I watched Martin Scorsese’s take on Shūsaku Endō’s Silence a few weeks ago, and I immediately checked the book out from the library to read the source material. It’s as moving as the cinematic version. This was my first exposure to Endō. His is certainly an expressive style of writing–terse, action-oriented but deep in the narrator’s psyche, overwhelmingly religious (unsurprising, considering the narrator).
The following are a few selections from the book. I won’t waste many words contextualizing the scenes. They speak for themselves.
First, Rodrigues has been imprisoned but has come face to face again with his thorn in the flesh. Kichijirō, who helped ferry Rodrigues and Garrpe from Macao to Japan, had apostatized in the past, when the persecution broke out in earnest, only to return and to repent and then to apostatize again, betraying Rodrigues to the magistrate, who has imprisoned Rodrigues:
When the man looked toward the priest, their eyes met. It was Kichijirō. For a moment a spasm of fear cross that face and Kichijirō retreated backwards a few steps.
‘Father!’ His voice was like the whining of a dog. ‘Father! Listen to me!’
The priest withdrew his face from the window and tried to block his ears against the sound of that voice. How could he ever forget the dried fish, the burning thirst in his throat. Even if he tried to forgive the fellow, he could not drive from his memory the hatred and anger that lurked there.
‘Father! father!’ The entreating voice continued like that of a child pleading with its mother.
‘Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians. Yes, it is true that I trod on the holy image. Mokichi and Ichizo were strong. I can’t be strong like them.’
… The priest closed his eyes and began to recite the Credo. He felt a sense of joy in being able to abandon this whimpering fellow in the rain. Even though Christ prayed, Judas hanged himself in the field of blood–and had Christ prayed for Judas? There was nothing about that in the Scriptures; and even if there was, he could not put himself into such a frame of mind as to be able to do likewise. In any case, to what extent could the fellow be trusted? He was looking for pardon; but this perhaps was no more than a passing moment of excitement.
… ‘Father, father!’ Seeing that the priest had come to the prison, Kichijirō was again pleading in the darkness. ‘Let me confess my sins and repent!’
The priest had no right to refuse the sacrament of penance to anyone. If a person asked for the sacrament, it was not for him to concede or refuse according to his own feelings. He raised his hand in blessing, uttered dutifully the prescribed prayer and put his ear close to the other. As the foul breath was wafted into his face, there in the darkness the vision of the yellow teeth and the crafty look floated before his eyes.
‘Listen to me, father,’ Kichijirō whimpered in a voice that the other Christians could hear. ‘I am an apostate, but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution . . . I am sorry.’
‘But do you still believe?’, asked the priest, doing his best to put up with the foul stench of the other’s breath. ‘I will give you absolution, but I cannot trust you. I cannot understand why you have come here.’
Heaving a deep sigh and searching for words of explanation, Kichijirō shifted and shuffled. The stench of his filth and sweat was wafted toward the priest. Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijirō was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore. Suppressing his disgust, the priest recited the final words of absolution, and then, following the established custom, he whispered, ‘Go in peace.’ With all possible speed getting away from the stench of that mouth and that body, he returned to where the Christians were.
No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone–people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijirō. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.
Second, in the immediate wake of Kichijirō again apostatizing and the martyrdom of a Christian prisoner. Rodrigues is stunned by the silent stillness of god after these events:
The white rays of the sun beat down dazzlingly on the open courtyard. Beneath its merciless rays there lay on the ground the black dye which was the blood from the body of the one-eyed man.
Just as before, the cicadas kept on singing their song, dry and hoarse. There was not a breath of wind. Just as before, a fly kept buzzing around the priest’s face. In the world outside there was no change. A man had died; but there was no change.
‘So it has come to this. . . .’ He shivered as he clutched the bars. ‘So it has come to this. . . .’
Yet his perplexity did not come from the event that had happened so suddenly. What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? Here this one-eyed man has died–and for you. You ought to know. Why does this stillness continue? This noonday stillness. The sound of the flies–this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This . . . this I cannot bear.
Kyrie Eleison! Lord, have mercy! His trembling lips moved a while in prayer, but the words faded from his lips. Lord, do not abandon me anymore! Do not abandon me in this mysterious way. Is this prayer? For a long time I have believed that prayer is uttered to praise and glorify you; but when I speak to you it seems as though I only blaspheme. On the day of my death, too, will the world go relentlessly on its way, indifferent just as now? After I am murdered, will the cicadas sing and the flies whirl their wings inducing sleep? Do I want to be as heroic as that? And yet, am I looking for the true, hidden martyrdom or just for a glorious death? Is it that I want to be honored, to be prayed to, to be called a saint?
Third, Rodrigues has now found the apostate priest whom he went to Japan in search of. Ferreira convinces Rodrigues to commit the “formality” of apostasy, to step on the fumie, in order to show mercy and love to the suffering prisoners near them. On their way to the fumie,
‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.
Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains–and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentle light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls.
‘Sawano, is it over? Shall we get out the fumie?’ As he spoke the interpreter put on the ground the box he was carrying and, opening it, he took out a large wooden plaque.
‘Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.’ Ferreira repeated his former words gently. ‘Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do.’
The fumie is now at his feet.
A simple copper medal is fixed on to a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country.
‘Ah,’ says Ferreira. ‘Courage!’
‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life. This face is deeply ingrained in my soul–the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample on it.’
The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’
‘It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?’ The interpreter urges him on excitedly. ‘Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.’
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
Finally, Rodrigues has been remanded to a house away from the people in Kobinatacho, to live as husband to a widowed woman. His thorn in the flesh appears yet again:
‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijirō with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those, like myself, who are born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image . . .’
I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers in plain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’
‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’
‘But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?’
‘I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you now are.’
He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.
‘There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?’ The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. ‘Since in this country there is now no one else to hear your confession, I will do it. . . . Say the prayers after confession. . . . Go in peace!’
Both book and film are unnerving experiences. There’s a lot to think about here.
 Endō, Shūsaku. Silence. Trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969), 122-4.
 Ibid, 127-8.
 Ibid, 182-3.
 Ibid, 202-3.