Thirty years ago the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo published Silence, a novel meant to tell the story of missionaries in 17th-century Japan, whose efforts were subject to fierce repression, through a story that concretely examines nothing less than the nature of faith, of loyalty under extreme duress to Jesus and His Church, and therefore of martyrdom. The novel’s central character is a Portuguese Jesuit, Sebastian Rodrigues, and what we read is an account of this young missionary priest’s experiences in Japan, where he has gone in order to learn the whereabouts, the fate, of another Jesuit, Christovao Ferreira, who is reported to have apostatized after a long career in Asia, much to the disbelief of his fellow Jesuits in Rome and elsewhere. Fr. Rodrigues and another Jesuit, Francisco Garrpe, eventually get to Japan (the year is 1638), and the heart of the novel is a letter written by Fr. Rodrigues (it is declared a part of Catholic missionary history) which chronicles the extreme suffering of persecuted believers, not to mention the spiritual tests and trials put to the man whose words are a record, obviously, an account of a story, but something else, too — a challenge to us: What does Jesus ask of us, expect from us, in our daily lives?
Endo’s disarmingly direct and poignant narration masks a complex moral discussion that many of us, perhaps, will prefer not to join. Indeed, Endo more than implies that the Church itself was not easily inclined to look into the matter of Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy — Fr. Rodrigues had to wait and wait for approval for his proposed mission of inquiry — and in fact the book hints at a possible explanation for such a reluctance: Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy is probed, all right, by Fr. Rodrigues, and by the time we readers learn about what happened, we are more than a bit stunned. It is interesting, in this regard, how Silence has been reviewed: Critic after critic, extolling the book, refuses to divulge its climactic moment — when Fr. Rodrigues, caught by the Church’s persecutors, is confronted with their demand that he defile a holy image of Christ, and thereby add his apostasy to that of the one whose actions he has come to investigate. One reviewer doesn’t want to “betray” the plot for his readers; another declared that “it would be unfair to reveal the decision” that Rodrigues, in the end, makes — having been told that if he tramples on the fumie, which is an icon expressly fashioned for such a gesture, others in the midst of terrible torture will be spared. Yet, I wonder whether all of us aren’t so profoundly troubled by the novel’s posed religious dilemma and choice that we ourselves become part of the “silence” to which this book’s title alludes. That title, Endo tells us, has to do with the felt silence many apprehend from the Lord’s side of things amidst the unspeakable horrors that human beings inflict on one another — horrors that we of this century have especially known, as Elie Wiesel, for example, reminds us in his autobiographical Night, with its description of the Nazi murderousness he experienced in the early 1940s. In the face of such monstrous evil, of 17th-century Japan, of 20th-century Europe, where is God’s voice?
From the more comfortable precincts of Christianity, untested by what Wiesel went through, or Fr. Ferreira (the spectacle of torture and murder as immediate aspects of everyday life), it is possible to be smart, learned, utterly loyal to a spiritual, a theological tradition — and insist that a reference to God’s so-called “silence” indicates a grave misunderstanding of who God is, and of course who we are. Yes, God is “silent” — our freedom, including the freedom to be evil, is what constitutes the heart of our being, the biggest gift possible: the freedom to obey God’s commandments, His expressed and revealed truths, but also the freedom to ignore them, defy them, or, put differently, calling upon Endo’s imagery, the capacity or willingness to hear God’s “voice” as it has been given articulation over time, or the choice of a heedlessness, deafness on our part. For Rodrigues, for others who have come after him, such abstract knowledge has had to contend with — well, life, in all its sometimes terrifying moral confrontations, and it is just such a concrete, vivid, particular moment that a novelist’s vocation allows him or her to grant, as Endo does here.
Endo is a quietly engaging writer with no interest in large-scale or dogmatic moral argument, with its unfortunate risk of bombast and self-righteousness. He lets us meet this modest, perplexed, yet obviously determined “vessel of God,” as the expression goes — a priest in the long and noble, if at times ill-fated and tragic, history of Jesuit evangelization. We meet, too, those he gets to know when, at last, as a secret intruder, he sneaks into Japan and makes contact with a segment of its beleaguered, hounded community of Christian believers. Soon enough, this visitor, himself in hiding, realizes how much danger and jeopardy these ordinary people must endure almost every moment of their lives — their martyrdom an aspect of a humble faith, lived daily, that isn’t given the notoriety of sainthood. With the help of a guide, Kichijiro, our protagonist has come to meet these people, and it is precisely this man (he will remind the reader of the mestizo who follows Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” in The Power and The Glory) who, Judas-like, will betray Rodrigues — all of that action a prelude to this story’s enormously challenging showdown with his Japanese captors.
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