The Shout to the Void

Japanese writers have established quite the reputation in the the world of literature. From Lady Murasaki Shikibu to Haruki Murakami, they have a very long list of accolades and their works are among the most highly-regarded and acknowledged. Two of them – Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Ōe, three if you include Japan-born Kazuo Ishiguro – have taken home the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. To say that they are amongst the most accomplished group of writers in the world is an understatement.

In this prestigious rank of writers, Shūsaku Endō can be called a rarity. He belongs to a select group of writers who explored the history and impact of Roman Catholicism in Japan, a startling deviation for a country deeply rooted in the teachings of Buddha and Shintoism. Of his literary ensemble, 沈黙Chinmoku, published in 1966, stands tall, recognized internationally as one of the seminal works in the vast Pantheon of Japanese works. It was first translated into English in 1969, carrying the ubiquitous title of Silence. It has since then been adapted into films, one even directed by famed Hollywood director Martin Scorsese.

A historical novel, Silence is set in 17th century Japan and follows the story of young Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues. Rodrigues volunteered to travel to Japan to assist in the investigation of the sudden disappearance of mentor, Father Ferreira. Rumors abound that Father Ferreira, who Father Rodrigues looks up to, has committed the biggest act of treachery as defined in the Catholic rule book – apostasy or renunciation of the Church by trampling on the fumi-e, a carved image of Jesus.

“I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

~ Shūsaku Endō, Silence

Father Rodrigues and his companion, fellow Jesuit priest Francisco Garrpe, arrived in Japan in 1639 where they learned that the island’s Christian population were driven underground amidst increasing scrutiny by the Imperial government. Following the dispersal of Shimabara Rebellion in 1638, the Shogunate prohibited Christianity, imposing strict sanctions on its practice. Pushed to the corner, the underground Christians, or Kakure Christians, were also desperate for a leader who can rally them and Rodrigues, to them was the proverbial answer to their prayers. Reluctantly taking on the role, Rodrigues found himself the de facto leader of a group of oppressed Christians.

The winner of the second edition of the prestigious Tanizaki Prize, religious allusions and Christian teachings permeated all throughout the narrative. One of these essential Christian teachings woven into the tapestry of the novel is the definition of martyrdom, its limits and its rationale. When Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe were captured by the Shogunate, deep ruminations on the values of martyrdom ensued. They were taught by the Church that martyrs are rewarded with glory but, as the priests learned, reality is a different thing for martyrdom entails cruelty, and to some extremes, brutality.

Oppression is a reality that local Japanese contend with. The security forces of the Shogunate captured those who are suspected of privately practicing Catholicism. They are forced to recant on their faith by trampling on the fumi-e. Refusal to do so leads to incarceration and eventual persecution through ana-tsurishi, an torture style where the captive is hung upside down over a pit. A cut is made at the forehead, thus, making the captive slowly bleed to death.

Silence is a novel about faith. Apart from martyrdom, Endō vividly captured and extensively explored other facets of the Catholic life in the narrative. A staple and ubiquitous element in religious literature, Father Rodrigues has to grapple with several moral and spiritual crossroads. Martyrdom, for instance, is begging of the question, when is suffering enough to be considered a martyr. However, the biggest dilemma the characters has encountered is in their prayers going unanswered. How does one faithful react to the barrenness of response to a prayer repeatedly uttered?

“Grasping the wooden door with my hands I made as if to go out. Yes, I would go. Even if this was a trap, even if these men were the guards, it didn’t matter. ‘If they are Christians, what then?’ said a voice that beat wildly in the depths of my heart. I was a priest born to devote my life to the service of man. What a disgrace it would be to betray my vocation from cowardly fear.”

~ Shūsaku Endō, Silence

In the absence of a palpable or an audible answer, how does one hurdle an enormous moral and spiritual predicament? In the face of imminent danger and various pressures, how does one make a well-informed choice? How can one overcome the consequences of one’s choice? These are dilemmas that Father Rodrigues, and in turn, the story, had to grapple with. To answer the same, Father Rodrigues must appeal to the basic foundations of his faith but he learns that even theology cannot provide him a conclusive answer.

