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Silence by Shusaku Endo

Discussion in 'Reader's Corner' started by Kitsune, May 16, 2018.

  1. Kitsune

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    Oct 19, 2006

    I just read once of the best books I think I've ever read in my life. Here's a quick summary so I can proceed to my own musings.

    Silence (沈黙 Chinmoku) is a 1966 novel of historical fiction by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō, published in English by Peter Owen Publishers. It is the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan, who endures persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians") that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion. The recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, it has been called "Endo's supreme achievement" and "one of the twentieth century's finest novels". Written partly in the form of a letter by its central character, the theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity was greatly influenced by the Catholic Endō's experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and a debilitating bout with tuberculosis.


    Where can I even begin. To start with, this has recently been made into a film by the great Martin Scorsese [ ]. I have to say that the film absolutely pales in comparison to the novel, but more about that later.

    This book is about apostasy. It's about the role of a Judas and it's about the silence of a god who doesn't answer you. The missionaries in the book infiltrate Japan in a time where Christianity was utterly banned and punishable by death. Or at least, it was punishable by death until the authorities realized they were making martyrs. Torture was the method used to force people to apostatize and it wasn't just personal torture. People could endure their own torture for their faith in Jesus. They could not endure the torture of their loved ones. That's how the Japanese got people to step on the face of Jesus and spit on him, call his mother a whore, and so on. The psychology of this forced apostasy was both brilliant and tragic.

    Now I have to explain that I approached this novel with zero sympathy for the missionaries. My mom's family comes from samurai lineage, I was raised atheist and I believe that Japan was right to expel Christian missionaries even if that meant killing a lot of people. I realize this sounds incredibly harsh of me but even if missionaries went to foreign countries with the best intentions, European colonization soon followed. The political realities that follow the spread of this religion was something the Japanese saw early and I am actually proud of the fact that it's the only Asian country never to be colonized by a Western power [ ]. It's pretty obvious that closing the country to this kind of malign disease was the only way to prevent inevitable Western imperial exploitation.

    Given the fact that I approached this story with the background and stance that I have, I was utterly blown away by the nuance and skill in storytelling that completely knocked me off my feet. The author was Catholic and Japanese so he wrote from a unique and interesting perspective. In any society based on a medieval feudal system, which Japan was in the 17th century, Christianity is going to have massive appeal to the bottom rungs. The way Christianity treats poverty (or is supposed to treat poverty) undermined the power structures that were in place at the time. Europe had its own peasants, but Japanese peasants had no conception of their own inherent dignity as human beings. This was a dangerous thing to introduce to a servile class. How could I not sympathize with these peasants? Political realities aside, the idea of preventing people from taking comfort in religious beliefs that taught them they were worthy of love seems downright inhumane. The novel really paints a picture of desolation in these small Japanese fishing villages where the poorest people lived squalid, struggling lives (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short).

    The missionaries are both repelled and inspired by these people. The stench repulses them and yet, they know that it's easy to love the beautiful and rich. How can a good Christian missionary reach deep down and love the dirtiest, most ignorant wretches? Part of me found this idea beautiful--that they could summon this kind of love. Part of me found it disgustingly patronizing. Like, fuck you for being so high and mighty to begin with. This contradiction, and many other purposeful contradictions, made reading this novel so incredibly complex and rich. At every turn there were questions like this that brought feels on so many levels.

    The main antagonist of this book is Inoue. A samurai magistrate tasked with obliterating Christianity in his region of southern Japan. The missionaries hear of him beforehand and basically fear him for being this ruthless villain. When they finally meet him, he's a gentle man who speaks kindly and seems to have genuine sympathy for the suffering of his peasants. There's a sinister undertone always there and an obvious ruthlessness that can be seen in his methods of torture. The complex approach taken to describing this man, who expertly gets devoted missionaries to abandon their faith (at least superficially), is fascinating and terrifying. No good novel presents you with overly-simplified comic book villains and this villain is a high-fiber character.

    I'm going to give a spoiler here but I don't think it really matters much. At a point in the novel, the main missionary is put in a position where the peasants he's been trying to save get tortured in order to force his apostasy. He looks down at an image of Jesus and perceives that Jesus tells him to "step on me" in order to relieve the suffering of the tortured peasants. What the novel does so brilliantly (and why I think the novel is so much better than the film) is that when God breaks his silence to this missionary, it's perceived within the man's own mind. That's to say, God tells him to apostatize but it's not a literal external voice. It's very much within himself. In the film version, God seems to speak out loud to him and tell him this. I felt this difference was huge and kind of ruined the film for me. The beauty of this moment was how internal and personal it was. The reader is left wondering if he really perceived a divine message or just listened to his own internal voice. That ambiguity and the breaking of this silence is powerful and it's the entire message of the book.

    The film also gave us a very obvious and heavy-handed hint at the end that the main character's apostasy was false and that he retained his faith. The book is more ambiguous. I believe that he kept his faith in secret, but it was conveyed beautifully and subtly in the book. Like faith itself, people rarely get hard answers in life and I loved how this novel never delivers things to you in an easy or obvious manner.

    One more item of praise for this author/translator. I've never really liked it when writers switch between present and past-tense or first and third person. In this novel it's done extremely effectively. It never comes across as a pretentious creative choice or as the author trying to flout his artistic capabilities in an ostentatious manner. It always seems necessary and authentic to the purpose of the story. This dexterity in writing really impressed me and left me feeling, quite frankly, in awe of Endo's creative prowess.

    So that's my take on this novel. I would be thrilled if anyone else reads it or has read it and challenges my interpretations. The chance to discuss this book would be fantastic. It's a fairly short novel, so if you're looking for something amazing but not too long, this is perfect. I really highly recommend this book. It's not one to be missed and I know I'll be reading it again.
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