Silence, by Shusaku Endo (trans. William Johnston): According to the translator’s introduction, Shusaku Endo has often been called the Japanese Graham Greene, and more specifically, Silence is considered Endo’s response to The Power and the Glory, another book that was on Charmian’s list of recommendations. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to reading The Power and the Glory in time, but from what I can tell, both feature protagonists who are renegade Catholic priests living under violent regimes bent on stamping out Christianity. While The Power and the Glory is set during the early twentieth century in Mexico under a military government, Silence is set in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate.

I hadn’t known much about the history of Catholicism in Japan, and the translator’s introduction proved to be helpful in providing some background information. Missionaries, mostly from Portugal, had achieved considerable success in establishing themselves in Japan and had built churches and seminaries with the approval of local daimyo before Japan went through political upheavals that changed the attitude of authorities to Western influence and culture. Foreign priests were banned from Japan, and any Catholics caught were tortured until they denied their faith. Silence thus tells the story of a young Portuguese priest, named Rodrigues, who secretly enters Japan in order to find out what happened to his former teacher, Ferreira, a missionary to Japan who has apostatized. (Ferreira is a real historical figure, while Rodrigues is not.)

As a Korean Catholic, I’m familiar with stories of martyrdom: I’ve heard all my life about the forty Korean martyrs who were executed by the government during the Yi Chosun dynasty, not to mention read my share of hagiographies of early Christian saints under the Roman Empire who died in pots of boiling water or by arrows or on spiked wheels. But the description of tortures in Silence seemed particularly alien and cruel: being tied to wooden posts in the middle of the sea or hung upside down in a pit filled with excrement with holes cut behind the ears to let the blood drain. The goal was not to kill them for the crime of being Christian but rather force them to deny their faith in front of their families and neighbors.

Rodrigues enters Japan with a fellow priest, Garrpe, and spends some time ministering to the Christian villagees he finds, while hiding from authorities. He is, however, eventually betrayed by the guide he hired, Kichijiro, whom he (arrogantly) considers as his own personal Judas. Rodrigues sees the Japanese villagers who helped hide him undergo torture and eventually die, while clinging steadfastly to their faith; he however is spared any suffering. He begins to doubt his faith, wondering and even raging at God’s silence while Christians die ingloriously without any sign from the universe that their martyrdom has been acknowledged. Only in the moment of his own apostasy, as he is about to step on an image of Christ, does he hear God’s voice again: “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”

Rodrigues’ anguish at the silence of God reminded me of some of the post-Holocaust literature that also asked how could a benevolent God let such atrocities happen. Of course, I don’t equate the persecution of Catholics in Japan with the Nazi attempt at systematic genocide, and perhaps that was why I felt impatient at times with Rodrigues’ self-absorption: what right did he have to be angry at God when he hadn’t suffered nearly as much as those who did undergo torture? (Then again, what right do I have to judge Rodrigues, when I myself have never experienced what he has?) I think though that Endo intends Rodrigues to come across as a priest who has always been somewhat complacent in his faith, who has never been so challenged until his trip to Japan. Rodrigues anticipates hardship and expects to at least be given the chance at a glorious martyrdom: it is all the more dramatic when he apostatizes without even being tortured. It strikes a deliberate contrast coming after his patronizing albeit compassionate attitude towards the Japanese villagers, as well as his wholesale condemnation and judgment of Kichijiro. Rodrigues is human and imperfect and weak—weaker, perhaps, than Kichijiro. The novel moves from a first-person voice in letters to a limited third-person narrating from Rodrigues’ point-of-view to a series of documents recording what happened to Rodrigues after his apostasy. Is the outward progression in perspective meant to mirror Rodrigues’ own progression in self-awareness about himself and his faith? Or is it intended to detach the reader from Rodrigues’ character, giving us space to draw our own conclusions as Rodrigues is forced to grapple with more and more contradictions?

On a final note, Endo questions whether Christianity can truly exist in Japan, whether the Japanese can really be Christian. It seems to be an extremely personal question (Endo himself is a Japanese Catholic) to which he has no answer. Ferreira tells Rodrigues:

This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp. [...] But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God [...] No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.

I’m not certain why Endo believes that there is a fundamental incompatibility between being Japanese and being Christian—or for that matter, what that incompatibility consists of—but it does become clear that Rodrigues drastically redefines his image of Christ in his moment of apostasy. Can he still claim to be a priest, a Catholic, a Christian? I don’t know, but I can relate to him more in that moment than in any previous part of the book because I too find it easier to believe in the Christ who suffered than the Christ who saved us.