosses. Despite the fact that the Catholic elements were not familiar to me, the need for missionary work in an area where it is not appreciated reminded me strongly of occurrences elsewhere in the world and in scripture.
The novel’s title, Silence, refers to the Father’s frustration with the heavens not stopping the atrocities happening to the faithful Christian people. He didn’t feel he’d received any understanding as to why these things were happening. Similar atrocities to people of faith have happened throughout history, from the early Christian missionaries to the Jews in the Holocaust.
One scriptural example from the Book of Mormon seemed to echo through my mind as I read Endo’s book. I share it simply because it gives me comfort to see that (1) God takes the righteous into his care; (2) God allows people to have agency, even when they choose poorly; and (3) God will hold people responsible for the ways they treat others, even if retribution is not evident here on earth.
Contextual note: After the missionaries Alma and Amulek taught the people in the community of Ammonihah, persecution arose and the missionaries were kept in jail while the righteous were tortured and killed. Amulek own family is probably among the wives and children.
8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
9 And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day. Alma 14:8-11
And so Silence also seems to me to echo the issues surrounding Milton’s Paradise Lost. People have agency to choose what they do, just as Eve and Adam did in the garden. The military leaders in Japan in the 1600s probably weren’t quite sure about Christianity; I don’t think those leaders fully comprehended the doctrine of the priests that they were torturing. Nevertheless, whether they did or didn’t, God knows: he will take all in to consideration and he will hold them responsible.
As for the novel: *spoiler* Personally, I don’t think Father Rodrigues truly apostatized, and maybe that is the point. He still believed. Putting one’s foot on an image, while breaking his faith to some extent, didn’t mean that he stopped believing in Christ. The last section of the novel, which was a series of “reports” from the era, seemed to suggest that Rodrigues was still secretly teaching of Christ. Christianity had to change tactics and go “underground.”
Silence is a Christian historical novel, and also a purely Japanese one. There is a definite conflict between East and West in it, and yet the main conflict is an internal one. It is a story of a man of faith coming to an understanding of the world and his place in it. Although his faith is tested in a violent situation, his story is one that I suspect resonates in Christians today, for who has not questioned the “why”s behind the relationships of God and man?