Silence (沈黙) by Endo Shusaku (遠藤 周作) is a novel that is probably his most famous work, first published in 1966.
At the rumors of highly respected and experienced priest Christovao Ferreira having apostatized under torture in Nagasaki, Japan, three young priests Sebastian Rodrigues, Francisco Garrpe and Juan de Santa Marta set out for Japan to ascertain the truth and to carry out missionary work for the persecuted and hidden Japanese faithful.
In 1638, the three sail from Portugal to Macao via Goa. After the long journey, Juan de Santa Marta was too ill to continue. Also, Japan had cut ties with Portugal due to their suspected support of the Christians who had carried out the failed insurrection at Shimabara, so the young priests could not rely on Portuguese ships to enter Japan. In Macao, they had the buy a ship and enlist Kichijiro, seemingly a wretched drunk, to act as a guide.
As historical-fiction, with Ferreira and Rodrigues loosely based on real priests, Endo clearly did his research and convincingly conveys the atmosphere of 17th-century southern Japan. The first few chapters are letters by Rodrigues so it is written in first-person. After that, it shifts to third-person whilst Rodrigues is still the viewpoint character.
The story, as the title suggests, is about the classic question of the meaning of suffering, especially when alone and in the face of a seemingly silent God. And without dismissing the objective value of actions, Endo also explores the relative and subjective aspects of morality and is very sympathetic to the difficulties suffered by the characters. How is faith expressed in such circumstances? For the Japanese faithful, it is not a simple matter of whether to trample on the fumie (thereby apparently committing apostasy) or to suffer martyrdom as individuals. An individual may have to step on the fumie to save the rest of the village, something which Rodrigues advises whilst Garrpe gives him a funny look, and a priest should never irresponsibly allow himself to be captured lest there be not even one priest in the land.
When a shrewd official such as Inoue, who understands Christianity, is the persecutor, things can get more complex. Stepping on the fumie as a formality may not be enough if it doesn’t look convincing to the officials. The wavering Kichijiro is the Judas figure of the story and as the story progress, cowardice is seen in a different light, a burden rather than the avoidance thereof. And then there is the question again (which Endo doesn’t directly and explicitly answer).
“I was born weak. One who is weak at heart cannot die a martyr. What am I to do? Ah, why was I born into the world at all?” The voice broke off like the fading of the breeze, and then it could be heard far in the distance. Suddenly before the priest’s [Rodrigues’s] eyes there floated the vision of Kichijiro as he had been when he returned to Goto—the popular man among his fellow Christians. If there had been no persecution, this fellow would undoubtedly have lived his life as a happy, good-humored Christian man. “Why was I born into the world! Why? … Why?”
Like his other works, Endo’s characters are flawed, perhaps intensely, and not necessarily likable but he manages their pathos well.
Endo also portrays God as one who sympathizes with our plight and failures. As a comparison, C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of God (through Aslan) in The Chronicles of Narnia is “balanced”, it feels complete. His demands are absolute, His standards uncompromising but, without any contradiction, He is not rigid or unkind about it. He understands, sympathizes, is forgiving and can be very accommodating to the needs and preferences of the individual without compromising justice. Endo’s portrayal is typically focused on the latter, especially in Silence where the circumstances are extreme, where actions are more difficult to judge than usual and God is the only one who can see into the hearts of individuals and sympathize even if He is seemingly silent.
The 2016 film—with the screenplay adapted by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, the latter directing—follows the novel quite closely. There are two main differences.
Firstly, the trip at the start is highly abbreviated. Whilst it is necessary for the novel to set the tone as a piece of historical-fiction, to establish the characters and perhaps to serve as a bit of foreshadowing, it is arguably not as important in the film for pacing considerations. Nevertheless, more of the drama on the ship could have been kept for the reasons that are in the novel. There are other instances of plot condensations but they are relatively minor.
Secondly, the themes are explored ambiguously on the page at times. This ambiguity can be transferred to the screen but it is obvious that Scorsese deliberately simplified some details, thereby making them more obvious. These do not go against the spirit of the novel, merely a little “dumbing down” for the audience.
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