I first read Shusaku Endo’s extraordinary novel Silence roughly eight years ago, and it has continued to haunt me. In fact, I’d put it on the short list of novels that have changed my life. It put me on a train of thought about God and faith and suffering and strength that led me places I never would have expected. But it’s not a book I’ve talked about much. I’ve recommended it to several people, but none of them followed my suggestion until last year when Jenny read and loved it. And now my book club at church has read it on my recommendation, which means I got to reread it and discuss it with a group of intelligent, engaged readers. What a pleasure!
Jenny has already provided a thorough overview of the plot in her review, so do go check that out. I’ll just provide a couple of sentences here and then delve further into the themes.
First published in 1966 and translated into English by William Johnston, Silence takes place in 17th-century Japan, a time when the Christian church was outlawed and the Christians in Japan were made to suffer terrible persecution. The main character in the book, Father Rodrigues, is a Jesuit priest from Portugal who has snuck into the country to provide encouragement to any Christians he can find and to learn what happened to his mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have abandoned his faith.
On this second reading, one of the things that struck me most vividly was the emotional and spiritual journey of Father Rodrigues. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan, he knows he may face terrible challenges and dangers, but he seems almost eager for the experience. This is partly because of his confidence in God’s protection, but he’s also confident in his own ability to stand up to testing. Indeed, for him, strength in faith is of supreme importance.
This becomes most evident when Rodrigues is contrasted with Kichijiro, the man who will be his guide into Japan. Kichijiro is a drunk and a weakling. He seems fascinated by the Rodrigues and his companion, Father Garrpe, but he’s also obsequious and afraid, perhaps even a bit Gollum-like in his demeanor. In a particularly telling moment, Rodriques and Garrpe encounter Kichijiro lying in his own vomit during a violent storm on the ship they are taking to the Japanese coast:
With the sailors we looked at the fellow with contempt. We were too exhausted to be interested in his stammering Japanese. But quite by accident jumbled in with his sentences I caught the words ‘gratia’ and ‘Santa Maria.’ This fellow who was just like a pig that buried its face in its own vomit had without a doubt uttered twice the words ‘Santa Maria.’
Garrpe and I exchanged glances. Was it possible that he was of our faith—this wretch who through all the journey not only failed to help but was even a positive nuisance. No. It was impossible. Faith could not turn a man into such a coward.
On my first reading of Silence, I felt a little scornful of Kichijiro myself, but I found this time that I actually had a soft spot for Kichijiro, partly because reading this book the first time changed my own definition of faith significantly, but also because I now see Rodrigues’s confidence in his own strength and faith as something more like arrogance. That’s not to say that Rodrigues is a bad man, or a man who lacks compassion. As it happens, there are moments when he acknowledges that his lack of charity toward Kichijiro is a problem. But he’s torn because there are times when Kichijiro goes beyond being a nuisance to being a danger to Rodrigues’s work. (Again, he’s remarkably Gollum-esque.)
One of the central questions of the book, and one which Rodrigues struggles to answer, is what it means to be a Christian. The Japanese officials state that Christianity cannot flourish in a country like Japan, but the Christian faith of the villagers Rodrigues meets seems strong, even in the face of torment and death. But is it the same as that of Rodrigues? And can it continue to survive when cut off from the church that initially brought it to them?
For me, this book raises really fascinating questions that touch on a host of issues related to missionary work, the malleability of the Christian gospel, and the nature of belief. On my first reading, it raised questions in my mind that it never occurred to me to ask. On this second reading, I find that I answer those questions differently from the way I did when I first read Silence, and in another 8 or 10 years, I may have still different answers. Endo himself provides no clear answers, making this a book that stands up to multiple readings and, as I’ve found in my book group, hours of good discussion.