Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is now widely regarded as a modern classic. The initial reaction of Japanese Catholics, however, was largely hostile. The Bishop of Nagasaki ordered his flock not to read the book, while Catholic critics lined up to criticize it—especially the key scene in which the Portuguese priest Rodrigues places his foot on the fumie, an engraving of the face of Christ fixed onto a wooden board, in an act of apostasy.
A Catholic himself, Endō knew that he could not rely on the tiny Catholic community in Japan if he was to achieve publishing or critical success. And Silence was an undoubted success, with 750,000 copies of the 1966 hardback edition and over double that number of paperbacks sold. Part of the reason for these impressive sales figures was the book’s resonance among left-wing Japanese readers, who saw in the struggles of the Jesuit missionaries something akin to the situation their Marxist predecessors had faced in the 1930s.
When Silence was translated into English, Endō won supporters outside Japan, with Graham Greene and John Updike securing the book’s wider recognition and critical acclaim. Arguably what attracted many readers in the West was the same thing that had dismayed Japanese Catholics. A novel about doubt, the problem of evil, and the silence of God captured the Western zeitgeist perfectly.
What is most striking about Silence, when one re-reads it today, is the extent to which it is a novel of its time. Rodrigues, in particular, is plagued by a very modern form of doubt. Almost immediately after his arrival in Japan and before his own arrest, he urges Japanese Catholics to trample on the fumie and is scathing about the promise of Paradise. Tormented by the silence of God, he has a surprisingly secular understanding of the world. Given the nature of his mission and the era in which the book is set—the mid–seventeenth century—this understanding seems historically implausible. But as both Martin Scorsese (in his introduction to the most recent edition of the novel) and Francis Mathy (in his introduction to The Golden Country, a sort of theatrical prequel to the novel) point out, Endō was motivated not primarily by a desire for historical veracity, but by his own contemporary concerns.
Since theodicy springs from a very modern understanding of the relationship between God and man, it makes sense to see Silence not so much as an authentically historical novel but rather as an existential or even political one, with Orwell’s Winston Smith being Rodrigues’s most significant literary antecedent. The Portuguese priest may not come to love his equivalent of Big Brother but, after interrogation and the threat of torture, he does submit to the intransigent political power of his day and willingly serves it.
However, Silence is a complex novel that resists straightforward readings. As readers, we struggle along with Rodrigues to make sense of his motivations and actions. Did Jesus speak to him from the fumie? Did he place his foot on it to save Japanese Christians or to save himself? Did he apostatize at all, or did he simply find another way of being Christian? We are never allowed to settle into certainty, partly because questions and doubts are built into the very structure of the novel.
Opening with an apparently historical and biographical explanation of the apostasy of Fr. Ferreira, the Portuguese Provincial and leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, the narrative quickly shifts to one of Ferreira’s letters and then to a series of letters from Sebastian Rodrigues. When Rodrigues is captured, Endō’s approach changes again, this time to a third-person narrative, though that too is subverted by later diary entries giving different perspectives on the events of the novel. Endō’s mastery of form prevents us from reaching definitive conclusions about Rodrigues’s shocking act of submission.
Japan’s Christian Century (from St Francis Xavier’s arrival in 1549 to 1638, when Christianity was definitively banned) and the subsequent era of persecution continue to fascinate Japanese novelists, manga and anime authors, and even video game designers. In an attempt to make sense of contemporary globalising tendencies, artists from many different backgrounds have returned to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to explore what it is to be Japanese. What troubled many Japanese Catholic readers at the time of Silence’s publication was that Endō’s position on this important question seemed to put him at odds with his own Church. They struggled with a novel that apparently suggested that the uniqueness of Japan necessitated a rejection of the catholicity of Catholicism.
But there is another sense in which the legacy of Silence is troubling. Because of the novel’s success, Endō is often seen as the representative Japanese Catholic author, even the representative Japanese Catholic. This perception has led to the neglect of the works of other fine Catholic writers, such as Sono Ayako, Miura Shumon, Shimao Toshio, Tanaka Chikao, Tanaka Sumie, Takahashi Takako, and Kaga Otohiko. Kaga is a particularly interesting example. Having converted to Catholicism under the influence of Endō, he wrote Takayama Ukon, a novel about the life of a Samurai who converted to Christianity. But novels about faith are not always so popular with Western publishers and so, unlike Silence, Takayama Ukon has not yet been translated into English.
If, as seems entirely likely, Scorsese’s film of Silence creates renewed interest in the work of Shūsaku Endō, let us hope that it also leads to an appreciation of what other Japanese Catholic authors have to offer. Sometimes silence is a reminder that we haven’t been listening carefully enough.
Roy Peachey is a doctoral student at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne and teaches at Woldingham School in the UK.
We depend on our readers. Please support First Things by making a donation today.