Review Of Silence, by Shusaku Endo
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/17/10
This is my first experience reading Shusaku Endo, and given his lofty reputation and the fact that he is non-American and thus has not had his mind chiseled by cookie-cutter MFA programs, I was expecting much. Unfortunately, Silence didn’t deliver like I had hoped. Many compare Endo with the British writer Graham Greene, notably because of their similar subject matter involving religious themes and the conversion of cultures to Christian religion. But really the two writers aren’t anything alike. At all. Similar subject matter in and of itself does not equal two artists in quality or even in kind. Because if it were, then one could lump Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey with any lesser sci-fi genre film simply because they have astronauts in them.
It is not that Silence is a bad book, for I am not sure if what is lacking is due to Endo, or the mediocre translation by William Johnston. For one, the text is larded with clichés that simply do not belong in a book claimed to be a “Masterpiece.” They’re not only clichéd in context, but naked clichés—the kind you find by some MFA hack who has just landed a book deal on recommendation from his or her professor in exchange for sexual favors. Thus is why I was so disappointed, for that is the very type of writing I was trying to avoid. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
“Accustomed to a cell with no ray of light, the brightness of the sun seared his hollow eyes cutting them like a sword.”
“A great shadow passed over his soul like that of the wings of a bird flying over the mast of a ship.”
“The priest sat staring at the blank white wall while the rays of the moon pierced through the bars…”
I could go on, but what would be the point? The modifiers are all melodramatic and obvious, leaving the prose inert. Light is always “blazing” and darkness is always “filling the soul” and rays are always “piercing.” There are no such clichés from what I can recall in any of the Graham Greene books I’ve read, but this again, could be due to Greene having an advantage over Endo, in that I did not have to wade through the lazy chosen words of a translator in order to access Greene’s work.
As for the story, Silence is set in sixteenth century Japan, where Christians are suffering the brunt of the Japanese feudal lords who wish to abolish all Christians from Japan. Priests are regularly tortured and imprisoned with the intention of getting them to deny their faith. Many refuse, and thus suffer more punishment. Parts of the book are told via letters, giving readers the first hand perspective of Sebastian Rodrigues, who is a Portuguese priest set out to embark on a trip to Japan in order to locate converts, and thereby risking his life in the process.
The book questions faith and the existence of God, and overall presents interesting enough subject matter for a potentially engaging read. Though Silence never seems to access those philosophical highs that the subject matter could allow, and nor does it deliver with poetic and memorable prose. The isolation the characters endure, coupled with the absence of kindness from those discriminating against Christians, offers the perfect paradox to their own Christian beliefs, in that, if God is so merciful and so kind, why are those who believe being tortured on account of it? This idea is explored in moments throughout the novel, although it is never really answered. Granted, that is actually a positive point, since even believers themselves don’t have answers to these queries: they instead must rely on their own religious rhetoric for justification.
The last chapter is told via extracts from a diary of a clerk at the Dutch firm in 1644, and we learn that the many who would not surrender their faith were ultimately sentenced to death, and these details are relayed very matter of factly, without any hint of emotion. Ironically it is in these moments where the writing benefits, since no forced attempts at poetry are being made, and therefore no melodramatic modifiers are used. Instead, the moments are permitted to just be as they are.
Although Silence was disappointing, I have not signed off on Endo just yet. The ideas and narrative approaches he uses throughout Silence indicate that he still has potential and other works of his could be better. Thus is one of the downsides of reading works in translation: one only has to ruminate over the poems of Rilke to see that even a great poet as he can be watered down by crappy translators, leaving the writing and those who read it at a loss.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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