Reading Silence for the first time

Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece, the film adaptation of which will soon be in theaters, can be by turns profoundly moving, disturbing, and challenging. Here are some points to bear in mind while reading the novel.

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 mission.

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 only silence.

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 hollow.”

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 share spoilers.

So what might be helpful if you are approaching the novel Silence for the first time?

1. Get to know the author

Shusaku Endo (1922-1996) was Japanese, Catholic, and deeply influence by the mid-20th century Catholic literary revival.

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 subject—focusing on Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos—at 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 wife—for Marxism, for atheism, for a time even contemplating suicide—but 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.

Using another 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 domination—suspicions 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 Catholicism.

Cristóvão 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 Chiara (1610-1685).

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 fumi—the 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 evangelists.”

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 criticism writes:

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 God—not merely the silence that haunts Rodrigues as he passes through his trials….

5. Read the appendix closely. Very closely.

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.

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About Amy Welborn 33 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.

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