I started reading Silence by Shūsaku Endō with a weird mix of reluctance and curiosity. I’m not usually drawn to literature with strong Christian themes, and this book is all about Christian missionaries to Japan in the 1600s, during the period that Japan was actively suppressing the teaching and spread of Christianity by deporting, torturing, and killing missionaries and converts. Just as I am horrified by such physical violence and cruelty, I have often felt that missionary work, i.e., conversion, is a culturally violent practice in itself. It seemed like a lose-lose thesis for me, and I was ambivalent about reading it. But my family is from Kyushu, where the book is set, so I was curious as well.
At one point, there were thousands of Christian converts in Japan. The preface explained that the priests found the Japanese among the most receptive people to conversion that they’d ever encountered. Even powerful Japanese lords converted, and it seemed that Christianity had an unstoppable foothold until the Tokugawa shoguns centralized power. Fearing that the missionaries’ interest in Japan was more political than religious, the shogun issued a “no Christianity” edict and expelled all foreigners, slaughtered thousands of Japanese Christians, and captured/tortured/killed any priests found hiding or sneaking into the country.
The Japanese knew that Christianity was based on belief, so killing belief was even more symbolically important than killing the body. Therefore, their method was to force any suspected Christians to apostatize, or renounce their faith. In Japan, this took the form of fumie — walking across a piece of wood with the image of Christ on it. The act of stepping on the face of god with the lowest, dirtiest part of your body, was the act of apostasy. And it worked — though some people, priests and peasants alike, no matter how much they were tortured would not apostatize. So they were killed.
In Silence, two priests sneak into Japan (it sounds like the start of a bad bar joke…). They have come to find Father Ferreira, a well-respected, super-devout priest who was captured by the Japanese officials and has reportedly apostatized. They cannot believe this is true, or if so, how he could have been so spiritually weak no matter the severity of the torture. After hiding in terror of capture and torture in a remote mountain hut, they eventually split up and head out to see if they can find Christians and/or any word of Father Ferreira. We, the readers, follow Father Rodrigues.
It’s a short time before Rodrigues is captured. The rest of the book is an intense examination of Rodrigues’s thinking and spiritual crisis as he must resist the repeated demands and coaxing of the Japanese to apostatize. This is when the novel got really curious.
Rodrigues is never tortured — deprived, isolated, and detained, but not physically tortured. However, he is forced to watch the torture of others. Nonapotatizing Christians are are wrapped in reed mats and sunk into the sea; tied to stakes in the sea and slowly drown in the tides; hung upside down in pits filled with excrement and rotting bodies while small cuts on their heads drip blood into their mouths and noses; and executed deftly with the whip of sword. The question Rodrigues asks himself over and over is: Why is god silent in the face of such suffering? Why doesn’t god recognize such devotion and sacrifice with a sign? And his never-spoken fear: Could silence mean there is no god?
In charge of Rodrigues’s capture and apostatizing is the Japanese official Inoue. He brilliantly uses Rodrigues’s belief system, not torture, to make Rodrigues apostatize. At the book’s climax, it is Ferreira who presents the argument that makes Rodrigues finally place his foot on the wood. I won’t give it away — it’s a remarkable twist in logic and answers the question of silence. Or does it?
This book made me think deeply about the importance of words and actions. On one hand, it’s hard for me to understand what the big deal was about walking across a piece of wood with a picture of a face on it. The face is not god, and the action is not belief or lack thereof. On the other hand, the power we have to assign meaning and belief to actions, words, images and to hold to them tightly in our resolve is remarkable. And isn’t it all the more important in these days of “alternate facts” and slippery words, shallow claims, and casual loyalties?
In the end, I really enjoyed this book. Endō’s intense fascination, his consternation, about questions of faith and meaning, are palpable. It made me think deeply and I was surprised by my intellectual conversion in appreciation for the book’s topic and themes.