Christian missionaries to 17th century Japan moved in that gray area between bravery and foolhardiness. Early efforts at conversion in Japan had been remarkably successful, leading to colleges, seminaries, hospitals, churches, and a Christian community of about 300,000 people. But by the 17th century, the rulers of Japan had turned against the new religion. The European missionaries were ordered out, many Christians were martyred, and other were tortured until they apostatized.
This is the scene that Endo explores in Silence, published in 1966.
Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of Endo’s novel, is a Portuguese Jesuit who sneaks into Japan, to service the underground Christian community, and to seek news of another Jesuit, Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues knew Ferriera as a mentor and cannot believe that the rumors are true.
The tools of fear and torture that the authorities deploy against the Christians are terrible and relentless, and things do not go well for Rodrigues. I read with a sunken heart and the feeling that I could see where things were going while the net closed around Rodrigues and the authorities took him into their power. I did not enjoy this dismal predictability, and I found the sketch of Rodrigues’ character to be thin. He wavers between hopefulness and despair in a believable way, and his increasing despair at God’s silence in the face of tragedy is credible enough, but beyond this there isn’t much to give the man shape.
And yet…I found all of that to be redeemed in the last quarter of the book. Things go much as I would have expected — there is no escape for Rodrigues — and yet the shape of the final dilemma and resolution surprised me. Christ finally breaks the silence to Rodrigues, and in a way that turns out to be worse than the silence. And change that is wrought in Rodrigues’ character is terrible and magnificent.
Things it is like: One of those salsas that don’t taste like much at first, and then punch you in the face. The questions that Silence examines around the nature of God’s presence or absence that are also explored in Barrabas, by Par Lagerkvist, which I wrote about here. The subject of Catholic missionaries in a hostile land is also the core of The Voyage of the Short Serpent, by Bernard du Boucheron (which I also wrote about), although Endo’s feel for and handling of the subject is much more intimate.
Things it is not like: A lollipop. The potential apostasy of Christian children due to the occult conditioning of Pokemon.