“A great shadow passed over his soul like that of the wings of a bird flying over the mast of a ship. The wings of the bird now brought to his mind the memory of the various ways in which the Christians had died. At that time, too, God had been silent. When the misty rain floated over the sea, he was silent. When the one-eyed man had been killed beneath the blazing rays of the sun, he had said nothing. But at that time, the priest had been able to stand it; or rather than stand it, he had been able to thrust the terrible doubt far from the threshold of his mind. But now it was different. Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”
Set in Nagasaki, Japan in the early 1600’s, Silence is a historical fiction novel influenced by the true accounts of violent torture and ousting of Christian missionaries and other Western influences from Japan in the late 1500’s- early 1600’s. It is a fictional tale with names plucked from history through letters and other records researched by the author, a Japanese Catholic writer named Shusaku Endo (Volcano, The Samurai, Deep River.) Silence was written in 1966 and became a controversial book in the eyes of some Japanese Christians, who believe it didn’t offer enough devotion to the Japanese martyrs of Christ and proves the lack of faith held by the priests who apostatized under the regime of Inoue, who was infamous for hanging Christians from a rope over a pit for days–until they died.
The main character, Sebastian Rodrigues, is a devout Catholic priest from Portugal, traveling to Japan with fellow priest, Garrpe. The duo hold quite a childlike faith at the start of the journey. The struggle to spread the Christian religion and also to maintain the practices of the oppressed believers in Japan, holding fast to their faith in secret, was real. Endo does not portray the priests as cowards, though their adamant faith in God begins to waver; and eventually, they wonder when–or if–God will act. Or even speak.
The most memorable character, the story’s Gollum, adds further weight to the questions raised by this story chronicling the foreign priests’ struggle between faithfulness and apostasy. Kichijiro is a disgusting weasel who volunteers to be the priests’ guide. He comes and goes throughout the story. Though not a likeable character, Kichijiro cannot be ignored and plays an intrinsic role, akin to the fallen, tortured, former Hobbit from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
One compelling scene occurs when Rodriguez imagines the face of Christ as he experiences his own torture, paralleling Christ’s suffering. The priest recites the liturgy of the Passion and reminisces on his many years of faithfulness to that face. Both torturous events end with similar concluding statements and the silence of God.
With an ending that may leave the reader with much to grapple with on a personal spiritual level, Silence is also a worthy read for anyone who appreciates historical fiction, Japanese history, the history of Catholicism, or stories about martyrs.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the novel, Silence, and the soon-to-be-released film by Martin Scorsese based on the story (with Andrew Garfield from The Amazing Spiderman as Rodriguez, Adam Driver of The Force Awakens as Garrpe, and Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro.)
Artist Makoto Fujimura has published a beautiful non-fiction book to help readers connect further with this tale focusing on the martyrs in Japanese history. A set of Fujimura’s unique paintings have been inspired by the novel as well.