Last January, I was looking forward to seeing Martin Scorsese’s new movie. Everyone was talking about how long he’d waited to make that movie, and how it was going to be the pinnacle of his career. The talk was even more excited among the Catholic communities, who were interested to see what this new movie about Jesuit missionaries was all about. I thought I’d have time to see it when I was still home for my Christmas break. But then, as it turned out, the opening date I had seen was only for select theaters, and the full release date was well after I was to fly out again. So, unfortunately, I never got to see the movie.
Upon doing some more research, I found that the movie that Scorsese had just made was based on a book by Shūsaku Endō, a Japanese writer of some repute. Endō was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1923. After World War II, he entered the literary scene along with a group of other young writers, and they collectively became known as the Third Generation. As a group, they were written off as writers, and the other greats of Japanese literature turned up their noses at their writing. Then, they started winning some of the most prestigious awards Japan has for literature, one right after the other.
Aside from being an amazing writer, Endō was also a Roman Catholic, placing him in a minority in post-war Japan. He wrote from the perspective of a person struggling with his faith in a society that was at best ambivalent, and at worst hostile towards Western religions. This struggle came across strongly in one of his most famous works, one that caught the attention of authors across the globe and of Martin Scorsese: Silence.
Silence tells the story of Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the 1640s, at the height of persecution of Christians in Japan. A prominent Jesuit missionary by the name of Cristóvão Ferreira apostatizes – renounces his faith. The Catholic Church in the West can’t believe the reports that reach them, and the missionary world is shocked to hear that Ferreira lives the life of a Japanese commoner, with a Japanese name and a Japanese wife. Three of his former students, now Jesuits themselves, take it upon themselves to find him and discover the truth. Unfortunately, the truth often lies very solidly in the gray, and the young missionaries find that they’ve taken on more than they’ve bargained for, and that there are greater sacrifices than martyrdom.
I picked this book up on a whim when I was walking toward the register in the bookstore one day (read: I’m a compulsive book buyer and was constitutionally incapable of leaving a bookstore with just one book). After all the hype I’d heard about the movie and how long Scorsese had waited to make this film, I was eager to read it. It’s a very short little book, and I figured I’d have it finished in a couple of days. It took me over a week to get through it. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it was so intense. This was one of the few books that left me in tears at the end of it. I wouldn’t say that it took any twists and turns, because I sort of knew how it was going to end right from the beginning, but the journey was all important to this story. It’s the journey that the characters take that makes the story worthwhile. Overall, the novel raises more questions than it answers, and the questions that it raises are questions – albeit in an extreme form – that all faithful deal with at some point in their lives.
Read more about Shūsaku Endō here.