In a few weeks, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited
adaptation of the novel Silence will
go into wide release. Scorsese’s interest in the story of 17th-century Jesuit
missionaries in Japan goes back decades, and the questions it raises for him
are spiritual ones: “Endo’s novel confronts the mystery of Christian faith, and
by extension the mystery of faith itself,” Scorsese wrote in an essay
contributed to a volume of Silence criticism. Trailers hint at
a compelling film, and it will undoubtedly inspire many to tackle Shusaku
Endo’s novel for the first time. What will they find?
Silence is the story of a
young Portuguese priest named Sebastian Rodrigues who travels to Japan from
Macao to confirm the impossible news that his mentor, Father Christovao
Ferreira, has apostasized.
Rodrigues arrives in Japan, his trusting
faith nourished by the memory of a treasured face of Christ, full of “vigor and
strength,” an image that expresses the certainty of God’s presence in his
But events quickly turn. Rodrigues is
disturbed by the simplistic faith he finds among peasant converts and stunned
by the brutality of suffering they endure when discovered by their persecutors.
As he attempts to make his way to Nagasaki, avoiding the authorities,
alternately guided and betrayed by a Judas-like figure named Kichijiro, his
questions mount, and where once he had found certainty, he increasingly hears
God’s silence continues when Rodrigues is
captured. He can hear nothing but his own crashing spirit and the cries of his
suffering fellow prisoners, cries he is assured he can bring a stop to by a
simple external act, one that he discovers beyond doubt his mentor had, indeed
taken: he can apostasize by trampling on a fumie,
an image of Christ, no longer serenely triumphant, but “ugly…worn down and
Silence is not lengthy, but
it is intense, sometimes disturbing, and coursing with painful mysteries, powerful
questions, and paradox. I’ve taught this novel in high school theology classes
and led adult education sessions on it, so I know both how fruitful the book is
as a source for discussion but also how challenging it is not to interpret it
in a reductionist way, in one direction or the other. So I’m offering a few
suggestions to help new readers out.
Note, however, that I’m only scratching
the surface. There is plenty of interpretive and critical material out there
for those intent on going deeper. This is also a discussion of the novel, not
the film, which I have not seen as of this writing.
Also note that I’ll be skirting around
some crucial moments in the books, the moments of which a student said when she
walked into my classroom the morning after reading them: “I threw my book across the room when that happened!” You can’t
really talk about Silence without
talking about these moments, but since this is designed as an introduction for
those who haven’t yet read it, it wouldn’t be fair, as we say nowadays, to
So what might be helpful if you are
approaching the novel Silence for the
1. Get to know the author
Shusaku Endo (1922-1996) was Japanese,
Catholic, and deeply influence by the mid-20th century Catholic literary
Born in Tokyo, his parents divorced in
1933, and his mother took him to Kobe to live with her sister. There, his
mother and aunt converted to Catholicism, and he was baptized as well. Endo
earned a degree in French literature at a Japanese university, and in the early
1950s, he studied the subjectfocusing on Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanosat
the University of Lyon in France.
He spent his career teaching and writing,
publishing many novels and short stories, notably The Sea and Poison, about medical experimentation conducted on
American prisoners of war by the Japanese, Wonderful
Fool, a comic novel about an odd, Christ-like figure, The Samurai, about Japanese in 17th-century Mexico, and of course, Silence, published in 1966.
Much of Endo’s fiction, both his novels
and short stories, have clear autobiographical resonance, reflecting his years
in France, his ill health, his experiences during World War II, his Catholic
faith, and his sense of being an outsider no matter where he was. Philip Yancey writes of Endo’s
relationship to his faith:
“I became a
Catholic against my will,” he now says. He likens his faith to an arranged
marriage, a forced union with a wife chosen by his mother. He tried to leave
that wifefor Marxism, for atheism, for a time even contemplating suicidebut
his attempts to escape always failed. He could not live with this arranged
wife; he could not live without her. Meanwhile, she kept loving him, and to his
surprise, eventually he grew to love her in return.
image, Endo likens his Christian pilgrimage to a young boy squirming inside a
suit of clothes. He searches endlessly for a better-fitting suit, or perhaps a
kimono, but cannot find one. He is constantly, he says, “re-tailoring with my
own hands the Western suit my mother had put on me, and changing it into a
Japanese garment that would fit my Japanese body.”
2. The events in Silence are
based on historical events.
Francis Xavier brought Christianity to
Japan in 1549. Sixty years later, while there may have been an estimated
300,000 Christians in Japan, the apparent success of the Church’s mission was
about to come to an end.
The shogun who had reunited Japan after
years of civil war had grown suspicious that the Portuguese missionaries were
paving the way for imperial dominationsuspicions that were, incidentally,
encouraged by (Protestant) English and Dutch traders. In 1614 missionaries were
expelled from the country and Japanese Christians were presented with a choice:
either apostasize or be brutally killed.
The terrible persecution of Christians in
Japan in the early 17th century produced thousands of martyrs, a fascinating
underground, hybrid church called Kakuro which survived hundreds of years in
secret, and an enduringly ambiguous relationship between Japanese culture and
Ferreira (1580-1650), the former
teacher whom Rodrigues is seeking, was a historical figure who did, indeed,
apostasize. The character of Rodrigues was based on an Italian priest, Giuseppe
Endo was inspired to write Silence, not only by his own life
experience of living as a Japanese Catholic, but specifically by visiting the
shrine to the Twenty-Six
Martyrs in Nagasaki. This memorial commemorates men, women, and children
killed in 1597, and includes an exhibit of fumithe
images of Christ, and sometimes of Mary, upon which Japanese Catholics were
ordered to trample and spit, not only once, but annually, an obligation that
persisted until the mid-19th century.
