Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge
A while ago, I read John Dougill’s book about the Hidden Christians of Japan, in which the author goes on a pilgrimage of sorts to understand the history of Christianity in Japan. Dougill refers to Endō’s novel Silence. I was reminded of it when I read that Martin Scorsese was directing a film adaptation of the novel. And so, I bought myself a copy.
I was raised a Christian, first in a Pentecostal church and then later in the Baptist church. I was a Christian for a long time, until bullying and hypocrisy in the church my mum attended and exclusivity in a church I tried to join made me realise it’s all bullshit. I don’t know if I believe in a god any more. Awful things happen in arbitrary ways and belief in a god expects you to have faith that there’s a bigger plan that you’re not party to. I’m a mostly rational person. It’s hard for me to believe that a supernatural being is controlling our lives and choosing to allow harm to come to people because it’s in some way character building. I think I stuck with Christianity for as long as I did when I was younger because I wanted it to be true and I wanted to belong to something bigger than me, not necessarily because I truly believed. Reading this book has made me reflect on that, at least. Deep down, it seems to me now, I’ve always thought that humans are a freak of evolution. There’s no reason for us being here on this planet beyond the science behind the curious mix of chemicals and heat necessary for life on earth to exist. You don’t need to try to correct me in my thinking. I’m not interested.
Silence was a strange experience for me. Part of me was irritated by the Christians for their faith, part of me recalled what a life of faith felt like. I also remembered what it was like to lose the small faith I’d had. I didn’t feel inspired to reconnect with a sense of spirituality, however. The irritation was stronger than the recollection.
The book follows Father Sebastian Rodrigues as he and a fellow priest secretly enter Japan to try to discover what has happened to another priest, Ferreira, who might have died as the result of torture. It’s a fiction, but based in fact. Endō uses an epistolary style at the beginning, with Rodrigues writing letters to the mission in Macao, relating the experiences he has. The style changes when Rodrigues is captured by the Japanese authorities, and becomes a straight narrative.
As the story progresses, and he sees the life the persecuted Christians live, Rodrigues begins to question his faith, and advises the Japanese Christians to do anything to evade torture and martyrdom. He is an interesting character. When first arrested, he shares a hut with some Japanese Christians, one of whom explains how she deals with the knowledge that she will soon die for her beliefs. Rodrigues’s reaction is unexpected but refreshing.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Brother Ishida used to say that when we go to Heaven we will find there everlasting peace and happiness. There we will not have to pay taxes every year, nor worry about hunger and illness. There will be no hard labour there. We have nothing but troubles in the world, so we have to work hard. Father, isn’t it true that there is no such anguish in Heaven?’
He felt like shouting out: ‘Heaven is not the sort of place you think it is!’ But he restrained himself.
Rodrigues has a nemesis called Kichijiro. This man accompanies Rodrigues and his fellow priest to Japan from Macao. He denies he is a Christian, but his behaviour tells a different story. When they reach Japan, Kichijiro disappears. Rodrigues encounters him again from time to time. It is Kichijiro who betrays Rodrigues to the Japanese authorities. He is Judas to Rodrigues’s Christ. After Rodrigues’s arrest, Kichijiro follows him as he is taken to be interrogated by Inoue, always lurking beneath trees, on the edges of villages, watching and somehow pleading with Rodrigues for absolution for his weakness.
At some point before he betrays him, Kichijiro gives Rodrigues some dried, salted fish to eat, which causes a burning thirst in Rodrigues’s throat. This becomes symbolic. Every time Rodrigues sees Kichijiro, he recalls the fish and his subsequent thirst, and it fills him with rage and hatred for Kichijiro.
The passages where Inoue interrogates Rodrigues were an almost Aristotelian dialectic, with neither man trying to convince the other too vehemently, but positing their point of view for the other to reflect on. Neither man is open to change, but both hope that their words will catalyse a change in the other.
This passage resonated with me:
Did God really exist? If not, how ludicrous was half of his life spent traversing the limitless seas to come and plant the tiny seed in this barren island! How ludicrous the life of the one-eyed man executed while cicada sang in the full light of day!
Eventually, Rodrigues meets the priest Ferreira, whom he had travelled to Japan to track down. Ferreira is a changed man. His words about Japanese Christianity echo what John Dougill discovered on his pilgrimage. The nature of faith in Japan is fundamentally different to that in the West. All that the converted Japanese Christians had done was assimilate the Judeo-Christian notion of God into the existing belief system, which is centred on the sacredness of mankind. This made me reflect on how humanity has this weird need to be spiritual. I have it. It manifests in staring out to sea, watching the horizon, wanting to stop being at my own centre and become absorbed into the infinite. This is what I mean by my childish self wanting to be part of something bigger and choosing the thing presented to me by my parents. This is the thing that pulls me into behaviours that seek out momentary oblivion. This is the thing I don’t understand about myself and don’t know how to satisfy.
Despite all that thinking and navel gazing, I felt slightly disappointed by this book. I was expecting great things from it. People speak highly of Endō’s writing. Maybe William Johnston’s translation lost something. Maybe the fact that I’m not only not a Christian but I really don’t get the cult-like nature of Catholicism meant that I couldn’t immerse myself in the story. As a story, it is interesting. It treats with a period of Japanese history that I am intrigued by. I enjoyed the imagining of castle towns being built as part of the newly unified Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns. I thought the philosophical exchanges between Rodrigues and Inoue worked. The telling of the persecution of the Japanese Christians was matter of fact, unembellished, when it might have been edged with hysteria or censure. Reflecting on it, I wonder whether my mind is so hardened against the idea of faith that I couldn’t allow myself to fall into the story, just in case I softened.
Chapter eight, though. Chapter eight had me in its grip. For that chapter alone, the book deserves to be read.