Author: Shusaku Endo
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1969 (2016)
Note: This review contains spoilers since the ending is an important part of understanding the novel.
We Christians, like many of different faiths, love to play the martyr. Catholics make the martyrs saints, starting with the very first saint, St. Stephen (although the Holy Innocents are often called saints even though they knew not why there were being killed). The martyrs are those who face death instead of renouncing their faith, showing their belief in God’s word and promise of resurrection.
Shusaku Endo uses this concept as the basis for Silence, an outstanding novel that will make any Christian uncomfortable and let non-Christians in on the depth of faith for most believers. The story is set in 17th century Japan and the persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians). We follow the story, partly by letters, of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues (based on the real life Giuseppe di Chiara) who travels with another priest (Franciso Garrpe) in search of Father Ferreira. Once their beloved teacher, Ferreira is believed to have committed apostasy and the priests want to find him and serve the persecuted Christians of Japan.
For a while the two priests hide together in a hut, but eventually are taken to an island and opt to split up so they have a better chance to succeed in their mission. We follow Rodrigues as he travels a short time before being captured. Much of his time is spent in a prison where he is allowed to offer support to other Christians in jail, but all the time he is wondering when he will be taken to the “pit,” a gruesome torture that is said to have caused Ferreira to renounce his faith.
At one point Rodrigues is taken to a location where he sees Garrpe and other Christians being readied to be taken out to sea and drowned. They are wrapped up so they cannot move and will be dropped into the sea. Rodrigues is told that Garrpe can save the others if he renounces his faith. If he does not, they all die. Endo has changed the martyr narrative from one of giving your life for your faith to sacrificing others for your faith.
“‘Apostatize! Apostatize!’ He shouted out the words in his heart to Garrpe who was listening to the officials” (143). Rodrigues continues to silently encourage Garrpe to do this as all are put out to sea and drowned. Garrpe is now a martyr, but so are three others he could have saved.
Rodrigues’ faith, far from wavering, becomes stronger through this whole ordeal. He is routinely “interrogated” but only in the sense that they try to show him how his faith is either false or at least not one that will work in Japan. Instead, he begins to see Christ heading to the cross or crying tears of blood as he too felt abandoned. He realizes Christ is with him and has suffered as much as he can.
Rodrigues is at last brought to see Ferreira who indeed did apostatize and is now essentially a prisoner of the government. He has been given a house, a Japanese name, and a wife, whether he wants one or not. It is also announced that he is writing a book denouncing Christianity. The fact that he is kept under guard and not allowed to travel signals that even the Japanese believe he has not truly renounced his faith, although he is good to use as an example to others. Rodrigues does not seem to believe that Ferreira has truly renounced his faith, but he does not understand why he lives like he does.
Finally, Rodriques is taken to a urine-soaked cell where his willingness to die for his faith only increases. Indeed, he looks forward to the opportunity and refuses to renounce his faith to his interrogators. Finally, Ferreira is sent to talk with him and Rodrigues discovers the noise he is hearing outside his cell are the moans of those hanging in the pit where they are slowly bled to death. “Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God — he does nothing either” Ferreira tells him (179).
It is the silence of the title. The silence of God when his followers suffer, the silence of a God who does not answer prayers. Should Rodrigues match this silence and suffer a martyr’s death at the expense of three other people suffering? Finally, like Ferreira, he chooses not to let them suffer for his faith and he apostatizes.
He will continue to wrestle with if he made the right choice. “Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith…I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved…I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness”(186).
Or, perhaps, God is not so silent. It reminds me of the old joke about the man who was on the roof of his house during a flood and when a boat came to save him he sent them off saying God would save him. He sends away another boat and then a helicopter — and then drowns. When he gets to heaven he asks God why he didn’t save him. God responds that he sent him two boats and a helicopter, so what more could he do?
Perhaps Ferreira and Rodrigues have been truer to their faith then Garrpe, who died a martyr’s death. They now live as an embarrassment to their faith, rejected by their own faith community, and forever imprisoned to serve as an example of the weakness of their faith to the Japanese. But what Rodrigues does learn as he continues to see the suffering Christ is that God may not relieve suffering, but we do not suffer alone. Endo does not provide any easy answers but he challenges those who follow his faith, as he was a Catholic in a modern Japanese culture where his faith was at time persecuted.
The novel has been made into a film three times. First, Masahiro Shinoda Masahiro Shinoda made Silence in 1971. Director Joao Mario Griolo’s Os Olhos da Ásia in 1996 used the novel as a starting point. Finally, Martin Scorsese made a version of the film, also titled Silence, in 2016. I have not seen any of the films, so I offer no recommendations on them. But I highly recommend this incredible novel for everyone.