Like the sea God was silent: Shusaku Endo, Silence

Shusaku Endo, Silence. Picador, 2016, translated by William Johnston. First published in Japanese, 1966

I have problems with this novel. It is undoubtedly a stirring account of faith and human endurance tested to the limit, and a dramatic representation of the clash of two opposing cultures and belief systems, both in their own ways ruthless and determined to destroy the other.

And that’s where my difficulties begin. The plot is depressingly familiar in this postcolonial world. Jesuit priests first started their mission of conversion in Japan in 1549 under St Francis Xavier, the Basque co-founder of the Jesuits, who also evangelised India, Borneo and other oriental countries. At first the Catholic faith was embraced enthusiastically, until by 1600 there were said to be some 300,000 Christians in Japan.

There followed several waves of repression and persecution, most notably after the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38 in the Nagasaki province. Here the mostly Christian peasants, with some ronin, rose up against crippling taxes and cruel conditions. The rebellion was crushed by a huge military force, aided by the Dutch, who were not only anti-Catholic, but also defending their trading interests.

Silence tells a lightly modified true story of a group of three Portuguese priests who refuse to believe the news that their former teacher at the seminary, a saintly Jesuit called Father Ferreira, had apostasised after many years of mission in Japan, and was even collaborating with his former torturers and taken a Japanese wife.

They sail in the early 1640s to Japan on a dangerous quest: to find out the truth about Ferreira, and to rekindle the flame of their faith in a country where Catholicism is now banned, and any Christians discovered by their persecutors liable to be forced to renounce their faith or face torture and death.

The story, as I said earlier, is powerful and moving. The protagonist, Sebastian Rodrigues, sees his two colleagues succumb to the appalling conditions they face. They are sheltered and protected by the ‘hidden Christians’, poor fishermen and peasants, who not only live a life of punishing hardship, working like animals in their fields or boats to scrape a basic living, being forced to hand over most of what they earn in taxes to their cruel, oppressive masters. It’s a feudal system of tyrannical injustice for the dispossessed majority.

Endo Silence cover

I don’t like this film tie-in cover, but it was cheap in the supermarket

Rodrigues, a devout, engaging priest in his early thirties, is determined to endure every ordeal, although not surprisingly he has moments of self-doubt about his fortitude. If torture and martyrdom are to be his fate, as seems most likely, he is resolute that he will not go the humiliating way that his mentor, Ferreira, is said to have gone – but he’s not sure he has the right stuff to be a martyr; he hopes he has. This aspect of the novel is its most interesting and honest.

When the ultimate test comes, and he is forced to choose between preserving his own integrity and life while being forced to watch those in his flock who look to him for spiritual guidance and sustenance being tortured horribly, and renouncing his faith, the suspense is almost unbearable. Are the repeated references in the narrative to the silence of God in the face of the sufferings of his faithful an indication of his absence? Will Rodrigues be Peter the rock or the denier? Will he replicate the role of Judas? And does he understand Judas – if Jesus could love even him, could Rodrigues do the same and love himself if he reneged?

Why my problems, then? First, I found the unrelenting scenes of hardship, poverty and torture rather too much. There are lurid descriptions of Christian martyrs subjected to a lingering death in ‘the pit’ – they are cut then suspended upside down in it so that they slowly bleed to death. Other equally unpleasant methods of torture and despatch are related.

I’m sure it’s an accurate representation of what happened, but I found the narrative dwelt just a little too luridly on these details. On the one hand they show the bravery and resolve of those humble peasants who had risked their lives to protect their priests and uphold their faith, even when subjected to the most terrible physical ordeals.

But on the other they seem also to reflect the willingness of those Jesuit missionaries to allow them to do so, and to demonise the cruel persecutors, as I shall show shortly.

I was reminded of the treatment of this kind of mission and persecution in Heart of Darkness – a novel which has its own problems with its depiction of European colonisation and exploitation of a far distant country, but which entertains rather more of an ambivalent set of possibilities about the exploitative nature of the European incursion – although admittedly the motives of those colonisers were not the same as the Jesuits’ in Japan. But the Europeans’ belief in their moral and cultural superiority and in the justification for their missions were similar.

I also think of the conquistadors and their rapacious ‘conquest’ of Central and South America around the same time as the Jesuit ‘conversion’ of Japan and other far eastern countries; the Spaniards had more transparently venery motives disguised as a Christian mission of evangelism.

That the Jesuits were entitled to ‘convert’ the ‘infidels’ as they call the indigenous Japanese goes unquestioned in this novel.