Endo based his novel on historical
documents, including a 17th-century diary written by a clerk in a residence in
which apostate Catholics, including Giuseppe Chiara, lived. This is especially
important for the final chapter of the novel.
This is an excellent site
summarizing the history of Catholicism in Japan.
3. It’s a novel, not a manual of moral theology. Fiction writers are
not infallible interpreters of faith.
Sometimes when we read fiction with
spiritual themes, we are tempted to read them in a prescriptive manner,
expecting the author to present a dramatized version of a correct understanding
of the Creed. American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor advises against
falling into this trap. “The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he
attends to his art,” she wrote. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the
There is nothing wrong with enjoying
fiction that presents a salutary portrait of the ideal Christian life. But
there is also value in exploring weakness and doubt, which is what Endo sets
out to do. Japanese Christian artist Makoto Fujimuro, in recent book reflecting on Endo, Silence, art and Japanese culture,
writes of Endo and doubt: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith but only an
honest admission of our true condition, wrestling against the fallen world in
which God seems to be silent. Doubt and secrets, to Endo, reveal a God who
works within the dark crevices of our experiences, who is constantly hataraku Kami (active and moving God).”
A good fiction writer sets out to create
a world and powerfully rendered “felt life,” as Henry James put it, that draws
us into understanding of some aspect of the human condition. Silence is the exploration of the
experiences and decisions of a few fictional characters in a
historically-inspired landscape. We are free to agree or disagree with their
decisions and are under no obligation to view any of their actions as “the
right thing to do.” It is very likely that a group of readers will have
divergent views on the decisions characters make in Silence, just as critics have over the decades since its release.
For example, some critics accuse Endo of
romanticizing apostasy and of suggesting that the apostates’ faith is somehow
closer to authentic imitation of Christ than that of the martyrs, while others
point to textual evidence that even though the apostates’ decisions may be
presented as moments of weakness, and therefore moments in which Christ is met
in a profound way, this is no way disparages the sacrifices of the martyrs.
It’s a discussion that readers of Silence
will probably have, even if only in their own minds, and it touches us, not
only as we consider what we might do in that situation, but as we consider the
mystery of how God has persistently hounded us in our lives of darkness and
light, fidelity and betrayal.
4. Silence was not Endo’s
original or preferred title.
This is an important point. When you read
the novel, you will indeed see the prominence of the theme of “silence,” but
any simplistic presentation of this as the “main idea” of the work is
confounded by this fact. Endo wanted to title the book The Scent of a Sunny Place, and it was his publisher who insisted
on Silence. An essayist in a collection of Silence
His original title…was
intended to emphasize the loneliness of a defeated man such as Ferreira, who
stands beneath the harsh rays of the sun, arms folded, and reflects back on all he has lost. By changing the title to Silence,
however, Endo felt that he had thrown open the door for readers to interpret
the author’s intent as the portrayal of the silence of Godnot merely the
silence that haunts Rodrigues as he passes through his trials….
5. Read the appendix closely. Very
We might be tempted to skim this section.
It is written, as the diary of a clerk would be, in dry, bureaucratic language.
It contains a lot of unfamiliar Japanese names condensed into a relatively
short text. We might assume that this section is simply about tying up loose
plot points. It is that, but it is much more. Most of Silence is about the struggle between doubt and faith, about religious
ideals violently colliding with worldly reality. There is a point in the novel
in which a decision is made, in which a course is taken, and it is natural for
us to think that this point of decision is the climax, after which all else is
merely denouement. Perhaps it is, technically speaking, but in terms of the
characters’ journeys, it is much more, for what Endo is about is not only the
struggle to come to an understanding of faith and ourselves, but what happens after that. How do we live? That is what
the appendix is about.
Endo is posing that question, in a way,
to all Japanese Christians, and even all Japanese people, who live today in a
culture shaped by martyrdom and apostasy, of oppressor and victim. What does it
mean to contemplate the well-worn fumie in
the museum and know that your faith in the present day exists, not only because
of the seeds sown by the martyrs’ blood, but also because it was passed down by
those who for years trampled and betrayed in public, while preserving what they
could in private?
The dilemma of trampling on the fumie can be brought home in more
universal terms, as Endo himself noted, and perhaps this is one reason why this
novel about Catholic missionaries who lived and died centuries ago plants a
persistent pebble in the shoe of so many readers’ consciences. As Fujimoro
beautifully puts it,
Endo saw fumi-e as emblems of a greater,
universal impact. When in lectures he spoke of “having a personal fumi-e,” he was not speaking of a
literal religious icon, but was acknowledging that each of us steps on and
betrays the “face of ones that [we] love, even the ideals [we] cherish.” To
step on one’s own fumi-e, in that
sense, is to betray oneself out of desperation due to public or cultural
pressure. … Silence is not a
triumphant pilgrimage with clear outcomes, but a meandering pilgrimage of one
wounded by life and confounded by faith, whose experience of faith has been
punctuated by betrayals, his own and those of others. Endo notes repeatedly in
his memoirs and through his characters that through his own struggles of faith
God never let him go. Endo himself is like the fumi-e, a historical marker birthed of a traumatic time, finally
worn smooth through many disappointments, failures, and betrayals, but whose
surface reveals the indelible visage of a Savior.