Silence by Shusaku Endo tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who go on a mission to Japan to find their mentor and fellow priest who has recently apostatized. The main character is a priest by the name of Sebastian Rodrigues (played byAndrew Garfield in the movie). Father Francisco Garrpe, played by Adam Driver in the movie, is his companion. Together they set off to find Father Christovao Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson in the movie, to discover if in fact he has apostatized. But more importantly, they set out to discover why he had taken such an unexpected change of heart if in fact he had committed such an unthinkable spiritual infraction. From the elementary first two pages of the book, Shusaku prematurely divulges precisely why the Japanese had recently developed an aversion to the religion of the Portuguese interlopers, “The greater part of the Chinese show no interest in our teaching. On this point Japan is undoubtedly, as Saint Francis Xavier said, ‘the country in the Orient most suited to Christianity’. However, ironically enough, as a result of the Japanese government’s forbiding ships of its own country to go to foreign lands, the monopoly of the silk trade in the whole Far East has now fallen into the hands of the Portuguese merchants in Macao so that the total income of this import is expected to rise to four hundred seraphim as opposed to one hundred seraphim last year and the year before.”
This book is two hundred and twelve pages long. Typically, a book this short would take me three to four days to read if I were interested. If it fascinates me then it takes me a couple of days to read. It took me twelve days to get through this book. It was a slow and cruel torture. When a book has been made into a movie, I like to watch the movie first since it almost always falls short of the distinction of the book. This was not the case with Silence. But then again, I’m sure you’re thinking that this was to be expected since it is a Martin Scorsese film. The movie was beautiful, calamitous, nostalgic and affecting. The book however reads more as one incessant and unnecessarily prolonged whining session. The author spends an exhaustive amount of time describing wooden prison cells in excruciating detail. How much could one possibly say about four wooden walls with a mud floor???? He does the same with smells, sounds and food; almost to the point of making me think he may have had OCD. He insisted on describing dried fish on numerous occasions.
Shusaku also has a bizarre obsession with feces. He turns the repugnant act of relieving oneself or the final result itself almost into a ingenue all of its own. He describes feces in full detail in five important scenes in the book. Why this mania? I’m not sure about other readers but for me, it was off-putting to have to relive the full description more than once. I get it! The surrounding environment and circumstances were deplorable. Understood! Why did he feel compelled to characterize the warmth of excrement with such peculiarity??? It was just one of many irritating distractions in this book. The other was that of one of the supporting characters, Kichijiro. He was a Japense man turned Christian who could not seem to stop apostatizing for the sake of saving his life. Just like the feces served as the means to repeatedly describe the unavoidable filth and rashness of the impoverished land and people , Kichijiro’s character too was used to drive a point well past painfully obvious. The point being that of a man’s struggle between keeping one’s faith or saving one’s neck. After awhile, I unwittingly superficially read over the parts where he was mentioned out of sheer disinterest. The point had been sufficiently made after the first two times that he had apostatized. “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains.”
Father Sebastian Rodrigues faced a painful struggle in this book between remaining faithful to the Man that he had spent his entire life loving more than life itself and having to abandon all belief for the sake of saving the lives of the persecuted Japanese Christians.He was more than willing to die for his faith but was never given the option. The Japanese magistrate refused to make him a martyr. Besides, he didn’t want to put him out of his misery. He wanted to break him and make an example of him. This battle between these two opposing forces starts to take a toll on Rodrigues’ faith. “I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.” “No, no! I shook my head. If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion? (But supposing…of course, supposing, I mean.) From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist…”
The book gets good halfway through. Then there is another painful lull three quarters of the way through to the end. There is some interesting banter between the magistrate, Inoue, persecuting the Christians and Father Rodrigues which reads more like a riddle than simple banter. This part is entertaining. And the message of the story truly is beautiful which would have been heightened if only the author could have made the book more interesting. But there are so many points about this book that weaken it’s potential. The author excessively uses the word “however” to transition from ending one point to move onto another. He repeatedly says that the characters smile in a “servile” manner. Certain birds and insects such as flies are used in scenes as trite depictions of an impending doom. They always appear right before Rodrigues receives more bad news or is put through another trial. Once you pick up on it after the second time, all the other times simply drain the mystery out of the next part of the story. The story finally becomes interesting when Father Ferreira appears and explains in full detail why he apostatized. But then, the story suddenly ends in a most uninteresting, dull and vacuous fashion. Martin Scorsese however, was having none of it and wrote a few small differences into his storyline which made a world of difference for driving the point of the movie to its culmination.
To sum it up, rent the movie. Scorsese makes a few minimal changes but does an impressive job of managing to stay true to the story while making it more interesting. Andrew Garfield’s performance will floor you. I know I never thought Spiderman was capable of such great acting! The book, in my humble opinion, isn’t worth it. Though it did have a few good lines it really didn’t live up to all the hype that Mr. Scorsese offered in an interview that I had watched on YouTube. HOWEVER, there is a big however here that must be mentioned (pun intended, Shusaku loves “however(s)”)…I have been known to not enjoy a book in my day that I have picked up again a year or two later only to finally fall in love with it the second time around. Perhaps this too will be the fate of Silence by Shusaku Endo. In the meantime, I highly recommend you watch the movie. Enjoy!