You will likely have seen trailers and posters for Martin Scorcese’s latest film, Silence, which was released in the UK at the beginning of this year. Unfortunately, I missed the film because I was determined to read the novel it was based on first and subsequently missed the screenings. So, my review of Shusaku Endo’s Silence is written in complete isolation of any film adaption.
Silence is set in one of the darker periods of Japan’s history, shortly after the country had gone into its 200 year-long period of isolation and Christianity was banned. Portugese Jesuit priests brought Christianity, along with trade, to Japan in the mid-1500s and their presence and conversion of the locals was tolerated for some decades. But concerns over Christianity’s growing power and European colonisation led to Japan’s rulers (first Toyotomi Hideyoshi then the Tokugawa Shogunate) issuing a series of edicts banning missionaries from the country, eventually leading to a complete ban on Christianity and severe punishment for anyone practicing the religion.
Silence follows Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealistic Jesuit priest, who sails to Japan to seek out his mentor, Christovao Ferreira. Ferreira, who spent thirty three years as a missionary in Japan carrying out the church’s work, has apostatised under torture. Guided by his divine mission to help the brutally oppressed Christians in Japan and need to discover how Ferreira could so easily renounce his faith, Rodrigues secretly enters Japan with another priest and struggles to reconcile his faith with the reality he is confronted with.
Silence is a very interesting read from a historical perspective, vividly painting the persecution and torture of Christians, but the story moves slowly. It takes Rodrigues two years to reach Japan and, given the size of Japan and his need to remain hidden, it takes him a very long time to find out his answers. Over a long, arduous period, Rodrigues’ faith in God is tested to the limit as his prayers go unanswered and he witnesses the shocking executions of Japan’s ‘hidden Christians’. Ultimately, Silence is the story of one man finding it increasingly hard to hold onto his faith.
Shusaku Endo’s own life and struggles with religion helped to shape Silence. Born in 1923, he was raised as a Catholic at a time when Christians made up less than one per cent of the population. After World War Two, Endo travelled to France to study but suffered from racist abuse, becoming so ill he contracted tuberculosis and had a lung removed. He believed that his faith had led to this suffering and underwent a crisis of faith. After spending months in hospital, he travelled to Palestine to research the life of Jesus Christ, who also experienced rejection and persecution, and Endo’s view of his faith was transformed.
Silence deals with a range of Japanese societal issues, many of which are still present today; the experience of foreigners and the treatment of outsiders or gaijin. More than forty years after it was published, the subject of religious persecution is unfortunately just as relevant today.
While not the easiest of reads, Silence is an important one for anyone who is interested in discovering more about this shocking period of Japanese history.