"In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time," raves Graham Greene on the jacket of Shusako Endo's Silence. No wonder, since Endo has been described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and to be sure, here is a book that seems to originate from the same midnight crises of faith that haunted Greene, and, like Greene's books, comes to conclusions only with great reservations. In fact, Sebastian Rodrigues, the Portuguese missionary of Silence reminds me greatly of the Whiskey Priest from Greene's The Power and the Glory: both are broken men who harbor severe doubts in their power to do the Lord's work on earth; though the Whiskey Priest has been broken long before the novel starts, in Silence we are audience to Rodrigues' ruin.
Rodrigues and his partner, Garrpe, volunteer to travel to Japan in search of another missionary there, Father Ferreira, who has apostatized--officially renounced his faith--and gone into hiding. Ferreira is something of a mentor to Rodrigues, who is followed by the question--What could bring someone as resolute in their faith as Ferreira to apostatize? The answer, Rodrigues supposes, lies in the cruelty of Inoue, the local Japanese governor, who supposedly is fond of hanging Christians upside down in a pit and draining the blood from them slowly until they give up the faith.
Rodrigues steels himself against torture, but the torture he finds is not the torture he expects--instead of being subjected to horrible violence and death himself, it is his fate to watch others experience those trials. When the Japanese authorities hear that the missionaries have arrived, they send soldiers to pillage the Christian towns where Rodrigues and Garrpe seek shelter, taking the leaders of the local church and tying them to stakes out at sea. Rodrigues watches these things happen from his hiding place and is powerless, but the divine intervention that Rodrigues is hoping for never comes, leaving him to lament the titular silence that seems to be God's attitude towards his faithful on earth.
Endo styles Rodrigues' journey self-consciously after Christ's death, including even a Judas-like character named Kochijiro, a weak-willed Christian who will sell Rodrigues to the officials for a bagful of silver (in this way also he is like the Whiskey Priest, who is followed by a Judas figure). This is forever in Rodrigues' mind, and he wonders if he can endure the torture that Christ went through, but challenge never arises. Instead, he is to face the same kind of torture that caused Ferreira to forsake God, the torture of enduring God's silence. Trapped in a Japanese prison one night, Rodrigues remarks to a guard that he cannot sleep because of the snoring coming from the other room--but, the guard tells him, that is not snoring at all, but the moaning of Christians who have been placed in the pit, and who will remain there until you apostatize.
This is an explicitly un-Christlike dilemma. Christ suffered for the glory of God and for the mercy of Man, but what would He have done if the two goals were exclusive of one another? Ferreira, now a Japanese citizen with a Japanese wife and family, advises Rodrigues to apostatize:
"You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It's because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Chruch, like me." Until now Ferreira's words had burst out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he said: "Yet I was the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here..."
For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: "Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them."
These tactics are, I believe, historically accurate and testify to why Japan is today a less than one percent Christian country. Inoue tells Rodrigues that Japan is a swamp where the seeds of Christianity cannot grow; it is an affirmation which Endo, a Japanese Christian, leaves appropriately unremarked upon. In the tradition of Greene, Endo provides glimmers of hope here and there, but leaves most of these difficult questions dangling.
Graham-Greene-o-Meter: Nine Greenes out of ten. Very much in Greene's mode, and very good. Also, this is the last book of "Graham Greene Month," which really ought to be called "Four books I read tangentially related to Graham Greene in some way or another," but that didn't really have the same ring to it.
I recommend this book to Brent, for the obvious reasons, but also to Jim, for this reason: This is currently being filmed for theaters by Martin Scorcese with Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro. 2011 Best Picture, anyone?