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Category: Classic
Date Published: 1966
Number of Pages: 201
Print Price: $9.56
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            Silence is probably Shusaku Endo’s best-known work in both America and Japan, followed by his last novel, Deep River.  Both works are frequently considered by teachers in Christian colleges as likely to make students wrestle deeply with their faith.  Silence, especially, receives considerable critical attention, as well.  Its exploration of missionary enterprise, the temptation to despair, and the possibility of apostasy justify attention by scholars; yet, certain tendentious choices about point-of-view, as well as Endo’s own theological drift, suggest that Endo’s Silence should be carefully surrounded with Magisterial instruction.

            The novel is set in Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Ieyasu purged his regime of foreigners and Christians, killing thousands and driving many thousands more underground.  Following (historically factual) reports that a leading Jesuit, Fr. Ferreira, has apostatized under persecution in Japan, fathers Garrpe and Rodrigues (wholly fictional) are sent to find him and succor the persecuted Church.  An alcoholic Christian named Kichijiro, whose weakness they distrust, helps them find underground Christians in Japan.  Garrpe and Rodrigues eventually become separated, and Rodrigues is eventually captured—betrayed, it seems, by Kichijiro.  (Whether Kichijiro is treacherous or simply weak, and how Rodrigues treats him, is a major theme of the book.)

            Rodrigues endures imprisonment and interrogation, constantly expecting death by torture.  In a critically underrated scene, Rodrigues is shown Garrpe’s own final ordeal.  Rodrigues inwardly begs Garrpe to apostatize and save some Japanese Christians who have been thrown into the water to drown; but Garrpe runs into the water, praying with the martyrs until he, too, drowns.  Rodrigues is eventually confronted with the apostate Ferreira, outwitted by both Ferreira and the magistrate Inoue, and persuaded to trample on the fumie (an image, typically of Madonna and Child, designed expressly to be trampled in repudiation of Christian faith).  He is then recruited, like Ferreira, to share Western learning while aiding in the capture and interrogation of other Christians.  An Appendix contains faux-historical documents which, like the book’s quasi-historical Prologue, ties the story to larger questions of Japanese history and the nature of Christian conversion.

            Endo’s narrative craftsmanship is superb.  Most American writers would not begin a novel in first person and then let the novel slip into third-person limited point-of-view; but Endo’s writing and Johnston’s translation effectively subordinate point-of-view to gripping descriptions and confrontations.  The critical literature has focused on certain key speeches from Endo’s characters so much so that one might assume that Silence reads like a Platonic dialogue, but this is far from the case.  Although Rodrigues is mostly passive, plot or character never remains static for long.  Speculations about Ferreira and ominous foreshadowing concerning Inoue regularly meet with partial confirmation or violent alteration.  Readers interested in the psychology of conversion or apostasy will find the book essential; Endo is a profoundly acute observer of character.

            Silence is beyond doubt a Catholic novel, in one of several senses that should be distinguished:  the novel itself is indelibly marked with the author’s own struggle with his baptismal faith.  Endo, baptized as a boy at the insistence of his mother and aunt, never repudiated his baptism; he was widely considered a representative of Japanese Christianity in the 1960s, when he wrote Silence.  Given Endo’s later approbation of John Hick’s radical pluralism, a position the Church has specifically declared incompatible with Christian faith, readers may detect the taint of Deep River (published in 1993) already at work in Silence.  Those who believe each Christian is indelibly marked by the Holy Spirit at baptism, however, should not rush to this conclusion.

            If the rationalizations of the protagonist Rodrigues at the climax of the novel are taken as normative, then the work does prefer apostasy in service of radical pluralism, with a vaguely Jesus-flavored ethos animating secularized service to whatever regime holds power.  Neither the Church nor the conventions of this novel, however, will permit the reader or even the author to make any such definite claim.  Endo himself has pointed out that the documentary fiction of the Appendix undermines this claim; Rodrigues and Kichijiro both appear to have given the authorities cause to suspect them again, though Rodrigues never appears to have openly repented.  The suggestion that the work of conversion may be far more subtle than any of the characters, or most readers, recognize may reflect Endo’s baptismal faith.

            There is another major respect in which Silence is more strongly marked by Endo’s baptism than by his lapse into radical pluralism:  Garrpe’s death.  This scene has been overshadowed, in nearly all the criticism, by the interactions of Rodrigues with the interpreter, Ferreira, Inoue, and Kichijiro.  When Garrpe dies, the dreams with which he and Rodrigues set out on their mission are finally extinguished; after this point, Rodrigues never seems to consider the possibility of reuniting with his brothers, superiors, and fellow Christians.  Garrpe is submerged in the waves, and Rodrigues is submerged in Japan.  For Rodrigues, all that follows has the fatalistic inevitability of Sophoclean tragedy.

