In 1989, Martin Scorsese, the iconic American movie director who was still processing the enormous controversy surrounding his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, read a book while riding a bullet train in Japan. The book gripped him. Once back in the United States he secured the rights to make it into a movie. The movie, Silence, will be released on December 23, 2016.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of Japan’s greatest novelists is Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996). A Christian in a country where less than one percent of the population is Christian, Endo’s search for identity shaped much of his writing. He felt rejected in both his homeland (because of his faith) and then in France during the three years he studied there (because of his race). He was intimate with confusion and depression. Those who travel, whether spiritually or geographically, might relate to this man.
On his return to Japan in the 1950s, he made a stop in Palestine and discovered a Jesus who, rather than triumphant and ensconced in cathedrals, knew rejection and betrayal. Here he saw what he had been unable to see in either Japan or France, and the experience transformed him.
In 1966, Endo published Silence, a historical novel many consider his best work. Set in Japan circa 1600, during one of the worst persecutions of Christians in history, it tells the story of a Portuguese priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who journeys from Europe to Macao to Japan, where the Christian faith has been outlawed. Eventually imprisoned — and thus given a unique perspective from which to see the world — the priest observes things, including:
These guards, too, were men; they were indifferent to the fate of others. This was the feeling that their laughing and talking stirred up in his heart. Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.
Near the novel’s end, the weary priest has a new way of looking at the world and theology, for he has seen torture and execution and has withered under the silence of God. He has not lost his faith, however; he has only lost the faith he once had in a comfortable environment, and he now burns with a righteous anger toward a Church that judges the actions of people who live in a context which those who live in a better place simply cannot comprehend:
“What do you understand? You Superiors in Macao, you in Europe!” He wanted to stand face to face with them in the darkness and speak in his own defence. “You live a carefree life in tranquility and security, in a place where there is no storm and no torture — it is there that you carry on your apostolate. There you are esteemed as great ministers of God.”
Silence isn’t found in any bookstore travel section as far as I know, since it’s usually categorized under “literature” or “religion/spirituality.” But it addresses themes found in good travel writing: dislocation, surprise, evolution of thought. It teaches us about a place, and it shows us the new eyes with which a traveler sees home.
One of my favorite writers, Graham Greene, called Silence “one of the finest novels of our time.”
Martin Scorsese, in a 2013 interview in Variety, described the book as “cutting away all the trappings, cutting away the dogma, cutting away everything and dealing with the very essence of … you could say Christianity, you could say Jesus.”
And in a recent article in the The New York Times Magazine, “The Passion of Martin Scorsese”, the author writes:
“Silence” is a novel for our time: It locates, in the missionary past, so many of the religious matters that vex us in the postsecular present — the claims to universal truths in diverse societies, the conflict between a profession of faith and the expression of it, and the seeming silence of God while believers are drawn into violence on his behalf.