Monday 11 July 2011

The silence of God

Shusako Endo's first novel, Silence, is also his most famous and probably deservedly. I say “probably” because while I enjoyed it very much, I was not nearly as affected by it, either aesthetically or emotionally, as I was by his later work Deep River. Deep River accomplishes something crucial to Endo's lifelong topic (what it means to be Christian in Japan) that Silence does not—that is, it comes at the same issue repeatedly but without ever becoming repetitive.

Silence is perhaps more ambitious than Deep River, for not only does it deal with Japanese Christians struggling to maintain faith in a homeland that is ostracizing them for it, but Silence is also an historical novel, told from the perspective of a non-Japanese. The historical moment centres on the last days of Portugal's Christian mission in Japan during the seventeenth century, focused through the lens of Father Rodrigues's attempt first to minister to Japanese Christians, and then to negotiate the terrible options of either apostasy or sending his sheep to suffer terrible tortures for his refusal to do so.

Brought up against Rodrigues's initial naivety and commitment to spread the Church's teaching at any cost is God's persistent and terrible silence in the face of the atrocities being perpetuated against His sheep. Complicating Rodrigues's understanding of his proper role in Japan is that Kichijiro, his own personal Judas, wrestles with the same question the devoted priest wrestles with:
I do not believe that God has given us this trial to no purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all its sufferings has been bestowed upon us—for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of the last stammering words of Kichijiro on the morning of his departure: “Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering upon us?” And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. “Father,” he said, “what evil have we done?”

I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with all the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. (pp. 54-55)
God's silence cannot be reconciled with anything Rodrigues thinks he knows. And indeed, as time interminably passes with the priest imprisoned and more and more Japanese Christians dying because he refuses to renounce his faith, Rodrigues realizes that he really knows nothing. Or, at least, what he knows in the end is neither safe, neat, nor immediately helpful to either himself or his afflicted flock.

Now, when I said earlier that I didn't think Silence was as good as Deep River, what I mean is, I don't think it is as successful as a novel. In Deep River, Endo seamlessly made real human spiritual suffering and searching into a compelling story; Silence, on the other hand, reads more like a personal confession dressed not entirely comfortably in the trappings of story. It is, nonetheless, a very fine book, if not a perfect one.

Because David Mitchell is my literary compass
And, to allow myself a little tangent, I cannot believe that David Mitchell wasn't influenced by this novel when he was conceiving of and writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Silence concludes in Nagasaki in the mid-seventeenth century; Autumn begins in the extremely nearby Dejima at the end of that century, focusing on Dutch traders and their uneasy relationship with their Japanese hosts. Besides the Bible that Jacob smuggles into Japan at his mortal peril, the penultimate section of Silence comprises the log-book of a secretly Christian Dutch trader at Dejima—a log-book very like those Jacob is assigned to audit for discrepancies. Also, I like to think that the ruthless Inoue's comparison of Christianity trying to set down roots in Japan to the unwanted love of an ugly woman is ironically but very tenderly reversed in Mitchell's novel to become Jacob's love for an apparently ugly (because of burn scars on her face) but brilliant and lovely Japanese woman entirely out of his reach. But of course, the really important similarity lies in the heart-breaking silence of the beloved when one word would change everything.


Unknown said...

Well, I suppose I'll just have to read 'Deep River' then 'cos I loved 'Silence' :)

And Mr. Mitchell is well known for his love of J-Lit, so I'm sure he had this book in mind when writing 'Thousand Autumns..' (although, as I commented in my review, I found the subject matter of Endo's book more interesting...).

Bellezza said...

I found Silence profoundly moving, in part because of this very sentence in your post: "what he knows in the end is neither safe, neat, nor immediately helpful to either himself or his afflicted flock." While I've been a Christian all my life, one who loves the Lord and feels humbled by His grace, there are many questions I have. We take a leap of faith, trusting His plan and often being required to trust His silence. I often think of this book, and wonder why He doesn't answer my questions as clearly as I'd like (an essay, perhaps?). Then I think of this verse, " "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD." Isaiah 55:8

I think Endo writes masterfully of a complicated subject, and I so appreciate his thoughts and perspective.

Great review, as always, Colleen. I like your thoughts as well!

Rebecca Reid said...

I really enjoyed the confession aspect of Silence, sounds like I really need to read Deep River too! Off to read your thoughts.

@parridhlantern said...

Aim to read this at some point, or more accurately aim to work my way through his works, as I thoroughly enjoyed Stained Glass Elegies & The Sea & Poison.

Michelle @ 1morechapter said...

I absolutely loved Silence. I've had Deep River for a long time and would love to get to it for the Japanese Challenge