Silence: A Novel
by Shūsaku Endō,
translated by William Johnston.
Picador Modern Classics, 2016.
Paperback, 212+xxvi pages, $16.

When he was a boy, Japanese author Shūsaku Endō (1923–1996) converted to Roman Catholicism. He attended Tokyo’s Keio University after the Second World War, having served in a munitions factory. He went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Lyon, in France. He returned to Japan, married, and found work as a university lecturer. By 1954, when Shiroi Hito (White Men) won the Akutagawa Prize, he had earned widespread recognition as a novelist. His fiction embittered some of his fellow Catholics, particularly in Japan.

Endō published Chinmoku (Silence) in 1966. His friend William Johnston, an Irish Jesuit, translated it into powerful English in 1969. Not everyone in the Order was pleased. The central figure of Silence, the Portuguese Sebastian Rodrigues, is a Jesuit apostate. Endō based him on Giuseppe Chiara, a seventeenth-century Italian Jesuit missionary who secretly entered Japan despite a brutal crackdown on Japanese Christians. In the novel, Rodrigues goes in pursuit of his former teacher, a historical figure named Christóvão Ferreira, whose 1632 apostasy, under severe torture, came as a shocking blow to the Society of Jesus. It is unknown whether Chiara ever met Ferreira. Endō creates a fictional encounter between the two men that rivals Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in hard questions put to the church.

The silence of the title is the “silence of God.” It occurs at moments of suffering, as peasants die to save their underground priests. The words “silence” and “black” repeat with drum-like insistence throughout. They reverberate among realistic descriptions of Japanese life. At times, the ordinariness of things reminds one of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” where “the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” At other times, Endō heightens his descriptions of nature to achieve a visionary intensity. In one memorable passage, two farmers are bound to crosses at the sea’s edge, forced to endure the crush of the tide against their bodies: “In the afternoon, the tide gradually comes in again; the black, cold color of the sea deepens; the stakes seem to sink into the water. The white foaming waves, swirling past the stakes, break on the sand, a white bird, skimming over the surface of the sea, flies far, far away. And with this all is over.” The “white bird” is ambiguous. Like the high modernists, Endō blends naturalistic detail with symbolism. Whether the white bird represents the Holy Spirit, we cannot say. But we are struck by the bird’s distance, by its “skimming over the surface of the sea” as “the stakes seem to sink into the water,” by its receding from view.

Rodrigues has “memorized every detail” of Good Friday since childhood, and his days in Japan find their template in the Passion narrative. Judas, Pilate, and Christ return to him, yet his expectations are not quite fulfilled. Endō catches these figures in a strange light, questioning and rediscovering their relevance. Such is his grasp of the Passion narrative that we find ourselves re-examining our sense of the principals, their motives, and their aims.

Endō’s intimate knowledge of Jesuit modes of contemplation also serves him well. One recalls the Spiritual Exercises and the key role that Ignatius Loyola assigns to the imagination. In his classic study, The Poetry of Meditation (1954), Louis Martz quotes the Jesuit founder: “‘in contemplation or meditation on visible matters, such as the contemplation of Christ our Lord, Who is visible, the composition will be to see with the eyes of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing I wish to contemplate is found.’” This imaginative technique, known as composition of place, defines Rodrigues’s interior life. It serves Endō’s purpose of making Christ’s presence real. And it gives the author the means of testing his main character to the core.

All his life Rodrigues has been accustomed to imagining the face of Jesus in a highly idealized manner: “the most pure, the most beautiful that has claimed the prayers of man and has corresponded with his highest aspirations.” Gradually, though, a different picture of Christ emerges, that of an almost masochistic Redeemer who shares our pain, who suffers infinitely and yet forgives all. Silence is not a conversion novel. It is a visionary novel that unfolds its essential truth starkly, without bowing to goodness or to beauty, which have to fall in line as best they can.

Because Endō’s vision is imperfectly orthodox, it will continue to raise hackles among the faithful. Likewise, The Brothers Karamazov is not for everybody. But if we want a Christian presence in contemporary literature, if we want art that commands assent across religious and secular divisions, we have to face two great risks: experience and self-criticism.

Catholic dogma is not the issue. In fact, one important test of our dogmas is their contribution to a robust intellectual life. It is easy to mock the Catholic Church, but the leading dogmas at Harvard and Yale are not self-evidently superior in terms of nourishing the growing mind. Is God dead? Is human nature malleable as plastic? Is gender purely a social construct? We cannot expect success from an establishment that was educated in groupthink.

It turns out that the question of orthodoxy cuts both ways. You can be orthodox by Catholic standards, for example, or you can be orthodox by secularist standards. In this respect, it is interesting to compare Silence with Brian Moore’s 1985 novel, Black Robe. Endō dispatches his Jesuits to seventeenth-century Japan. The Irish-Canadian Moore dispatches his to seventeenth-century Canada. Endō portrays the pre-modern Japanese; Moore the Algonquian, the Iroquois, and the Huron. The most revealing contrast is between the two protagonists. Rodrigues’s doubts and failures are commensurate with his Christianity: they are a means to his Christianity. In Black Robe, Father Paul Laforgue’s doubts and failures mark his descent into confusion and uselessness.

Like Endō, Moore handles the physical details of missionary work skillfully. His naturalistic landscapes are likewise superb. But he shows not the least acquaintance with the Spiritual Exercises. This is one reason why Laforgue is a man without psychological resources. The creator of Laforgue had no real sympathy for his central character, sullying his appearance, mocking his repressed sex drive, and leaving him without dignity or purpose. By the end of Black Robe, we may suspect that Laforgue is in every way a hollow sham—that his real task in the novel is not to relieve a remote Jesuit mission, but to unmask Christianity as a dangerous lie. We may wonder, to what extent were the critics who praised Black Robe applauding their own worldview? Did Moore’s novel suit their demand for orthodoxy of a kind? If so, we must lament the presence of such constraints, knowing that they will continue to damage our literary culture—and our society—for as long as they last.

Silence will not suit anyone’s need for orthodoxy. Even so, serious readers of literature should find it worth their while. It illuminates a pivotal moment in Japanese history. It explores chronic tensionswithin the Church. It dramatizes the clash between Church and State, without recourse to the usual straw men—Christianity’s enemies are cruel, but they are also intelligent and understandable. Most of all, it is Endō’s harrowing knowledge of the alienated soul that earns Silence a place in the canon of twentieth-century literature. What the “mythical method” accomplished for Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Woolf, and the early Eliot, the Passion narrative does for Silence. The relative strengths of these rival approaches to history, their universality, their place in an international literary tradition, are topics worth considering.  

Lee Oser’s third novel, Oregon Confetti, will be published by Wiseblood Books later this year.