Father Rodrigues’ story is a reflection of the life of the faithful. We live in a world where violence, immorality, and plain evil are ubiquitous. Terrible things happen everyone, making one ask, “Is there a God out there? If there is, how come He lets pandemonium reign and evil things happen?” In dark and troubling times, we resort to our faith. Most of the time, however, are prayers are left unanswered or are answered in ways that we don’t expect. Bereft of an answer or a guidance, we start questioning our faith and the presence or the absence of a God.

But Silence is a Japanese novel as much as it is a part of theological fiction. As such, it is laden with symbolism, with the titular silence as its biggest representation. Silence is, sometimes, the answer we get for our prayers. Silence also reverberates all through out the novel. Silence meets every plea and prayer. Silence is the opposite of the screams of agony of the men being persecuted down the pit. Silence is not just a concept but an actual answer to the prayers.

Silence was written mostly in the epistolary form, through the journals of Father Rodrigues. It was an effective devise in exploring one facet of the novel – the personal view of God. It was an intimate conversation between God and Father Rodrigues. However, by writing in an epistolary form, Endō limited conversations and interactions between the characters. This left a gaping hole in the story. Rarely was the point of view of the Japanese people discussed or explored. This could have enhanced the complexion and texture of the narrative. This lack in perspective is a woeful blunder.

“No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

~ Shūsaku Endō, Silence

Endō wrote with heavy strokes which, to some extent, complimented the atmosphere of the novel. At times, however, the proverbial literary strokes were too heavy that it weighed down on the story. Endō’s handling and use of silence as symbol also came across as heavy handed, and thus, the story’s impact was mostly ephemeral. One vivid character is Kichijiro, an allusion to Judas. He is seminal to the appreciation of the narrative, a character who can startlingly unsettle the readers for his veracity. However, his character was under-explored but his presence gave the story another layer.

The story derives its literary power from its exploration of the meaning of faith, and leans heavily towards Catholic theology. The novel’s definition of faithfulness, however, was too pronounced, too predictable, that the symbolism loses its meaning. The beauty of faith, after all, lies in the belief in one Supreme Being sans any conclusive evidence to His presence or existence.

Despite its heavy-handed symbolism and its hits and misses, Silence is, in its own subtle way, a powerful narrative. It explored a seminal and pivotal juncture in the history of Catholic Japan, one that is rarely explored in literature, whilst painting a vivid picture of Japan. The central conflict, Father Rodrigues’ conundrum, is one that many a faithful can relate to; it resonates to the contemporary. It is a book about finding courage and that guiding voice amidst a turbulent time.

Rating

67%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

Just like Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, The Story of a Murderer, Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is a book that I have been looking forward to for the longest time. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I first encountered the book. I immediately knew I wanted to read it even though I barely had any iota on what it was about; my love for Japanese literature was growing that time. Silence, to say the least, was what I was not expecting it to be. I liked the historical context; it was interesting to read about one facet of Japan that is rarely talked about. However, I found the symbolism a little heavy handed, the story a bit predictable. It being a translated work, it is quite difficult judging the author’s original intent. It was still an insightful and thought-provoking work nonetheless.

Book Specs

Author: Shūsaku Endō
Translator: William Johnson
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 257
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

It is 1640 and Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: to abandon his flock or his God…

About the Author

Shūsaku Endō was born on March 27, 1923 in Tokyo, Japan but his family moved to Dalian in Manchuria, China shortly after his birth.

After his parents’ divorce in 1933, his mother brought him back to Japan and a year later, he was baptized as a Catholic. In 1943, Endō enrolled at Keio University but his studies were cut short by the war. Whilst working for a munitions factory, he contributed to literary journals. He also attended Waseda University in order to study medicine. From 1950 to 1954, he studied at the University of Lyon because of his interest in French Catholic authors.

Following his return to Japan, Endō achieved his first major literary success when Shiroi Hito (White Man) was awarded the prestigious 1955 Akutagawa Prize. Chinmoku (Silence, 1966) is often considered as his best work and his most famous. It won the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, another prestigious Japanese literary award. His other works include The Sea and Poison (1957), Volcano (1960), and The Samurai (1980). He was awarded the Bunka-kunshō (Order of Culture) in 1995.

Endō passed away on September 29, 1996 due to complications of hepatitis.