Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shusaku Endo's "Silence": Book Review

With 71 earlier reviews [Amazon US] most praise this incisive, painful novel's merits. I'm adding a note about translator Fr. William Johnston, S.J. Born in Belfast in 1925, he died in October 2010. With the attention to this book perhaps surging as news of it as a Martin Scorsese film with Daniel Day-Lewis & Benicio del Toro spreads, I wanted to alert you to this context, relevant for a Western audience and for Endo's theme about trying to overcome cultural and religious barriers to understanding.

When I read this (it flows seamlessly and often sparely and peacefully despite its subject, in English) shortly after it appeared around 1980, I heard about it via Graham Greene's acclaim. Then, I read it via a very Catholic mindset. I remembered it for very graphic, very brutal depictions of martyrdom.

In fact, the descriptions are hinted at, not shown in detail. They linger more often as threat, rumor, report, or murmur than observed reality, and therefore remain all the more frightening. I decided to re-read this, despite its grimness, after finding a mention of the real-life Jesuit apostate, Christovao Ferreira, in Michel Onfray's polemic, "Atheist Manifesto" (reviewed by me recently). Onfray notes Ferreira's contribution, one of the earliest published, to anti-Christian debate, but he dismisses him for not being "atheist" enough, as he adopted Zen. I couldn't find this denouement explicitly mentioned in Endo's details (it may well be hinted), but I was spurred to relive this powerful, grueling narrative myself.

Since I last read it, I've the past few years been reading a lot about Asia and Buddhism, so my perspective shifted. I better appreciated the defense against the Jesuit incursion, even as I sympathized with the liberating potential of Christianity for those converts, brutalized by the feudal system of their native Japan. Endo came to this material out of his own baptism, at 12, after his then-widowed mother went to live with their Christian aunt. Endo's own ambivalence, about his Japanese loyalty vs. his Catholic allegiance, can be felt on every page.

"Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed." (258-9) Fr. Ferreira tells this to his former student, Fr. Rodrigues, near the climax of this unforgettable (and this may be in a harrowing sense more than an uplifting one) story.

What lingers, as the leitmotif, is the face of Christ. Fr. Rodrigues meditates on it constantly, and this quest to find it out for himself reaches its utter transformation near the conclusion. We learn what separates the strong from the weak, and remember that Jesus came to save the weak. The parallels to Judas, and what Jesus knew about his betrayal by his comrade, intertwines ineradicably as the plot reaches its resolution, if not release.

Fr. Johnston, from Belfast, knew about being the minority, about what it means in one culture to assert another one seen as disloyal to the dominant mentality. Sent to teach at Sophia U. in Tokyo, he became a Zen practitioner, and remained a faithful Jesuit. Pasted from the Irish Jesuit AMDG website after he died 12 Oct 2010:

"We agreed that the clash of civilisations continues in the hearts of the people, particularly in the hearts of Japanese Christians. It is described dramatically by the distinguished Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. A committed Catholic with a personal love for Jesus Christ, Endo brought many Japanese to baptism, yet he felt uncomfortable with the exterior trappings of Western Christianity. He, a Japanese, was wearing Western clothing. His vocation in life was to change that Western suit into a Japanese kimono.

Asked concretely what the problem was, Endo replied that Christianity was too much a Western religion. It was dogmatic, uncompromising, patriarchal. It saw reality in terms of black-and-white. Its history was full of "I am right and you are wrong", bringing inquisitions, intolerance, punishment of dissidents and downright lack of compassion.

Asian thought, on the other hand, was "grey", flexible, tolerant. It stressed "both-and" rather than "either-or". Above all, Asian thought was feminine, grounded in a predominantly yin culture. Endo often said that his faith came through his mother. I recall showing him a book about Julian of Norwich and "the motherly love of Jesus". He smiled enthusiastically. "Father, give me that book!" he said.

The clash of civilisations in Asia has indeed been fierce. Colonialism and religion are at its core.

As we move into the third millennium, however, one great event gives ground for optimism: the clash between Buddhism and Christianity is becoming a powerful dialogue in which both religions are mutually enriched. Christians listen attentively to the wise words of the Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche; they learn meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen teachers. Likewise, Buddhist teachers quote the gospels, and Buddhist scholars in Kyoto have made profound studies of the Christian mystics, particularly Meister Eckhart. And all this is complemented by cooperation in helping the poor and in working for world peace. Here there is real friendship."

(Please read it all! Excerpted from the AMDG site, archived 12 Oct. 2011 obit for Fr. Johnston. Part of an article he wrote "The Path from Hate to Love" in "The Tablet.")

[Posted in different versions to Amazon US 5-8-11 without the links & in another form to]

No comments: