Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo


I am inclined to approach the novel in a manner that operationalizes important terms, which (I think) comprise its structural narrative.  These terms are Christianity, Absurd, Power and Reality.

 CHRISTIANITY                  ABSURD 

    POWER                            REALITY 

The subtlest theme that we can discover in the novel is the relation of Christianity to the Absurd. This runs through the development of the novel from the suspicion of Rodriguez’ group regarding Ferreira’s apostasy up to Rodriguez’ own apostasy.  The theme unfolds against the background of the persecution of the Christians in a foreign land.  Christianity’s relation to the Absurd is marked by a historical development from the early persecution of the Christians by the Romans to a decisive victory over ancient paganism with the conversion of Emperor Constantine.  From then on Christianity evolved into a structure of power with the founding of the Catholic Church, the privileging of the clergy with showers of fortunes and favors intimately linked with the state, and powerfully characterized by a strategy of evangelization that divided the world between Christian and barbarian, between civilization and paganism.

We are inclined to say that Christianity’s evolution into a structure of power is its historical response to the Absurd.  Until the transformation of Christianity into a state-favored institution, the early Christians literally did not know reality or any notion of it in the wider ideological sense.  And without a power of an institution, the Absurd is taken for reality.  The silence of Abraham is fear of an unknown objective reality, whereas the confidence of the popes rests on ecclesiastical machinery that regulates people’s relation to the outside world.  This is the birth of Reality for the Christians.  A reality that is not real in the sense of the really unmediated real; rather in the sense that it is constructed that Christians have been made to bear in order to escape the Absurd.

 And so, the journey of Rodriguez group to overcome the recurrence of the problematic of absurdity, reeling against the background of a necessity to face the Absurd ( or if only to erase from memory how a small nuclear of disciples who shared faith in Christ’s resurrection became a powerful institution that has littered some evils, unconscious or conscious, which in a way have contributed to the madness of human history ).  The journey and struggle of Rodriguez presents a case, among others, of how Christianity relates to the Absurd, in a way that pits itself against its own foundation.  To this extent, apostasy implicates Christianity in a manner that suspends the brilliant and heroic foundation of the history of the clergy, and by  dint of this suspension, the reputed history of the church is tarnished. Apostasy recasts Christianity into the genealogical origin of its constructed reality in a way that unconceals the arbitrary foundation of belief.  Apostasy lays bare this origin also in the sense that it is like the return of the repressed.  The construction of Christian reality had been made possible by discriminating other possibilities of expressing faith; it had to rely on a strategy of binary opposition in which one possibility is always already presumed to be superior over the ‘other’, or the uncivilized barbarian.  In short, the repressed ‘other’ returns in the guise of apostasy, a case of barbarian paganism.  Notwithstanding its hard-earned power, Christianity will always be challenged by the return of the repressed.  And this power called Christianity finds itself relating to Reality in the form of an inverted re-evangelization.

 I use this term re-evangelization to stress the implication of how this Power relates to Reality.  One implication is the concealment of national or transnational interest.  Portugal’s ecclesiastical interest is not independent of her political and trade interest.  This is an example of a superstructural reification of infrastructural goals. Although Rodriguez is right about one of the reasons why the Japanese embraced Christianity, that is, the human warmth that Buddhism and the bureaucracy could not give to them, he also isolates other reasons, and it is only later in the novel that we can glimpse into Rodriguez forming a deeper awareness of the absurdity of his mission in the light of other non-ecclesiastical interests, which remain for the most part commonplace and unstudied.  The thing is the condition for the possibility of Japanese conversion is the liberalism of the West, the Orientalism of the West (in the language of Edward Said) or the messianic paradigm of saving the pagan Orient that is not without a state sanction.  This is the grain of the matter that Ferreira speaks about the true indifference of the Japanese converts to the Christian God, which they confuse with the Sun-god.  The high priests in Rome surely know this but they continue to send missionaries to the Orient notwithstanding that the outcome of conversion in this part of the globe holds the purity of the Christian doctrine suspect. But one thing is uncompromised-that is, the preservation of trade and the megalomaniac institutions in the Western frontier despite the swamp called Japan. 

