Historically accurate, but fictional, Silence is the story of Portuguese missionaries sent to Japan to preach Christianity to undercover Christians and find their lost mentor, the apostate Father Ferreira. The story takes place in seventeenth-century feudal Japan, a nation seeped in a violent and bloody crisis of faith. Christians are butchered by the thousands, rebellions against the daimyo are mercilessly quelled and missionaries are hunted down to be tortured. Dark times fall upon the land of the rising sun.
In this context, a pair of young and hopeful missionaries secretly land on the shores of the nation. Their main purpose is to offer support to the Christians suffering under the rule of the daimyo, but both are praying to find Ferreira and discover the truth about his apostasy. As they preach their faith in hiding, offering Mass and taking confessions, danger lurks everywhere around them. While some Japanese die as martyrs, others renounce their religion and become traitors. It is a heavy atmosphere that weighs upon the secluded island nation.
Throughout their travel, the priests discover the harshness of the feudal regime and the difficulties Christianity has to take root in Japan. Father Sebastian Rodrigues, especially, finds himself delving deeper and deeper into his self as he journeys into the heart of a hostile culture. Both witness and victim to torture, poverty, famine, Rodrigues continually questions his faith and his life as a missionary.
Until the end, Rodrigues will be wracked with guilt and doubt as he tries to answer one simple question : why is God silent?
1. The fact that Silence is penned by Shūsaku Endō, an author who is both Japanese and Christian, makes it all the more powerful. Through his characters we sense the inner war waged in the author’s own heart. Through his descriptions we discover the pain with which Japanese reflect on the brutal era that was feudal Japan.
2. Silence reads as a memoir, a journal, a biography as well as a novel. Chapters differ in their structure; the reader follows the story through letters sent back to the Church by Rodrigues, a third-person omniscient narrator and journal entries by secondary characters. This gives the story pace, variety and keeps the reader interested through different points of view.
3. The translation (our edition was translated by William Johnston) seems to reproduce what we imagine Japanese narration to be like. The prose is poetic and efficient, and though we will never know if this is true, it feels as if Shūsaku Endō’s voice is properly replicated.
4. Sebastian Rodrigues, though he appears to be a missionary similar to his brothers, ends up showing true character, self-reflection and growth. His doubts and fears are easy to relate to in a very violent and hostile world. While men and women die around Rodrigues as heroic martyrs, Endō does not paint his character as a flawless hero, carrier of a flawless faith.
5. The story, like the character, grows and evolves with each page, even when it does not give the impression that things are moving along. Both in times of tranquility and chaos, something larger than Man is happening behind-the-scenes. The ending is understandable, logical, realistic and objective. Endō gives both sides valid arguments to support their beliefs and perception of good and evil remains subjective to different characters. Stubbornness, as often in History, seems to be the real enemy.
1. Whether this is historically accurate or not, there seemed to be a strange difference in the way Christians were treated by the daimyo. The Japanese converts, for instance, suffered harsher fates than missionaries and foreign merchants. In order to prove one’s innocence, suspected Christians were asked to place their foot on a fumie – a depiction of Christ. This seems a small price to pay in order to avoid the torture and murder of entire families. It was sometimes disconcerting to see starving, newly converted peasants refuse to step on the fumie and be slaughtered because of this. Was their ‘faith’ so strong that they chose violent death rather than a symbolic act? Adding to this, the foreign missionaries, who encouraged Japanese Christians to practice their new faith despite the risk on their lives, were tortured and killed only in extreme cases. Most of the time, the daimyo played mind-games with them, going so far as to beg them politely to apostatize. The contrast was stark and painful.
2. The further one reads into Silence, the more Sebastian Rodrigues compares himself to Christ. He looks at his face in puddles and sees Christ. He imagines Christ’s face smiling at him in many situations. In his mind, Rodrigues even has his own Judas – a coward named Kichijirō – and his own Gethsemane. The analogy felt arrogant and undeserved, as Rodrigues does not exude such flawless heroism and love in the face of adversity.