Saturday, March 26, 2011

Silence by Shusaku Endo

One of the director Martin Scorcese's future planned film projects is reportedly a movie based on "Silence," a novel by the Catholic Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. In an interview with the writer Richard Schiekel, Scorcese states that he has been contemplating a film about the book since a copy was given to him following the release of his 1988 film, "The Last Temptation of Christ." Endo's tale, steeped in the early history of Christianity in Japan, reveals the story of people whose faith survived even as they outwardly denied it.

Endo uses several strategies of structure and voice to tell his story. It begins with news from Japan relayed back to Europe that the Jesuit priest Ferreira, after 33 years on the island, has become an apostate following torture. This inspires the journey of two priests, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, who go to Japan to discover the truth about their former mentor. As Francisco observes, "there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task."

There is more than the fate of a single priest at issue though. The Shogun of Japan is waging a bloody campaign to stamp out Christianity, torturing and killing priests and requiring thousands of villagers to desecrate the holy images they venerate. The Japanese authority does not wish to become yet another European colony in the Far East, with the church serving as its advance guard. The church, in turn, is afraid that its toehold on this island at the edge of the world is disappearing.

After a brief introduction by a narrator, we then follow several chapters of letters penned by Rodrigues, who relates the journey of the priests to Japan and their struggles to remain underground once they reach the islands. Their journey is aided by Kichijiro, a Japanese drunkard later revealed as a Christian brother who succumbed to fear and became an apostate at the point of death. We hear Rodrigues' voice as he thrills to the adventure of discovering that Christian faith thrives still in secret, as he administers baptisms, conducts mass and hears confessions from Japanese starving for the sacraments. It is in these chapters that we relate most to Rodrigues, the reader bonding with his devotion to the faith.

Two themes begin to introduce themselves at this point. One is the image of the face. Rodrigues studies the faces of the Japanese, who look alien and expressionless to him. Are they really devoted followers, and who among them may be ready to betray them to the authorities? Behind the face, we see, is the truth of a person and, we believe, the measure of his faith. Rodrigues senses that Christianity acts as an antidote to the fatalism endemic in the Japanese people, but he detects a diabolical nature behind their outward passivity. Even still, Rodrigues observes that "Our Lord himself entrusted his destiny to untrustworthy people." The face that is mentioned more than any is that of Jesus. Rodrigues, as his situation deteriorates, obsesses over the portrait of Jesus he paints in his own imagination. This is necessary, considering that that very face will be the one that measures his own destiny during the course of the book.

The other theme, though, gives the book its title. "Silence" may stand for the kind employed by the Japanese Christians, who practice their faith in secret and are driven to deny it even as they cling to it. But Rodrigues mentions the awful silence of God, as his faith is challenged again and again. After a few believers are killed, and Kichijiro questions why they must endure alone among men, Rodrigues pens these words:

"I have long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints - how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily - in silence."

But the scene abruptly shifts to a narrator again once Rodrigues is captured. The silence he mentions is overpowering, even as Kichijiro again proves himself, in Rodrigues' eyes, as an unreliable believer. The inevitable meeting comes with Ferreira, who is now an unrepentant apostate with a Japanese name and wife. He is a defeated man, and he believes Christianity will never take root in Japan because the Japanese will eventually twist the faith into whatever gods and superstitions they already possess.

Rodrigues feels himself twisted, as the pain mounts, even questioning the existence of God and his own place in an increasing absurd fate. He has traveled around the world to find his mentor an unbeliever, and he feels his impending death as the final death blow to the faith in this alien land. He will be "a missionary defeated by missionary work." And he compares himself to Christ in his sufferings, drawing inspiration, but also asking questions and nursing doubts. The peril of free will is that even as we may be succeeding in life, we can still fail in the ultimate test of divine approval. The closer we draw to God, the more we are aware of how far away we are, how utterly lost without Him.

In hearing a final confession, Rodrigues hears what he thinks is the voice of Jesus, with the distance of the cross providing a last blessing and comfort. The silence has been necessary, he learns, so that he could identify with his Lord in a special way unlike any other. His existence has kept the faith going, even if his example has failed. By giving us this novel, Endo speaks on the paradox of evangelism - that even the outward failure of the individual can lead to ultimate success if the message is carried on, if the life speaking of it draws sufficient attention with its passing on of the light. It is not the individual who succeeds, but the Word itself. In the telling of the story of Jesus, we not only identify with Him, we discover Him, even as we bring others to Him.

In the end, God thunders loudest in appalling, scandalous silences, when our spirit gnaws at the end of our faith like a ravenous dog on a dessicated bone. It is the craving for His voice to comfort, to reassure, even to explain, that ultimately reveals His face, and ours.

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