Re-reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence, Part 1

Re-reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence, Part 1

In which I address some critical concerns, including the problem of the unreliable narrator

I first read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence back in 2009 and I didn’t really know what to make of it. The novel was more than I could take in at that time. It felt big, important, I thought I had so much to say, but I never managed to write anything about it. And yet, it’s been sitting there all this time.

Then last year Martin Scorsese made a film based on the novel and there was all the buzz that came with it. I found myself reading many reviews not only of the movie, but also of the book. (I haven’t yet seen the movie, so I’m going to pass over that.) But with every review I read I kept thinking that the reviewer had somehow got the book wrong and likely the movie as well. So finally I decided it was time for a re-read and, putting aside all my other reading, I plunged in and read my way through it in two days, underlining and circling and making marginal notes on almost every page.

I’m still grappling with what to make of the ending of the novel. Too many commentaries want to leap over the rest of the book and to examine the climactic scene in which the protagonist, Father Rodrigues, apostatizes. But any reading of that most difficult ending is going to be off base if it’s not rooted in a careful reading of the journey that leads Rodrigues to that moment. So this post is the first installment of that careful reading. I will be focusing on Rodrigues as an unreliable narrator, which seems to be a facet of the novel that most critics miss and which I have a hunch will be key to understanding the climax and resolution of the novel.

Three Principles

But before I can even get to that careful reading, I have to first establish a few principles, addressing some concerns raised by various of those reviews.

First basic principle: the narrator is not the author. The voice of the narrator in any work of fiction or poetry does not necessarily represent the author’s point of view, beliefs, values, ideas, or worldview. It’s always a mistake to assume that it does. Sometimes, in fact, a character—-even the protagonist or the narrator—-might hold beliefs or state ideas that are exactly the opposite of what the author holds to be true. So when reading Silence do not assume that either the protagonist, Fr Rodrigues, whose letters comprise the first four chapters of the novel, or the third person narrator, who tells the rest of the story barring a section at the end, necessarily represents the Endo’s point of view. The question too few critics even ask is: what does Endo expect his reader to make of Rodrigues’ apostasy? Unlike those critics, I’m aren’t really sure, but I think there are some clues in the earlier parts of the novel that may lead us to look at it and at Rodrigues’ character a little differently, especially if we don’t assume that Rodrigues and Ferreira and the Japanese inquisitors are mouthpieces for what Endo thinks.

Second, a work of fiction, even historical fiction, is not history. Historical fiction takes liberties, conflates and merges events and people. And often the real concern of historical fiction is as much about our own time as it is about the time it portrays (in the same way that much science fiction is not really about the future but about the present). One criticism leveled at Silence is that Endo takes liberties with historical facts. However, this seems to me like a red herring distracting from the real questions that will help the reader to understand the meaning of the novel. Whether Endo conflates different events or even makes them up doesn’t change the themes of the novel or change the way I read the challenges Endo poses to the reader. And if, in fact, Endo is as unreliable a narrator about Japanese history as Rodrigues, perhaps that too is intentional and can point us to a deeper truth?

Third, and most important, is understanding the literary device of the unreliable narrator. As I re-read the novel I became increasingly convinced that Rodrigues is an unreliable narrator and that the literary device of the unreliable narrator is key to the entire novel. Wayne C. Booth, the literary critic who coined the term to describe a literary device that might be as old as literature itself, says: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.” So a question we need to ask ourselves is: what are the norms of the work and does Rodrigues speak and act in accord with those norms? I take as my starting point the assumption that the norms of the work are the norms of the Catholic Church and that Rodrigues’ departures from them are perhaps Endo’s design and not a reflection of Endo’s lack of orthodoxy. The text might well refute that assumption, but I believe in giving the novel the benefit of the doubt and not approaching it with an attitude of suspicion.

There are many types of unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator may be one who lies and deliberately deceives the reader, he might be insane or a braggart, he may have a flawed judgment or a flawed moral code. In the case of Rogrigues, I argue that he is unreliable in the sense that, although he is a priest and a missionary, he is not a model for good Christian behavior. He fails to be an alter Christus, and although he is well versed in theology, there is something profoundly flawed in his living out the Christian life in his mission to Japan. He is unreliable in his understanding of how to live out the Christian faith in practice, inasmuch as he fails to truly love the Japanese he has come to serve, in that he fails to understand mercy, and indeed in that he fails to truly seek to know and serve Christ. As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that Rodrigues worships a false Christ made in his own image and shrinks from love, mercy, and true sacrificial suffering.

Put your finger in the wound

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

In the first chapter Rodrigues and his two companions meet the Japanese man, Kichijiro, who will be their guide as they enter Japan. He is a drunken wretch “with a crafty look on his face.” Kichijiro describes to them the martyrdom of twenty-four Christians, but denies being a Christian himself. Yet Rodrigues observes that as he describes their deaths Kichijiro seems pained, as if they had “put our finger on an open wound which should not have been touched”. Rodrigues cannot yet understand, but comes to think that Kichijiro drinks because he is trying to forget “some haunting memory.” The reader will eventually understand that the root of Kichijiro’s pain is that he himself not only apostatized, but also betrayed his fellow Christians. He was responsible for their deaths.