 We now turn to the problematic of Silence in the novel.  With regard to the diagram above, the problematic of silence has an obvious horizontal structure, which informed the same relation between Christianity and the Absurd, and Power and Reality.  There is horizontal silence between Christianity and the Absurd.  It is silence that justified the necessity of forgetfulness of the arbitrary foundation of Christian religion.  There is also horizontal silence between Power (Christianity’s power) and Reality.  It is silence that conceals other non-ecclesiastical influences over matters of religious conversion.  We will now find out the implications of these relations to the problematic of suffering.  

 The problematic of suffering is manifest in the relational structure that exists between Silence and the Absurd.  Why is God silent over the suffering of the poor peasants? To this we may also add, why the same God is silent over the committal of murderous evils in his Name, the Inquisition, the genocide of the Jews, and generally the poor whom He blessed with the promise that theirs is the kingdom of God? And also why is God silent over the luxury of the propertied Church? I am not inclined to answer these questions but I will leave the reader several pointers to approach theme:

1)             The suffering and misery of Humanity that is apparently associated with religion can be hopefully resolved in history.  It is within history that the poor peasants suffer.  It is in history that the genocide of the Jews happened.  If we say that God who has reserved a better future for them determines the fate of the Jews, let us grant that God had used the United States government to initiate and complete the project of Zionism that gave birth to the state of Israel.  Regardless whether the US government is a good or a bad medium, the intervention of the US government is a crucial point. The intervention of the US government, however, had helped to foment and foster the culture of hatred between Christians and non-Christians in the Middle East.  Did God allow it to happen that has recently claimed thousands of innocent civilians at the World Trade Center? God may be silent. But history is not.

2)             If we say that the logic of suffering is a test to religious faith, does it follow that there has to be a chosen race or a chosen class that are deemed to suffer but can claim the best future? Where is this future? Is it in the here and now or in some place beyond comprehension?

a.             If it is in the here and now, let us grant that the Jews have received so far what is due to them with the creation of the state of Israel.  But if you will look further, the Palestinians are now suffering from deprivation of a homeland as a result.  They suffer even more from the culture of violence that they inherit from the Absurd.  They suffer even more as they seem to advocate fundamentalism that they bear almost unwillingly, if we say that no man by nature is willing to self-destruct.

b.             If the future is beyond a conceivable location, can we say that the poor will become rich in heaven, so that they are poor on earth? Can we say that the poor are deprived of purchasing power so that they will enjoy the luxury in heaven? Can we say that they are deprived to enrich the rich, who afterwards, will be deprived beyond life, which is the place of the poor?

3)             If we say that God never gives us a trial that we cannot overcome, does it follow that the persecution of the Japanese peasants is a successful trial?  Isn’t it that the trial of Ferreira and Rodriguez more successful by being able to escape a helpless situation?  Surely Rodriguez has a right to say in the end that God is not silent at all.  But the Japanese who died in the pit-were they successful? They did not ask why God is silent.  God would have been so anxious to ask them why were they silent and did not invoke his intervention.  They even desired death, but apparently God did not wish death because He saved Ferreira and Rodriguez.  Paradoxically, God is alive for the two priests; He is dead for the peasants. Is it ugly to look at a suffering Japanese and sublime to glare at the reassuring face of an apostate?

Lastly, let us turn briefly to the problematic of apostasy.  The problematic of apostasy manifests a vertical silence.  It is that silence that has kept Ferreira and Rodriguez asking God of his intervention.  And yet it is also another vertical silence that has kept the premises of power from the talk about God and the Christian doctrine.  Ferreira and Rodriguez appear to be victims of this silence of power rather than of God’s.  Their apostasy is therefore justified from this angle of silence.  If their suffering as well as the peasants appear to be the result of this silence of power, apostasy is a logically subversive resolution.  They did not sin against God; they only lost the favor of men.

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