Shusaku Endo, Silence. Picador 2017 (1966). 256 pp. $9.52.
Shusaku Endo’s remarkable novel Silence is enjoying a comeback, thanks to the release late last year of Martin Scorsese’s cinematic adaptation of it. Endo, a Roman Catholic who died two decades ago, was one of Japan’s finest 2oth-century novelists.
The novel is set in 17th-century Japan. Christian missionaries – and, indeed, the practice of Christianity in general – have been declared personae non grata there, suspected by shoguns of undermining traditional Japanese culture. Underground priests who are discovered by the authorities are given the choice of repudiating Christ or facing death. Nevertheless, two young Jesuits, Frs. Rodrigues and Garupe, afire with missionary zeal, travel there to spread the faith.
They’re quickly found out by the authorities, and just as quickly discover that fidelity to the faith is much more complicated than they could’ve imagined. A willingness to sacrifice their own lives for Christ is one thing. But the lives and well-being of their converts depend upon the two priests’ apostasy; unless the two publicly renounce their faith, the Japanese Christians to whom they ministered will be tortured and killed.
So the question faced by Frs. Rodrigues and Garupe is whether they’re prepared to make the greatest sacrifice of all – a repudiation of their faith – to save others. And in struggling to come to a decision, they feel deserted by God. Instead of divine reassurance and counsel, they’re suffocated by what they take to be God’s silence.
And yet, as Fr. Rodrigues eventually realizes, “our Lord was not silent.” It’s just that God’s voice wasn’t quite what he expected.
Silence is an incredibly captivating novel, not only because of the sheer beauty of its prose, but because it poses to us the same question that confronted the two young Jesuits. In the real, messy world, how do we live our faith? Might we occasionally, in extreme situations, be called upon to wound God in order to minister to God’s people? Can it possibly be the case that sometimes the only way to serve God is to act in ways that tear at our hearts?
Although visually gorgeous, with plenty of incredibly scenic shots of Japanese mountains and shores, Scorsese’s film doesn’t do justice to Endo’s story. The film is way too long – nearly 3 hours – and focuses, in an almost sensationalistic way, much more on the despair experienced by Fr. Rodrigues than his eventual realization that God is never really silent. Still, if you have the time and patience, it’s worth watching, not only as an homage to Endo but as yet another cinematic stage in Scorsese’s own complicated faith journey.
But if you can do only one or the other, pick up the book and skip the film.