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.

Brian Moore, ‘Black Robe’: a critique

Brian Moore, Black Robe.  Paladin paperback, 1987; first published in Great Britain 1985

In this visceral quest narrative, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels meet Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s whisky priest/Catholic crisis stories.

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

At the age of twenty Daniel Davost, a French orphan, has arrived at Sieur Samuel de Champlain’s early seventeenth-century French settlement that will become Québec city in New France, Canada.  He asks to accompany the Jesuit priest, Father Paul Laforgue, on a dangerous river expedition by canoe, with Algonkin ‘Savages’ (as the French settlers in the region hypocritically call them) as guides – they are on their way to their winter hunting grounds, and are given gifts as inducement .  Word has reached Champlain that the two priests at a Jesuit mission deep in the ‘country of the Hurons’, have succumbed to sickness, or may have been murdered.  A replacement is needed.

Daniel harbours a secret: he is not motivated by missionary zeal, as he leads his countrymen to believe; he has fallen passionately in love with Annuka, a young Algonkin woman, who is to accompany the group with her family.  Daniel is aware he is in mortal sin for this deception.

The group undergoes numerous tribulations on the way,

Champlain; book illustration from Champlain's 'Works', 1925, vol. II, p. 39

Québec settlement, 1608, by C.W. Jefferys after a drawing by Champlain; book illustration from Champlain’s ‘Works’, 1925, vol. II, p. 39

culminating in their capture by the fierce enemies of the Algonkin – the Iroquois; not all of them survive.  They call the cruel torture to which they subject their victims, with typically fierce ‘Savage’ irony, ‘caressing’ them.

After a not entirely convincing escape scene, Daniel, Laforgue, Annuka and her father resume their quest.  Laforgue goes on to the mission village alone; there he finds old Father Jerome dying, having suffered two strokes.  His assistant had been murdered.  The villagers are dying of fever, presumably smallpox, and their sorcerers accuse the ‘Blackrobes’, as they call the Jesuit priests, of bringing the illness among them:

…the Blackrobes did not speak of curing rituals to combat sickness, but of death and another life to which they wished to lead the people.   The Blackrobes spoke this way because they were the sorcerers of death…[they] were devils of great power.

But the Algonkin sorcerers are forced to concede, and agree to let the village be baptised – they have no choice, for their people have no resistance to the disease which the Europeans tend to survive; this is seen as evidence of the superior power of the Jesuits’ god.

There is more than a culture clash here; the rival belief systems are mutually incompatible.  As Aenons, a local sorcerer says to Laforgue:

You and your god do not suit our people.  Your ways are not our ways.  If we adopt them we will be neither Norman [the Savages’ name for the French] nor Huron.  And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from the earth.

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America's NE coast

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America’s NE coast

It’s hard not to feel saddened when they agree to give up their animistic beliefs, that there is a life-force or spirit in all living things –  trees, animals – which the Savages respect and embrace joyfully.  They despise the French desire for material possessions and lack of sympathy for the spirit of the country. One of the strengths of this novel, however, is that Moore avoids sentimentalising either side; he portrays the barbarity of much of the Savages’ society – its casual cruelty, polygamy, sexual licence and misogyny, foul-mouthed ‘filthy banter’ in their talk (there are almost as many profanities in their speech as in Trainspotting), and the ambiguity of the Jesuits’ faith and mission.  Was the coming of the Europeans a deliverance for benighted heathens into the enlightenment of Civilisation, or was it a tragedy for a noble, ecologically balanced world?  Moore is able to keep most of these questions open without attempting to provide pat answers.  But the sorcerer was right: some ten years after the Algonkin agreed to submit to baptism, they had been wiped out by the Iroquois.

Central to the dramatic success of the novel is the conflicted character of Laforgue.  His apparently indomitable Christian faith weakens and almost breaks by the end of the novel.  From the start he longs to be called to undertake the mission, but lacks complete conviction in his fitness to fulfil it;  as early as p. 41 he muses on the ‘Jesuit house in Dieppe’ he had left behind, its priests reading their breviaries in their cloisters:

He had been one of them.  But from now on he would read his office in some clearing in a strange forest, or behind the wooden palisades of a distant mission house.  He looked again at the rabble of Savage women, emaciated, burdened by years of toil, limbs gnarled, faces worn by sun and wind; at the brown laughing girls; at the children, wild as the forest which was their home.  With these people he would live for years, perhaps for the rest of his life.  A sudden sadness came upon him.

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

He dreads failure, or going native, as most of the depraved, greedy, fur-trapping French settlers have; their descent into the sexual depravity (as they see it) of the Savages disgusts him.  Even Champlain wears a beaver-fur robe, like an Algonkin chief.

By the end, he clashes with the fanatical Fr Jerome; as he reasons, the villagers at the mission only ask for baptism because they fear death:

‘Or because they fear God,’ the sick priest said.  ‘Alas, most Christians do not perform their duties because they love God, but because they fear Him.  This fever is God’s hand.’

The priest’s paralysis and declining health – he almost seems to be putrefying while still alive – highlights the tensions between his zeal for converts, for saving souls, as he sees it, with the fever God’s missionary tool, and what Laforgue sees as the ‘sophism’ of baptising the heathens uninstructed, under spiritual and mortal duress.  ‘The end is good!’ insists Jerome.

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

The style throughout is lucid, and the prose is spare, as the quotations above demonstrate.  The pace of the plot is cracking; in fact there’s almost too much dramatic action.  But this slight weakness is countered by the powerful, sympathetic portrayal of this clash of belief systems.  Moore never slips into hagiographical representation of either side; neither does he demonise them.  When the village sorcerer at the novel’s end asks Jerome if those who are not baptised will die of the fever, Jerome replies, ‘That is for God, not me, to decide.’  ‘That is not an answer’, snaps the sorcerer; he demands one.  Jerome repeats he doesn’t know, then says:

‘But let me ask you.  If you were our God, who would you spare?  Your friend or your enemy?’

That is an answer’ [says the sorcerer].

Laforgue looks on, more and more disenchanted.  Daniel has become a Savage, he reflects:

And I, what am I?  Do I still have the right to challenge Jerome, who is strong in his faith, I who am an empty shell?’

Later he thinks:

What are these baptisms but a mockery of all the days of my belief, of all the teachings of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ?  Why did Chomina [Annuka’s father] and go to outer darkness when this priest, fanatic for a harvest of souls, will pass through the portals of heaven, a saint and a martyr?…The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages.  God, whose wishes he had dedicated his life to fulfil, was, in this land of darkness, as distant as the pomp and magnificence of the Church in Rome.  Here in this humble foolish chapel, rude as a child’s drawing, a wooden box and a painted statuette could not restore his faith.  Yet somehow he must try.

Whether he manages to find his faith again is left unclear; what he does find is a redemption that I found more satisfying; he finds that he has come to love these ‘Savages’ in their ‘vast, empty land’.  As he pours baptismal water on a sick brow, a ‘true prayer’ comes to him at last.

All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.