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Silence: A Novel (Picador Classics) Paperback – January 5, 2016
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“Somber, delicate, and startlingly empathetic.” ― John Updike
"One of the best historical novels by anyone, ever.” ― David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks
"I think about Silence, and Endo’s work more generally, all the time." ― Phil Klay, author of Redeployment and Winner of the 2014 National Book Award
“Silence was in the back of my mind the whole time I was working [on Boxers & Saints]. When I got stuck, I would close my eyes and ask for Endo’s intercession.” ― Gene Luen Yang, MacArthur Fellow and author of Boxers & Saints
"All of Endo’s work has been influential. He truly understands what it means to be both of―and not of―a place." ― Caryl Phillips, Guggenheim Fellow and award-winning author of The Lost Child
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Japanese --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This book is set in Japan circa 1630, well into the period when Japan had outlawed and cruelly repressed Christianity. Christianity had been introduced into Japan around 1550 by Portuguese Jesuits, where it had met with success. By the late 16th century, it is estimated that 400,000 Japanese had converted; some conversions were shallow and superficial, but others were deep and authentic, deep enough for a number of Japanese Christians to welcome martyrdom, and for others to go underground as "Hidden Christians" (Kakure Kurishitan) where they would keep a strange and mutated form of Christianity alive for 300 years. The survival of even a mutated form of Christianity in Japan is a story worth telling in light of the horrible repression that was visited upon the Kakure Kurishitan community, repressions involving stepping on the "fumi" - an image of Christ - and horrible tortures designed to force Christians to renounce Christianity.
The story opens with a Jesuit priest Sebastio Rodriguez and two other Jesuits leaving Portugal to travel to Japan to investigate the truth behind the news that their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, Cristóvão Ferreira, had been tortured into apostatizing. The opening part of the book is told in the form of letters home by Rodriguez as he endures the difficulty of traveling to the Orient, being told by his superiors that Japan has been closed to missionary activity, and then being permitted to travel to Japan with his one companion, Garrpe, who is not too ill to travel. Rodriguez and Garrpe enter Japan with the assistance of a loathsome, cowardly, lazy, drunk renegade Japanese person named Kichijiro, who is obviously a Christian, but who may have apostatized. Kichijiro denies being a Christian but leads the Jesuits to a Christian village.
The story turns into a first person contemporary account of how Rodriguez and Garrpe are taken in by the village, who are delighted to have a priest hear their confessions. Their mobility is restricted, as they have to stay within a hut for months. The Japanese Christians have organized themselves into a society where the "Jiisama" baptizes and the "Tossama" teaches the prayers and keeps the Christian calendar. Rodriguez and Garrpe split up and Rodriguez travels to another village with Kichijiro. After some time in that village, Rodriguez returns to the village, but the village is betrayed and the local leaders do not apostatize but are tied to stakes in the ocean until they drown. Rodriguez goes on the run with Kichijiro, until he is betrayed by Kichijiro and captured by the governor of the province, a former Christian named Inoue.
At this point, the story shifts from the first person narrative to a third person narrative. The shift is subtle; I didn't notice until I reread the story for this review. Clearly, we are being distanced from an immediacy with the priest in the latter part of the story for narrative effect.
Inoue's goal is not to kill the priest, but to cause him to apostatize, so that other Christians will lose faith and return to traditional Japanese spirituality. Rodriguez has several discussions with Inoue about the nature of truth and the ability of Japan to absorb the foreign spirituality of Christianity. I am not sure if Inoue is the foil for the Shusaku Endo's view of Japan and Christianity; Inoue argues that "Japan is a swamp" and that the roots of Christianity have been cut and that Japan will distort and corrupt Christianity. To a certain extent, this was historically correct, as the Kakure Kurishitan culture mutated Christian belief into an entirely new form that although somewhat recognizable to Catholic Christians is a caricature of belief and doctrine. (See Beginning of Heaven and Earth: The Sacred Book of Japan's Hidden Christians (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion & Culture).) On the other hand, Inoue's argument implies that (a) Japan would never have accepted Christianity and (b) a true form of Christianity could not have endured even if there had not been Japanese persecution. This seems obviously wrong; Kakure Kurishitan communities survived for 300 years, there must have been something in Christianity attractive and congenial to Japanese culture that allowed it to endure under such horrible circumstances.
What that factor might have been is alluded to in passing by Endo. Rodriguez notes early on:
"Yet the magistrate of Nagasaki exacts from them an exceedingly harsh revenue. 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 lowing 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." (p. 32.)
This rings true with the history. (See In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival.) And, of course, there was also the promise of a paradise in the next world.
Rodriguez responds with the Western notion that truth is universal, and to this there is no response.
Eventually, the Japanese magistrate hits upon what seems to be a tried and true technique for obtaining the apostasy of priests; he threatens to kill Japanese Christians, and does so when there is any hesitation, all the while telling the priest that this is the priest's fault. The first time this happens, people known to Rodriguez are wrapped in mats and thrown into the ocean to drown. Father Garrpe rushes into the ocean to save them and also drowns. The second time, Rodriguez is left in a room where he hears snoring, except the snoring is not snoring; it is the moan of pain of Christians who, although they have already apostatized, have been tied up and suspended upside down over a pit of excrement, with tiny cuts behind their ears so that they are slowly bleeding to death. On this occasion, Rodriguez is visited by Ferreira, who has gone native, and taken the name and wife of a dead Japanese man. Ferreira explains that he also apostatized when faced with this cruel and apparently meaningless suffering, but that now he is "useful" because he translates Western books of astronomy for the governor. We also learn that Ferreira is writing a counter-apologetics text for the Japanese, although Ferreira is ashamed to mention this. Inoue also appears and advises Rodriguez that his quest is futile, Japan will never become Christian, the roots are cut, he is alone, and his prideful efforts are causing the Japanese to suffer. Rodriguez is presented with the fumi and told that stepping on it is a mere formality that need have nothing to do with his true feelings. Rodriguez has a vision where he understands that even Christ would have apostatized in those circumstances and Christ tells Rodriguez "Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross." This chapter concludes:
"The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance, the crock crew." (p. 171.)
Rodriguez is then given clothes and a nice place to live, although his movements are restricted. Eventually he is given the name and family of a Japanese man who has died.
The story ends with two "odd" notes. First, Kichijiro comes to Rodriguez for confession. This appears to be authentic on the part of Kichijiro. Rodriguez knows that he has been disgraced and that his priestly faculties have been removed, but since he is the only priest - apostate or not - who can do it, he hears Kichijiro's confession. Second, near the end of the story there is an interlude consisting of diary entries from a Dutch shipping clerk which imply that Ferreira is implicating the Dutch with secretly importing Catholicism into Japan. Does this mean that in some way, Ferriera is taking revenge on the Protestants who undermined the Catholic mission? But if he was a real apostate, why would he do that?
Sprinkled throughout the book is what I took to be Endo's post-modern contribution, namely, the idea that God is silent in the face of the suffering of His followers. On one level this struck me as being an entirely artificial and anachronistic injection of post-modern ideology into the story. Endo points out that there is a lot of suffering in this world; the voyage to Japan is suffering; the repression of the peasants is suffering; the torture is suffering. However, this all seems to hit Rodriguez like a ton of bricks only when he is in Japan, and he doesn't seem to have any philosophical resources to deal with it. I don't buy it. This aspect of the story reminded me of The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle) - a science fiction story with much the same theme. The fact is that Catholicism isn't surprised by suffering; theologies of suffering, offering up suffering, joining personal suffering to that of Christ, etc., are all the bread and butter of Catholicism, particularly in this period when the suffering of the Saints was a subject of artistic flourish.
However, on a deeper level, I wonder if there isn't an answer to this question of "God's silence." Obviously, to the Japanese Christians who were being tortured, God was not silent; not only did they have their faith but their prayers for release were answered by Rodriguez's apostasy. Presumably, when Rodriguez apostatized, the victims were taken down from their torture and returned to their villages. So, God does work in mysterious ways. Further, the idea that God was silent in Japan is bizarre; the faith of the Kakure Kurishitan in the core of Christianity, however mutated, that God loves each person individually through his son, screams like a siren to anyone with ears to hear.
Further, did Rodriguez really apostatize? On his terms it seems he did since he did not get his glorious martyrdom, but on Christian terms - as Endo explains - he fulfilled the Christian commandment to love; if there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's neighbor, then what kind of love is there in laying down one's faith and dreams? And then there is the end where Kichijiro confesses: if Rodriguez's hearing of Kichijiro's confession meant that Kichijiro was saved, that is a victory.
If the book ignores these theological aspects, then it is shallow and well-tuned to the superficial theologizing of post-modernity, which may be why Martin Scorsese is making a movie out of this book. (I do not expect anything more from Scorsese than a film that confirms his view that there really is nothing there after all.) On the other hand, if these grace notes - which exist in the barely spoken subtext of the book - are true,then there is a Catholic story here.
Now, admittedly, I am not comfortable with a theology that says that the highest form of love is apostasy or that Christ would encourage apostasy, but Catholicism is a religion that counts prudence as a virtue, and a formal apostasy out of love is not entirely imprudent.
Incidentally, there is a truth behind the story of Christovao Ferreira. The historical Ferreira (1580-1650) was appointed Vice Provincial of the Japanese Jesuits. The historical Ferreira was tortured over the excrement-filled pit and apostatized after six hours. Thereafter, he assisted in torturing other priests and breaking them physically and psychologically. Like other priests who apostatized, he was given a Japanese name and a Japanese wife (often the widow of a criminal) and he wrote an anti-Christian tract called "A Disclosure of Falsehood."
So, a Catholic is not in the position of saying that such things never happened or that there was a 100% rate of martyrdom. Some priests - in fact, in the case of Ferreira, one of the highest ranking - did apostatize. In many ways, Endo has "softened" the blow of the apostasy in this story, since Ferreira apostatizes out of horror at, and love for, his Japanese Christian flock, rather than "merely" to avoid a horrible and lonely death. (Nonetheless, one has to note the importance of psychological blackmail and the propaganda value of creating traitors even at this early date in human history.)
So, yes, this is a conflicted text, well worth pondering. One thing is for certain, if you don't want a book that is depressing or if you have a weak faith, this is not a book that you will find worthwhile.
If you're a Joel Osteen, warm-and-fuzzy type, this is very far from your experience and you should DEFINITELY read it.
However, far from tidy and life-affirming, the answer Silence asks us to consider is challenging and disturbing - especially to those of us who grew up with a Westernized view of the church.
Whether you're an ardent believer or stout atheist, Silence deconstructs the myth of the Western Savior and is poignant look at faith in times of unimaginable physical and mental torture.
One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. Rent or buy yourself a copy - it can be easily read in a weekend.
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