The focus instead is on the crisis of resolve of Rodrigues. But he undergoes no such crisis about his very presence in a country where he assumes the right to impose his own faith on its inhabitants. The persecutors, as in didactic medieval European martyr narratives and hagiography, are depicted as evil monsters and devilishly cunning as well as cruel.

At one point early on Rodrigues removes his infested kimono:

In the seams of the cloth the firmly entrenched lice looked just like white dust, and as I crushed them one by one with a stone I felt an inexpressible thrill of delight. Is this what the officials feel when they capture and kill the Christians?

Such passages show the skewed polarities of viewpoint presented in the narrative; saintly martyrs versus demonically sadistic persecutors. At the very least the narrative is politically insouciant or naïve.

The magistrate Inoue, with whom Rodrigues faces his ultimate contests, makes his predecessors look like ‘simple-minded’ beginners. He smiles and smiles and yet is a consummate villain. This is too close to caricature; he has none of the troublesome complexity of Iago.

My objection ultimately, then, is that despite its merits as a literary text – the epistolary and ‘found document’/diary elements are skilfully deployed, and the translation is smooth and largely unobtrusive – Silence is essentially too naive and didactic.

This probably says more about my agnostic shortcomings in approaching a faith-based text than the novel itself (doesn’t stop me admiring Paradise Lost or the Divine Comedy), and I acknowledge that I may well be understating its merits: it’s been highly praised by the likes of John Updike and David Mitchell, and won literary prizes. The film version by Martin Scorsese (who also wrote the Introduction to this paperback edition) that came out around the beginning of this year was praised by critics. There’s another made by Japanese director Shinoda in 1971, and one in Portuguese by J. M. Grilo from 1996, called ‘The Eyes of Asia’ in English.

I did find the harrowing of the conscience and moral rectitude of Rodrigues a very engaging and honest aspect of the narrative – like Greene’s more complexly conflicted whisky priest, his doubts and ‘terror at the silence of God’ inspire empathy, and the narrative reaches heights of grandeur at times like this, when peasants have been crucified in the rising sea-tide, and Rodrigues has had to watch:

And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued.

No, no! I shook my head. If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion?…From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist…[Final ellipsis in the original text]

But the recurring figure of Kichijiro, a local Christian fisherman who acts as a guide to the Portuguese priests, but who also betrays them and his fellow Christians repeatedly, was treated with cartoonish broadness. His rascally, drunken cowardice and tricksterish duplicity served more to highlight the integrity and resolve of the priests than to suggest the dangers and hardships endured by the oppressed peasantry and the ‘hidden Christians’. Their fate and courage is incidental to that of the European conquistador priests.

Brian Moore treats the Jesuit incursions into and dealings with the indigenous people of Canada in, to my mind, a more successful literary way in Black Robewhich I posted about in the first year of this blog.

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12 thoughts on “Like the sea God was silent: Shusaku Endo, Silence

  1. I’m glad you’ve read this so I don’t have to…. I would have found the torture scenes much too harrowing and it does sound as if the book needs more balance. As for engaging with this kind of subject matter as an agnostic – well, I’m an atheist, and I thought I didn’t have a problem (for example, I found “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” with its missionary main character to be an excellent read). But oddly I struggled more with the moral agonisings of Sarah in “The End of the Affair” and I suspect that was because of my lack of sympathy with that kind of Catholic dilemma. It certainly is a knotty problem (as is this whole subject of thinking you have the right to go out and force your belief on the rest of the world – The Crusades, for goodness sake!!)

    • Karen, this raises all kinds of difficult questions – many potentially deeply offensive to believers, so I’m hesitant to say much more. But I agree, Greene produces some controversial scenarios in his novels without resolving them in ways that are satisfactory for non Catholics. Endō is a devout Catholic and his faith is admirable given the prejudice he faced in France & at home. Propaganda only works if you sympathise with the cause. That goes for Milton & Blake & many others too – but they transcend propaganda & produce something more elemental

  2. A characteristically thoughtful review, Simon. Like Karen, I think I would struggle with the torture scenes in this book, especially given the explicit nature of the descriptions. I’ve also avoided the recent film adaptation for much the same reason – a pity as Scorsese is one of my favourite directors.

    • Apparently Scorsese also likes the 1936 novel by the French Catholic author Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest; his favourite line from it, according to Wikipedia, is ‘God is not a torturer’. If so it’s hard to reconcile his admiration for the events in ‘Silence’, which prove the opposite, in my view…Depends where you stand, I suppose.

