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.

The aimless flight of time: Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

First published 1964; translated from the Japanese in Penguin Modern Classics 2006 by E. Dale Saunders. 

This ‘oneiric masterpiece’, as David Mitchell aptly calls it in the Introduction, establishes an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere from the start. First we get a tonally flat forensic report on the disappearance of an unnamed man. His fellow teachers and partner assume he’s killed himself. As no trace of him is found after seven years, he’s pronounced dead.

Kobo Abe, cover of The Woman in the DunesThe next chapter begins his story in flashback from the moment he arrived in a coastal village, on holiday to search for an as yet unknown beetle to add to his entomological collection. From the outset it’s apparent that this is not a conventional, realist narrative. First there’s the bland acceptance of those he left behind that he was clearly Oedipal in his insect-collecting, and therefore (an odd logical leap) suicidal – a clear indication of his ‘weariness with the world.’

Then when he arrives at the village the behaviour of people he encounters is like those frightened townsfolk in western movies where the drifting stranger enters a town that is being terrorised by psychotic bandits or a deranged bullying sheriff, and they hope – or fear – that he’ll be the latest would-be hero to take them on – and fail.

The topography of the village is also bizarre: the houses ‘seemed to be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand. The surface of the sand stood higher than the rooftops.’ When he reaches the expanse of dunes by the sea and looks back,

he could see that the great holes, which grew deeper as they approached the crest of the ridge, extended in several ranks toward the center. The village, resembling the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.

From that point it comes as no surprise that he’s lured into a terrifying trap, with a young, attractive widow the bait. At first he struggles with all his strength and ingenuity to escape, then his will to liberate himself fades.

Like the landscape he’s ensnared in, the narrative is disturbing and unsettling. The lack of clear signs explaining why this is being done to him adds to that nightmare aura. He becomes a victim, struggling to extricate himself like one of his insect specimens on a pin, or a fly in a web. The imagery from the field of insects (and to a lesser extent, birds and animals) provides further layers of ‘unheimlich’ atmosphere.

The widow, who remains unnamed throughout, and the man, whose identity is finally revealed as Niki Jumpei, are present in every scene. The ghastly villagers, who act as the man’s guards and tormentors, play a peripheral but still terrifying role.

So what’s it all about? David Mitchell provides a plausible interpretation:

The woman is the animate; the mortal; the flesh; the impetus of sex; consolation in the cell of the unendurable. The dunes – the sand – is the inanimate; the eternal; what flesh is fated to fight against; what confines us; the unendurable self.

This sounds a lot like Sartre’s notoriously provocative account of slime – ‘le visqueux’ – and holes in Being and Nothingness. The novel relates constantly how the man and woman perspire or excrete moisture (from their eyes especially, but also from more suggestive orifices) to which the sand irritatingly, abrasively adheres. Even when they have sex there’s an uncomfortable focus on the intrusiveness of the sand. Sartre equates the slimy with the feminine (especially in a sexual way); the vulva is another void or hole that gapes open, evoking horror in the male. Slime is stagnation; like holes, it appeals to Being, is base and repugnant.

Not surprising that feminist critics (until recently, anyway) have found this account misogynistic and repugnant in itself.

I’m not sure this is what Abe is about in the novel. As Mitchell suggests, interpretation rests ultimately with each reader. There’s no pat answer. The fact that the man falls into a sand-trap, a deep hole at the bottom of which lives the woman, seems to support some kind of gender polarity and conflict or tension. There’s a paradoxical repulsion in the man from the woman and all she represents and inhabits, and simultaneous attraction. Is the sex impulse, that is, an impulse towards self-annhilation?

Not really. It also seems likely that this is an existential parable of a Kafkaesque kind. Like Joseph K, the man’s entrapment and struggle to break free could represent the human condition: that everywhere we are enslaved by everyday life, and are doomed to fail in our quest for liberty. It’s also notable that he’s made painfully aware of the futility of his existence with ‘the other woman’ in the world outside the dunes by his more overtly painful futile toil with the sand with the woman in the dunes; at least the trap in the sand is what it looks like – futile, meaningless, ineffable.

There’s Camus, too: his The Myth of Sisyphus seems apposite, given that the man and woman are sentenced to filling cans of sand that are taken away by the villagers in order to stop the relentless, inexorable shifting sands from engulfing their hut, but also the whole village. Each night they clear the sand away, and next day it’s all been replaced and they must start again.

In the Greek myth Sisyphus is forced, as punishment for his crime against the gods, to roll a rock up a hill; at the top, it rolls back down again and he must repeat the task for ever. For Camus this represents man’s doomed search for meaning or clarity in the face of an unintelligible world in which there is no God, eternal truth – or meaning. Life is absurd: ‘The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

The man in Abe’s disconcerting parable may achieve by the end a similar kind of resigned acceptance of the hopelessness of his fate.

This may all sound too cerebral and abstract to appeal; but it’s a compelling read, full of tension and narrative drive – more Stephen King in its relentless, frightening drive than Sartrean intellectual obfuscation.

It’s an existential fiction – acknowledging the futility, absurdity or unreadability of life – that was also being explored by Beckett, Borges and others in the mid-20C.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s profound, truly terrifying and strangely uplifting.

Here’s a final quotation that maybe indicates the kind of thing I’ve been trying to suggest; it’s when the man has rebelled against his captivity and refused to co-operate with the sand-digging:

When he actually began working, for some reason he did not resist as much as he thought he would. What could be the cause of this change? he wondered…Work seemed something fundamental for man, something which enabled him to endure the aimless flight of time.

‘For some reason’; ‘seemed’; this view of life’s narrative is that it’s elusive and defies attempts to interpret it. Soon after this scene he tells the woman a Kafkaesque parable of a guard who protected an ‘imaginary castle’, ‘an illusion.’ He then brushes sand from his head, looks at the wind-driven ripples of sand at his feet [ellipses in the original]:

Supposing they were sound waves, what kind of music would they give? he wondered. Maybe even a human being could sing such a song…if tongs were driven into his nose and slimy blood stopped up his ears.,,if his teeth were broken one by one with hammer blows, and splinters jammed into his urethra…if a vulva were cut away and sewn into his eyelids. It might resemble cruelty, and then again it might be a little different. Suddenly his eyes soared upward like a bird, and he felt as if he were looking down on himself. Certainly he must be the strangest of all…he who was musing on the strangeness of things here.

 

 

A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE