Tuesday, August 11, 2009


If you plan on reading the novel, please skip this post. Otherwise, bear with me as I try to convey my feelings upon the electronic page …

I finished reading Silence, by Shusako Endo, over the weekend, and have mixed feelings. This is, astonishingly enough, the third book I’ve read in three years on Christian martyrdom, the other two being Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. This just happened by chance; normally, I don’t seek these types of book out. Why? Because in a small way they scare me. I can’t but help put myself in the protagonist’s place, and wonder: would I deny Christ to spare my life, or even to spare myself physical pain?

Just like the other two books, this one was equally unsettling. A couple of preliminary notes came immediately to mind as I read it. First, it is very well written. William Johnston, who did the translation from Japanese, did an extremely admirable job; the book was a legitimate page-turner in every sense of the word. Second, Endo knows intimately his subjects: Japanese medieval culture, the missionary Catholic church of the sixteenth century, and everything that comes crashing out from their intersection, particularly, the subject of martyrdom. I will conclude this post with the third note, one I discovered online as soon I finished the book.

Why did I find this novel unsettling?

The novel begins in epistolary form (which normally doesn’t entice me as a reader, but it works well in this instance), then turns to third-person narration focusing on the young Portuguese priest-missionary, Sebastian Rodriguez. It’s set in the early 17th century, in a hostile Japanese countryside where the new, centralized government has just expelled all foreign missionaries and declared Christianity illegal. Believers as well as those accused to be believers are tortured and killed to eradicate all traces of the fruit of the labors of St. Francis Xavier. Sebastian and two fellow seminarians decide to enter this dangerous land, ostensibly to continue the Church’s work despite the fact that since the Church no longer sends missionaries to Japan they must get extraordinary permission. But there are other somewhat selfish reasons. There are hints that Sebastian may, subconsciously at first but perhaps not so later, be seeking martyrdom out of pride and a desire for glory. And each of the three wants to find out news about their mentor, Father Ferreira, rumor of whom states that he has apostatized under pain of torture.

The first half of the novel, the four or five lengthy letters of Sebastian to his superiors, detail the ordeal of ministering to a people fearful for their lives yet hungry for Christ. Hidden by day, administering sacraments by stealth in the dark, the priests live an odd sort of existence, one in which they never know when that knock will come on the door and they will be arrested and put to torture. Which of the countless Japanese faces are friends, and which are informers? The gruel they must eat, the problems with the language, the lice that crawl over their bodies making sleep impossible, the barbarity of feudal Japan, and their own fears and temptations are part of their daily, indeed, hourly fight.

The second half of Silence details the capture and interrogation of Rodriguez. Peasants are put to death to erode his firmness of belief. After lengthy cat-and-mouse philosophical debate with an intimidating samurai ruler, Sebastian comes face-to-face with Ferreira, who has indeed apostatized, and a more subtle, nefarious mental torture ensues. Finally, worn down and doubtful, faced with Christians suffering in “the pit” solely because of him, Rodriguez apostatizes, rationalizing it thus: Martyrdom is normally considered the act of surrendering your physical body (earthly life) to the ideal of Christ. Christ has love for all men. Therefore, would it not be a greater martyrdom to surrender one’s immortal soul through apostasy if it would save the lives of the innocent?

I don’t know how to respond to this line of thought. Something deep down tells me it is wrong, some form of heresy that must be refuted. But I don’t know how. I do know that such a line of thinking naturally grows from the main theme of the novel: Silence. The silence of God in the face of such terrible, brutal suffering. Why is God silent? Specifically, Endo through Sebastian wonders why He is silent when the innocent are put to hideous torture. It is likened to the great silence of the ocean, in which several Japanese Christians lose their lives throughout the novel in various demonically-inspired ways.

My final note on the book is my discovery that it is in the process of being made into a movie. Martin Scorsese is set to direct, so right off I am hesitant of how this work will be interpreted for the masses. Scorsese has a somewhat poor track record in this regard; see here. Benicio “Che” del Toro is set to star (I assume) as Sebastian Rodriguez, so our valiant if flawed protagonist priest is going to look like a stoned-out hippie. However, Daniel Day-Lewis is also signed to appear, and if he’s cast as Ferreira that may redeem the movie in my mind. We’ll see.

Anyway, the book really troubled me. I borrowed it from one of the local libraries, so I made the decision to re-read it if and when I find it laying on the obscure, dusty shelves of some obscure and dusty used book store.

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