"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Silence by Shūsaku Endō, Part 5

You can read Part 1 of this series, here
You can read Part 2, here
You can read Part 3, here.

In an historical novel, there is a built potential for dramatic irony in that we the reader know how the history will turn out.  The beginning of chapter three, Rodrigues writes back home expressing how critical he thinks he is.

In this country June marks the beginning of the rainy season. I have been told that the rain falls continuously for more than a month. With the coming of the rain the officials will probably relax their vigilance, so I intend to make use of this opportunity to travel around the neighbourhood and search out the remaining Christians. I want to let them know as quickly as possible that they are not utterly abandoned and alone.

Never have I felt so deeply how meaningful is the life of a priest. These Japanese Christians are like a ship lost in a storm without a chart. I see them without a single priest or brother to encourage and console, gradually losing hope and wandering bewildered in the darkness.

Well, we know that for 250 years the indigenous Christians of Japan were abandoned and alone as per that last sentence in the first paragraph.  And we also know that despite being abandoned and alone they did not lose hope and wander bewildered.  When Christians came back to Japan it was remarkable how they found the rudiments of Christianity still relatively pristine.  This is a point that must be strongly emphasized to understand the novel: despite incredible persecution and separation from mother church the Christian faith had taken root and survived 250 years until the harsh conditions had eased.  The historicity shapes the novel.

The third chapter shows why Christianity survived all those years by dramatizing the peasant’s love for Christianity.  Once they learn there are real priests in their village, the peasants overwhelm them for their sacramental needs.  Here’s a description of the faith Rodrigues finds among the peasants.

But now let me give you some more detailed information about these people of the village of Tomogi. They are poor farmers who eke out a living by cultivating potatoes and wheat in little fields. They have no ricefields. When you see how the land is cultivated right up into the middle of the mountain facing the sea, you are struck not so much by their indefatigable industry as by the cruelty of the life they have inherited. Yet the magistrate of Nagasaki exacts from them an exceedingly harsh revenue. I tell you the truth-for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

I have not yet met all the people of Tomogi. This is because from fear of the officials only two villagers can climb up to our little hut each night. Truth to tell in spite of myself! cannot help laughing when I hear the mumbling Portuguese and Latin words in the mouths of these ignorant peasants: 'Deus', 'Angelus', 'Beato' and so on. The sacrament of confession they call 'konshan'; heaven they call 'parais'; hell is 'inferno'. Not only are their names difficult to remember, but their faces all look the same-which c::mses not a little embarrassment. We confuse Ichizo with Seisukc, and we get Omatsu mixed up with another woman called Saki.

I have already told you something about Mokichi, so I would like now to say a few words about a couple of the other Christians. Ichizo is a man of about fifty who comes at night to our hut-and he always wears on his face an expression which makes you think he is angry. While attending Mass, and after it is over, he says not a word. In fact, however, he is not angry at all; this is just his natural expression. He is extraordinarily curious, and he scrutinizes carefully every movement and gesture of Garrpe and myself with his narrow, wrinkled eyes.

Omatsu, I'm told, is Ichizo's elder sister. Long ago she lost her husband and is now a widow. Twice she has come right up to our place with her niece, Sen, carrying on her back a basket with food for us. Like Ichizo, she too is extremely inquisitive and, together with her niece, scrutinizes Garrpe and me as we eat our meal. And what a meal! You couldn't imagine how wretched it is-a few fried potatoes and water. And while Garrpe and I gulp it down, the two women look on, laughing with evident satisfaction.

This chapter is actually lyrical in its dramatizing of love and faith.  The peasants harbor the Jesuits in a hut up a mountain.  They feed them, they nurture them, they love them, all at great risk to their lives.  This particular passage may be the loveliest in the entire novel:

The next event took place five days after the one I have recorded. It was late at night and we were secretly baptizing a baby that had been brought along by Omatsu and two men belonging to the Tossama. It was our first baptism since coming to Japan, and of course we had no candles nor music in our little hut—the only instrument for the ceremony was a broken little peasants' cup which we used for holy water. But it was more touching than
the liturgy of any cathedral to see that poor little hut with the baby crying and Omatsu soothing it while one of the men stood on guard outside. I thrilled with joy as I listened to the solemn voice of Garrpe as he recited the baptismal prayers. This is a happiness that only a missionary priest in a foreign land can relish. As the water flowed over its forehead the baby wrinkled its face and yelled aloud.  Its head was tiny; its eyes were narrow; this was already a peasant face that would in time come to resemble that of Mokichi and Ichizo. This child also would grow up like its parents and grandparents to eke out a miserable existence face to face with the black sea in this cramped and desolate land; it, too, would live like a beast, and like a beast it would die. But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt—this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.

The peasant child baptized projects to the peasants 250 years of endurance.  There is such joy there.  Christ is there for the child and for the peasants.  And men from other villages have heard about the priests and have come to urge them to meet their villagers.

From these men we heard astonishing news. In the district known as Odomari, the villagers had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of the officials, and they were still Christians to a man. And not only Odomari. The neighbouring district and villages of Miyahara, Dozaki and Egami, although to outward appearances they were Buddhist, were in fact Christian—a fact which was barely kept hidden. For a long, long time they had been awaiting the day when we priests would once again come across the distant sea to help them and give them a blessing.

'Father, we have not been to Mass. We have not confessed our sins. We have only said our prayers.' It was the man with the blood-stained feet who spoke.

'Come quickly to our village. Father, we teach our little children their prayers. They are waiting for the day you will come.' The fellow with the yellow teeth, opening a mouth that yawned like an enormous cave, nodded approval. The fish oil burned and crackled. Garrpe and I could not refuse such a plea. We had been too cowardly until now. It was embarrassing to think of our weakness in comparison with the courage of these Japanese peasants who had slept in the mountains and lacerated their feet in order to come to us.

The “astonishing news” that the village was “still Christian to a man” escaping the government’s persecution again projects to the 250 years of secret endurance.  The deep desire for Mass, for confession, for the sacraments is true faith.  They say their prayers and teach their children the prayers, and so it will go on for generations.  No other chapter will be so beautiful.  The story line will turn after this, but the faith will go on.

There is something that Susan Margret pointed out of chapter three, and that is the recurring imagery of the human face.  Here’s the exchange:

Susan Margret:

I have never been very good at figuring out symbolism in reading literature. Chapters three and four seem to be loaded with it. There are many references about faces and the face of Christ. Here are a few:

“The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks.” (Page 33)

“As for me, perhaps I am so fascinated by his face because the Scriptures make no mention of it.” (Page 44)

“This was the face of a crucified man, a face which for so many centuries had given inspiration to artists.” (Page 71)

“That face with its fearful eyes like a spider.” (The face of Kichijiro. Page 83)

I am wondering what Endo is trying to tell us about the face of Christ? Is he showing us the face of compassion, the face of suffering, or something else? In these two chapters there were also several comments about the silence of God.


Susan, that is so on top of it! I did not pick up on the constant reference to faces, and that connects to the reference of Christ's face in Piero della Francesca's painting. I'll have to go back and look but my gut reaction is that the peasant's faces represent Christ's face. And that through their faces God is speaking. Yes, because the silence of God is supposed to be ironic. He is speaking throughout. It's just that Rodrigues doesn't get it.

And while chapter four is not as lyrical as chapter three, it is extremely rich and dense.  Chapter four is the chapter of betrayal, of peasant crucifixion, of scatter and flight, and finally of capture.  It’s the last chapter we get Rodrigues’ first person narration.  There are three themes I want to explore that are prominent in the fourth chapter: Silence, Existentialism, and the Judas-like betrayal.  

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