What I want to note here is that from the beginning Rodrigues shows no real compassion for Kichijiro. He is only thankful because it seems Kichijiro will be useful to them. As he comes to understand Kichijiro’s character, his duplicity and his weakness and his cowardice, it doesn’t seem that Rodrigues has much patience for him, the “cowardly weakling”. As the novel progresses Rodrigues’ attitude toward Kichijiro, his inability to see the face of Christ in the wretched man, becomes more and more an indictment of Rodrigues.

Before they meet Kichijiro, we are given a summary of their mission by Father Juan de Santa Marta, the priest who falls ill in Macao and does not accompany Rodrigues and Garrpe to Japan. Father Juan sees their mission more clearly than Father Rodrigues. While Rodrigues seems firstly focused on finding his apostate teacher Ferreira to find out the truth of his apostasy and then on being a glorious martyr, Juan emphasizes that their secret mission is to seek out the lost sheep, the Christians who have lost their priests and have no shepherd to guide them. He says, “Someone must go to give them courage and to ensure that the tiny flame of faith does not die out.”

And yet Rodrigues never seems to see Kichijiro as one of the lost sheep who needs a shepherd to give him courage. Why is that? It is easy as a reader to be complicit in Rodrigues’ failure since we only see Kichijiro through his eyes, a contemptible, servile drunk. Kichijiro is not at all admirable, there is nothing at all attractive about him, ever. But isn’t Christ’s mission to such wretches as he? 

What would a saint have made of Kichijiro? How would St Francis Xavier, say, have addressed him? Would he not have seen him as more than a useful guide? Would he have sought the source of Kichijiro’s wound and attempted to counsel and encourage him, to restore him to health, to bring him back to Christ instead of leaving him alone in his wretchedness? Would he have probed Kichijiro’s wound as St Thomas probed Christ’s wound, perhaps even seeing in Kichijiro the face of Christ?

What did the face of Christ look like?

But maybe I’m being too harsh on Rodrigues. Maybe anyone in his shoes would overlook the wretched Kichijiro. Let’s move on to the scene that follows immediately after this description of Kichijiro’s wretched woundedness.

 Here we have the first hint that Rodrigues might be a less than reliable narrator in his first meditation on the face of Christ:

What did the face of Christ look like? This point the Bible passes over in silence. You know well that the early Christians thought of Christ as a shepherd. They short mantle, the small tunic; one hand is holding the foot of the lamb while the other clasps a staff. This figure is familiar in our countries, for we see it reflected in many of the people whom we know. That was how the earliest Christians envisaged the gentle face of Christ. And then in the eastern Church one finds the long nose, the curly hair, the black beard. All this was creating an oriental Christ. As for the medieval artists, many of them painted a face of Christ resplendent with the authority of a king. Yet tonight for me the face is that of the picture preserved in the Borgo San Supulchro. There still remains fresh in my memory the time when I saw this picture as a seminarian for the first time. Christ has one foot on the sepulchre and in his right hand he holds a crucifix. He is facing straight out and his face bears the expression of encouragement it had when he commanded his disciples three times, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my lambs, feed my lambs. . . .’ It is a face filled with vigor and strength. I am always fascinated by the face of Christ just like a man fascinated by the face of his beloved.

What Rodrigues glosses over in his explication of the painting in the Borgo San Sepulchro is that in the referenced passage, John 21, Christ isn’t speaking generically to “his disciples” he’s speaking to Peter. And this is the moment when Christ forgives Peter’s triple denial. For Christ’s commandment to ‘feed my sheep’ doesn’t happen three times in a row as Rodrigues states it. Rather, it follows a question and answer: ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord, I love you.’ ‘Feed my sheep.’ “Feed my lambs” is not just a commandment given to the disciples, it’s also an extension of Christ’s mercy to the apostate first pope. Christ gives Peter a chance to affirm his love and then gives him, the man who failed Christ and who denied him, a mission. But Rodrigues elides that question and answer— the first of many elisions in Rodrigues’ meditations and prayers. This is telling: he denies Christ’s mercy and only recounts Christ’s commission. Rodrigues withholds both this mercy and this love from Kichijiro from the moment they meet, looking on Kichijiro’s weakness not with compassion, but with contempt.

Rodrigues’ meditation on the face of Christ is at its heart an aesthetic meditation, not a spiritual one. His Christ is the Christ of art history, beautiful and strong, full of vigor and strength. But is Endo calling us to see past Rodrigues’ Christ? Rodrigues passes over the thought of the shepherd Christ, dressed as a common peasant. He passes over the idea of an oriental Christ. Does Endo want the reader to imagine Christ as a Japanese peasant? What if Christ in fact looks like Kichijiro, not full of vigor and strength but “a worm and no man”?

What does the face of Christ look like? This is one of the most important questions in the novel. Does Endo perhaps want the reader to see in Kichijiro the Christ of Isaiah 53 that Rodrigues does not see?:

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

This image of the face of Christ might be the most important one of the novel. Over and over again Rodrigues will call our attention to faces, and it is this image of the face of Christ that will appear again at the novel’s climax. When we get there we must ask ourselves again: What does the face ofChrist look like? And does Rodrigues recognize Christ when he sees him?

I will have more to say about Rodrigues as an unreliable narrator, about Kichijiro as the face of Christ, more passages to examine, especially a consideration of Rodrigues’ prayers and meditations.


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Part 2: Apostasy and Despair

Part 3: On Mercy

Part 4: Concerning Shepherds

Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God

Part 6: A Tale of Two Jesuits

Part 7: With Faith in His Heart?”

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