            Garrpe, initially more fearful and less self-asserting than Rodrigues, embraces his own death in pursuit of souls; he dies with a hymn on his lips, joined in song by Japanese Christians who, we are told, had “already apostatized.”  He dies having helped souls who had lapsed under persecution show signs of repentance, thus testifying their faith to all present, including their guards, the interpreter, and Rodrigues.  Indeed, the difference between Garrpe’s faithfulness and the vacillation of Rodrigues enrages his Japanese interpreter, who is usually coolly sardonic.  Endo’s deep sympathy with the martyred Japanese Christians and their missionary fathers is quite possibly the real reason so many Christians find the book absorbing, despite the confusion its ostensible protagonists cause.

            A straightforward reading of the book, however, is overwhelmingly likely to cause confusion and undermine the faith of those who do not take precautions against the spiritual conflict it provokes.  Endo’s own struggle would, so far as all public statements and the tendencies of his own writings can declare, lead to a tragic deviation into Hick’s radical pluralism.  The novel casts the apostate Ferreira and the magistrate Inoue, and the Japanese interpreter they employ, as the victors; though Inoue is nominally the antagonist, his arguments are more sophisticated than those of Rodrigues.  These arguments mirror debates throughout both Western and Eastern culture, especially the Buddhist-Christian dialogue problems that concerned Endo throughout his career.  The ineffectual Rodrigues is the lone representative of a putative Christian and Western position, and is easily outflanked by his accusers.  As the arguments of the accusers are quite popular, and as Rodrigues neither answers them nor remains faithful in Silence, the book as a whole can seem to counsel despair to the faithful and promise victory to those who collaborate with radical pluralism and secularism.

            Given the nature of the critical literature surrounding Silence, the example of Endo’s own trajectory through Deep River, and the most obvious reading of the story itself, no one should recommend Silence as an exemplary Catholic novel without qualification.  Teachers and parents who share it should be careful to surround it with good literary instruction and sound catechesis; where this is not possible, it may be better to leave Silence for later.  For those who seek a novel indelibly marked by the baptismal faith of the author, and who are prepared to struggle and pray their way through a gripping and tragic confrontation between a faith shaped by martyrs and a world full of collaborators, Endo’s work has much to recommend it.  Artists should seek to emulate Endo’s mastery of narrative style; and anyone interested should turn from the portrayal of Garrpe’s martyrdom to the many historical accounts of the Japanese martyrs, and pray for the souls of their kinsmen.

ISBN-13: 978-0800871864
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches

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Aug 1, 2014 Anonymous

I read this novel as a fresh convert and had absolutely no difficulty with it whatsoever, but found it challenging in all the correct ways. For a fresh convert who knows despair, this novel is certainly nothing the reader already hasn't experienced before. This is not the first time I've read about this book being "controversial" and how people weak in faith should ignore it, but I simply do not see the problem. I had no instruction whatsoever and never fell into pluralism nor got the idea from this book. I have never met anyone who has, either. I find it really odd that The Shack, a book crawling with heterodox ideas, managed a much more positive review on this site than this one. Certainly there are different reviewers to account for, but being that this is a Catholic review site, I am utterly puzzled as to how a review of Silence is bogged down by pluralism talk that is remarkably irrelevant to the book while The Shack, a book that has lead many Christians astray, mentions that it "does more good than harm." If this site is meant to introduce Catholic authors and ideas to the world, it should really focus on the accuracy and quality of the specific work and not the author behind it nor how it might affect those with weak faith. Agnostics read Flannery 'O Connor and laugh at the Christians in her work completely missing anything she intended. That is how the world is. Just my two cents.

Aug 3, 2014 pgepps

Anonymous posters should be open to the possibility that they "don't see" something for reasons that have nothing to do with what is there to be seen. Blatant heterodoxy is one thing, and justifying apostasy is another thing. Neither is prudent to hand to those who blunder in unwarned and unarmed, though even false religion often contains "elements of sanctification" worth noticing.

Aug 4, 2014 Manny

One of the truly great novels. It took a little research to understand the history, since I had never been exposed to it. But once I understood the history of Catholicism in Japan in clicked. I highly recommend this novel.

Aug 10, 2014 Luke O'Sullivan

Great review thank you very much. I read Silence about a decade ago and found it moving and puzzling. This has explained quite a few things.

Aug 10, 2014 Mary gw

I liked the review, but felt cautious about the "pluralism thing, which I had no idea what it was until I looked it up just now. i also agree with "anonymous" above in regarding the book "The Shack". And because of anonymous' comments, in addition to the review, I have decided that I am going to read "Silence".

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