Silence, by Shusaku Endo
Picador Modern Classics
Hailed a modern classic, the novel is philosophical and long and slow. Reading it, I can’t help but think of Jesus, carrying His cross, heavy, toward Golgotha, faltering with each step and resting between. Writers who claim that character, plot, and structure are all synonyms for action will be disappointed. This is mostly a novel of the mind and heart. The book reads like a travelogue following two Portuguese missionaries to Japan, a forbidden and foreboding, country. “We went there. We did this. We came back.” Much of the book follows this format.
Sure of G’s calling, the missionaries land in Japan with a “conviction [that] grows deeper and deeper in my heart that all is well and G will protect us.” There are two of them, and they live in a remote hut, crawling out only at night, avoiding anywhere they might be discovered. Sixteenth-century Japan is not hospitable to Christians. One day, they’ve had enough and long for sunshine. Scanning the mountainside, they emerge to lay in the warm grass and pick at lice. Love and mercy wash over them for such a blessing. So sensuous is this taste of nature that it becomes routine until they are spotted by a Samurai search group.
Prisoners now, the chief samurai introduces them congenially to the agonies of local Christians. That nothing happens quickly is a theme throughout the book, and of the samurai. There is plenty of time for agony, and it is only made worse when begun with a nice meal and drink. The samurai wonder aloud to the missionaries, “These are the people you are here to serve? Look at them. Diseased, destitute, and hanging in the pit. Why would anyone want to follow your inept G?” The missionaries, here, in the middle of the story, confront the juxtaposition between G’s calling and the fates of Christians: “Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?” That people are forced to spit on a crucifix and call the blessed Virgin Mary a whore to be set free from torture?” It’s a question they are at odds to answer.
In constant agony and confronted with the low moans of peasants just outside their door, hanging over the pit with small slices behind their ears so they die a drop of blood at a time, the missionaries meet Father Ferriera. Slow and droning, he measures out the philosophy that has saved him, forged over a lifetime of service in an inhospitable land. “This is Christian love,” he says. “To apostatize and relieve Christians of their sufferings.” He has power and recognition as an apostate and is able, through his denial of Christ, to save other Christians from suffering. “I was put here and heard the voices of those people for whom G did nothing. G did not do a single thing. I prayed with all my strength, but G did nothing. Certainly, Christ would have apostatized for them?”
After reading, another question looms: did Christ apostatize for humankind? Can Christ apostatize? G taking on human flesh and emotion, drinking and eating, and peeing in the Lake of Galilee? Doesn’t the thought of taking such a low estate make us squirm? Is it apostasy to do so, a denial of godliness, or love? Is it love so strong that you identify with humankind, so much that you take on their mantle?
Should You Read this Book?
Did you read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder? How about Dostoevsky or Camus? If the questions posed above make you wonder, this might work. If you want knife fights followed by romantic nights, I’d look further down the shelf. It’s no fault of Endo’s: the book is wonderfully written but entertainment alone couldn’t have been his goal. Will you like the book if you are a Christian? That’s harder. Do you wave your hands a lot and say, “Hey! There’s a reason for everything. G answers all prayer with a yes, no, or wait!” You might not like it then. Note that the Silence of the title is the silence of G just when we need Him most.
In retrospect, I’m reminded of a story from a couple of years ago. I was in the hospital, on life support, and my wife visited twice a day. She grabbed my beat-up copy of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago to read to me in recovery. One day a nurse came in the room to fiddle with life support gadgetry and listened to her reading. Finally, she stopped and said, “It’s weird, but people say that comatose patients often think their memories while comatose are real and that becomes their reality. And Honey,” she said, putting her hand on my wife’s shoulder, “that’s just about the most depressing and slow thing I’ve ever head. I wouldn’t’ want my husband to think that was real when he woke up.” Accepting this as sage medical advice, my wife closed the book and turned on Braves baseball. I moaned a little in Russian.
Here’s a test: do you pine for an hour alone with Dr. Zhivago? If the long Russian train ride through the Caucasus thrills you, if Pasternak’s plays on poetry only make the story better, you will give a thumbs up to Silence. If you agree with the nurse and would be afraid that your husband would wake in a Russian stupor, slow and eating beets, there are better books.
For the review page, go here.