Book Review: Silence

*This review contains major spoilers.*

I was recently enthralled by Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence–the best book I’ve read since reading Kristin Lavransdatter last year. It is the story of two Portuguese missionaries, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe, who arrive in Japan during a persecution of Japanese Christians. They seek to secretly minister to underground Christian communities and also to recover another Portuguese missionary, Father Ferraira, who is said to have apostatized under torture. Rodrigues is betrayed, arrested, and plunged into a nightmarish dilemma in which the authorities threaten to torture and kill the Japanese Christians unless Rodrigues denies Christ and tramples on a picture of him. Rodrigues commits this terrible act, and then lives out the rest of his life as a prisoner in Japan, never again allowed to practice his Christian faith.

The book is currently being adapted as a film by Martin Scorsese. Although I loved the book, and although I generally love Scorsese, I’m dreading the upcoming movie (and not just because the source material is pretty depressing).

First, Scorsese’s remarks about the novel indicate a possible misinterpreation:

How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? … Shusaku Endo understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture…That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.

I’m not entirely sure what Scorsese means by this comment, but he seems to take a positive view of Rodrigues’ apostasy–that it was all a part of “questioning one’s faith,” a necessary stage on the journey to maturity. Endo, however, clearly doesn’t portray apostasy favorably. Rodrigues’ decision to apostatize is based in a false mercy, the mercy of the Grand Inquisior, which holds bodily necessity to be so fundamental that it merits cooperation with evil. By denying the spiritual needs of man, this false mercy ultimately corrupts and destroys the humanity that it wishes to preserve. After denying Christ, Rodrigues knows that he carries “a deep wound” and he continues to cooperate with the evil government, even helping them apprehend more Christians. He finds himself on “a slope down which he kept slipping endlessly. To resist, to refuse–this was no longer possible” (279). Though he begs for mercy on behalf of those Christians, his pleas are to no avail: he has lost any moral authority that might have commanded respect, and the government ignores his pleas.

The situation is a powerful demonstration of Romans 3:8: “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—’Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is just!” It is Garrpe’s choice, not Rodrigues’, which Endo admires–Garrpe, who will not apostatize even to save the other Christians, but who dies trying to save them himself.

The part of the novel that most seems to fit Scorsese’s interpretation is its final lines:

He loved him (God) now in a different way than before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’ (286)

However, I think these lines, like any other passage in the novel, are most fully understood in the light of Scripture. To return to Romans 3:

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. . . . But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?”

Rodrigues’ apostasy dramatizes the gulf between himself and his Creator, and hence glorifies God by highlighting man’s utter dependance on him. Rodrigues had hoped to compensate for God’s inaction by rewriting moral law and taking action on his own; but his action utterly failed to have good effects, leaving him broken and humbled. Near the end of the novel, Rodrigues finds a newfound connection with Kichijiro, whom in his pride he had previously scorned, for he has realized that he himself is as weak as Kichijiro: “there are neither the strong nor the weak” (285). Even though sin corrupts the sinner and alienates him from God, it can, once committed, serve as a reminder of his weakness. God’s very absence amidst our brokenness testifies to our need for him–but only if we humble our pride and confess our weakness. I am not sure Scorsese’s film will reflect man’s need for God, since his interpretation seems to be the standard liberal one that doubt and even sin are normal, healthy processes.

Second, Scorsese’s talents simply aren’t suited to the novel. He’s a very good genre filmmaker, but when he strays outside the crime genre, the results range from the technically-accomplished-but-forgettable (Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, The Aviator) to the failures–often interesting failures, but failures nonetheless (Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead).

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any living filmmaker who would do a better job with the material. There are plenty of directors who could effectively portray the grotesque and despairing aspects of the novel (Lars von Triers, Takeshi Miike, Bela Tarr) but wouldn’t capture its spiritual depths. Although I often enjoy literary adaptations, I wish this particular novel would remain in the realm of the unfilmable.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Silence

  1. Terence Malick! I forgot about him! Yeah, he could probably do it, but in his version, the Jesuit missionaries would spend hours staring morosely into space. And there’d be a random dinosaur.

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