  3. I read this years ago, and saw the recent film. I think it’s interesting that the novel is written by a Japanese author but one who is a Catholic.This may have made the novel more, rather than less, likely to be one-sided. And anyone who has been in a Catholic church will have seen images of torture.

    • Of course: many parish churches in England have images of the harrowing of hell, & let’s face it What’s a crucifix if not an image of torture. My difficulty was with the way it was depicted in the narrative – to make, I felt, a didactic rather than artistic point. It’s a novel, not a church wall. But I concede it’s a defect in my own response to the text, not necessarily located in the text itself. Otherwise Paradise Lost, The Inferno & most literature & art until the 20c would probably fall into the same didactic category. I tried to show in my post that Endo is truly trying to portray a struggle with faith in a troubled soul under terrible duress.

  4. Hi Simon, I very much enjoyed your finely wrought distinction between technical issues and, hard to find the exact word, “maturity” of vision?/”narrowness” of vision? The terms below “skewed polarities,” “insouciant or naïve,” help a lot in parsing this out!

    You write: “Such passages show the skewed polarities of viewpoint presented in the narrative; saintly martyrs versus demonically sadistic persecutors. At the very least the narrative is politically insouciant or naïve.”

    It sounds as if this this veers towards a certain “melodrama,” which is a bit disguised as serious “Literat-Chaaaa” by the sober topic and quality of the construction of the text. I liked your reference to Iago. Shakespeare once again presents the standard that is so hard to reach. Given the ubiquity of Shakespeare and the natural urge to have a bit of balance… he sometimes has pot shots taken at him (unfairly) as the ultimate “Dead White Male” but OH MY, does he set a high water-mark! He had a truly superhuman ability to look into human nature and see it. See it all. Dickens as well (for me). Graham Greene too, maybe one level down from “Shakes” and Dickens.

    Even more so than the “evil villains,” I find the reference to the “saintly peasant helpers” off-putting. The “magical” character (often female, or a person of color)who is there to support the white male main character is SUCH a tired trope. Enough!

    Thank you for your curation. I believe I’ll pass on this one, there is just too much to read in the giant tottering TBR tower to invest time and energy in this.

    P.S. In terms of amazing complexity of viewpoint and depiction of human beings “across culture,” PLEASE do try to see Mira Nair’s incredible movie “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Riz Ahmed does an incredible job in the lead role, with a fine supporting cast, and beautiful cinematography in New York City, Pakistan, and Istanbul.

    • Maureen: thanks for your thoughts. I found it difficult to assess this novel, given that its sincere depiction of a Catholic priest’s faith put under unbearable pressure is just that: sincere. But that doesn’t stop my feeling it’s doing what DH Lawrence once said about bad artists – he said something along the lines that they put their finger in the balancing tray to tip it in the direction they favour. I know it’s unrealistic and unnecessary always to expect neutrality of position in a novelist; some great works of fiction have been partisan, either politically or in religious terms (again one thinks of Paradise Lost as a prime example). But having made a careful study of hagiographical accounts in the past, and read a great many ‘Acta’ of the martyrs written in the middle ages, I find it disappointing that a modern writer is still adopting some of the attitudes of their writers. Although Endo does try to consider a devout Catholic having doubts about his faith, and mirroring Jesus in his feelings of desperation and desertion by his God, I don’t ultimately find it a completely honest try.
      I don’t enjoy writing negative things about books I read, but on the other hand I try to be true to my own perceptions – even though these upset some people. It’s a way of opening debate and discussion, rather than an attempt to impose a doctrinaire view. and yes, Endo does aspire to some Shakespearean themes and issues, with some success.

  5. I hadn’t planned to comment on this piece as the subject isn’t one that hugely grabs me, but I thought it such a good review that I rather had to.

    Endo’s an excellent writer, but your criticisms here sound on point and the comparison with Heart of Darkness is interesting. Suffering is not of itself a justification. The torture was horrific and wrong, but that doesn’t mean those who suffered it were right. Endo’s own faith perhaps gets in the way of how we would see the morality here.

    I’ve read two other Endos, Foreign Studies and one involving a doppelganger the title of which suddenly escapes me. I liked him, but not enough to pursue much further and if I return it won’t be with this title.

    • I’m glad you took the trouble to add these thoughts, Max. It’s gratifying to know that my reservations didn’t come across as too negative or biased against a writer of faith. I remember your own about Heart of Darkness – a less problematically troubling account of cultural imposition, it seems to me.

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