Reading groups: The choice: death or dishonour

by
01 October 2009

David Bryant on Silence by Shusaku Endo

“The Graham Greene of Japan”: Shusaku Endo

“The Graham Greene of Japan”: Shusaku Endo

Shusaku Endo (1923-96) was that rare thing, a Japanese Christian. He was born in Tokyo to an unhappy family, and, after his parents di­vorced, members of his family brought him up. He was baptised at 12, at a time when only one per cent of the Japanese population was Chris­tian.

He later travelled to France, and became a victim of anti-Japanese sentiment, which precipitated serious illness and depression. A trip to Palestine rejuvenated his faith, and he came to understand how Christ, too, suffered rejection. His books reflect these experiences.

In Silence, Shushaku Endo uses a grip­ping set of characters to explore some of the great themes of Chris­tianity. A missionary priest, Fr Ferreira, has gone missing in 17th-century Japan under suspicious cir­cumstances. Francis Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues, two spiritually proud Jesuits, set sail in search of him — only to find themselves embroiled in events that test their faith to the uttermost.

There is a pitiful Judas-like figure called Kichijiro (reminiscent of Gol­lum in The Lord of the Rings), who insinuates himself into the narrative as a symbol of mistrust. We are also introduced to a group of persecuted Japanese peasants, living in hiding like the first Christians. Their courage is an inspiration.

God also figures in the novel, a mysterious figure towering over the moral and theological issues of the narrative, stubbornly remaining si­lent, hence the book’s title.

A cracking yarn emerges. Will the Jesuits be betrayed? How resilient is their faith under persecu­tion? Where will the secret police pounce next? There is a covert land­ing at dead of night, a voyage in a lice-infested boat, clerics disguised as peasants, and a re­ward of 300 pieces of silver — adding up to a spell-binding spiritual read.

A cracking yarn emerges. Will the Jesuits be betrayed? How resilient is their faith under persecu­tion? Where will the secret police pounce next? There is a covert land­ing at dead of night, a voyage in a lice-infested boat, clerics disguised as peasants, and a re­ward of 300 pieces of silver — adding up to a spell-binding spiritual read.

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It is not surprising that Endo has been called the Graham Greene of Japan; for his novels deal with some similar themes: priests tormented by the re­quirements of their faith, Christians forced into situations where right and wrong no longer have a clear defini­tion, the nature of failure, and the apparent absence of God. At no point does Endo give the reader easy solutions.

Persecution runs through the book. The courage and tenacity of the filthy, poverty-stricken converts is awe-inspiring. It gives us insight into the suffering of the Church’s martyrs when they are deprived of priestly ministry.

Endo subtly introduces us to an insoluble conflict between faith and compassion. Three Japanese Chris­tians are caught by officials, and ordered to trample and spit on an image of the Virgin and Child. “Tram­ple! Trample!” shouts the priest. If they do not dishonour the image, every­one in the village will be tor­tured. If they do, they have rejec­ted the heart of their faith.

When the courageous converts are martyred, Fr Rodrigues is cut to the quick: “While men raise their voices in anguish, God remains with folded arms, silent.”

This is the nub of the novel. If God so loved the world, why does he neglect it? Surely his faithful servants deserve better than an indifferent, deaf God? Fr Rodrigues is drawn to a dreadful thought: “From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Sup­posing God does not exist?” He feels himself a failure, a shell of a priest, offering the sacraments, but unable to comply with Christ’s example of loving the outcasts.

The climax of the book is reached when Fr Rodrigues comes face to face with Fr Ferreira, the lost priest. What he finds shocks him to the depths of his being. “This loneliness was much colder, much more terrible than that which he endured in the prison cell.”

A final demand is made on the ravaged priest. He has to “perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed”. The tension is not­ched up to the last pages. Will God still remain silent as Fr Rodrigues ex­peri­ences the dark hour of his Cal­vary?

Endo’s Silence compels us to re­flect once more on the incarnation and what it means for human loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, compassion, faith, and prayer. It is not a book that the reader will forget in a hurry.

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The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest who lives in Yorkshire.

Silence by Shusaku Endo is published by Peter Owen at £10.95 (CT Book­shop £9.85); 978-0-72061286-8.

Silence by Shusaku Endo is published by Peter Owen at £10.95 (CT Book­shop £9.85); 978-0-72061286-8.

SILENCE — SOME QUESTIONS

What emotions did Silence stir up in you?

Wise, sacrificial, mad: how would you describe Fr Rodrigues’s final act? Were you expecting the story to end as it did?

How had Fr Ferreira influenced Fr Rodrigues?

The Japanese claimed that Christianity was not right for them. What approach should missionaries take to indigenous culture?

How does Fr Rodrigues identify himself with Jesus?

How sensible was it for Fr Garrpe and Fr Rodrigues to split up?

Would you have advised trampling on the image so that people could remain alive?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 November, we will print extra information aboutthe next book. This is Great Expecta­tions by Charles Dickens. It is published in various editions, including those from Oxford World’s Classics at £5.99 and Penguin Classics at £6.99.

Author notes

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, and spent much of his childhood in Chat­ham, where his father worked in the Navy pay office. When he was 12, his father was im­prisoned for debt, and the young Charles had to work in a blacking factory. His writing career began when he was appointed to write reports of parlia­mentary debates for the news­paper the Morn­ing Chronicle.

His many books, including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Bleak House, were first publis­hed as serials in periodicals, before appearing in book form. He was married to Catherine Hogarth and had a large family, but he separa­ted from his wife in 1858. He had a wide circle of friends, and was involved in charitable works and ama­teur theatricals. He died suddenly in 1870.

Book notes

Pip (Philip Pirrip) is brought up by his fierce sister and her gentle blacksmith husband. He comes from a humble home, but his expectations are changed after he meets the eccentric and vengeful Miss Havisham and her young companion, Estella, with whom he falls in love. Having been given a large amount of money by an anonymous bene­factor, Pip goes to London to become a gentleman, leaving behind those who brought him up. A number of misfor­tunes fall upon him, and he ends up with nothing, though he does solve the mystery of the identity of his benefactor. Eventually he comes to his senses and returns home.

Books for the next two months:

December: An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

January: Status Anxiey by Alain de Botton

Order these books through CT Bookshop

Order these books through CT Bookshop

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