Sunday, March 26, 2017

On Shasako Endo's novel Silence



Shusako Endo was a Japanese writer from Nagasaki. He is unique because he was a practicing Catholic throughout most of his life. Endo’s novel Silence is reputed to be his masterpiece. The book was published in the late-1960's. Throughout his life, Endo suffered from respiratory illnesses – in this regard, he is similar to Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. Like Bernhard, Endo’s themes involve extreme suffering (either physical or emotional) as a kind of test or agon that affords a means of perception and underwrites a system of morality. In his novel Silence, three young Portuguese priests learn that their beloved mentor, Father Ferraira, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, has abandoned h is faith under torture. Unwilling to accept this as truth, the young men travel to Macau where one of them dies by disease. The two survivors, Fathers Garrpe and Rodrigues, are, then, smuggled into Japan. Among the impoverished fishing communities on the seashore, the two priests find congregations of peasants who are Christian but practicing their faith underground – the official penalty for refusing to renounce Catholicism is death by torture. The two priests are haunted by a Japanese Christian, Kikijiro, who is a drunk and has been driven half-way to madness by the destruction of his family members, burned to death on pyres of green faggots. Kikijiro reappears throughout the book as evidence of human weaknesses – he apostatizes repeatedly, then, seeks confession and forgiveness from the priests who are said to be the last pastors surviving in all of Japan. Ultimately, both priests are captured. One of them, Garppe, dies by drowning as he seeks to rescue Christians who have been wrapped in rugs and executed by being tossed into the sea The hero, Rodrigues, survives in captivity. He renounces his faith to save Christians who are being tortured to death by being hung upside down over a filthy excrement-laden pit – he recognizes that is justified for him to offer himself as a martyr but that he can not make others suffer martyrdom on his behalf. After apostatizing, Rodrigues lives out the rest of his life in Nagasaki, acting as a kind of expert at censoring Christian images brought covertly into the land by traders. Rodrigues is given the wife and children of an executed man and lives, apparently serenely and without complaint, until his death by natural causes.

Endo’s novel is certainly powerful and effective. As with most Japanese writers, there is an essential kernel that, I think, doesn’t translate. (This is sometimes manifest in abrupt and inexplicable changes in verb tense.) I always feel a vague sense of tentative incomplete-ness in Japanese prose – the reader has the sense that there is something indefinable lurking in the limpid and self-explanatory text that doesn’t quite make it into English. (I feel this even with writers who are strongly influenced by Americans or European novelists – for instance, Murakami; for that matter, I assume that Endo was strongly influenced by Graham Greene’s Catholic-themed novels.)

I was surprised how closely Scorsese follows the novel in his 2016 film adaptation. There are no real deviations between the book and the script that Scorsese filmed. It’s also interesting to me that the book poses an intractable challenge to a film-maker in that almost all the action is interior to the book’s principal character, Sebastian Rodrigues. After the departure of Garppe in the first third of the book, Rodrigues has no one with whom to engage in dialogue until the colloquies with the inquisitor Inoue and Father Ferraira near the end of the novel – these are powerful, if theatrical, debates that seemed derived from Dostoevski. For most of the book, Rodrigues sits in a cage awaiting his fate. In the early part of the novel, Rodrigues with Garppe are trapped in a kind of cell as well. (Interestingly, the book traffics in a paradox – Rodrigues is relieved to be captured; he is anxious that his martyrdom begin and feels a peace that passes understanding when he is imprisoned. Rodrigues is nowhere more free when then when he is jailed.) At the end of the novel, Rodrigues inhabits the prison of his apostasy and is closely watched by the Japanese authorities around him. In Endo’s grim universe, everyone is either a prisoner or heretic hiding from detection; similarly, his world divides into torturers and the tortured. There is no trace of adventure in the novel and no real sense of wonder at encountering a completely foreign culture – we don’t ever see imperial Japan: it is all a remote echo heard from inside of a prison cell or the squalid fishing villages in which the first third of the novel takes place. The most powerful scene in all Scorsese’s films is the sequence in Raging Bull in which Jake LaMotta is arrested, confined in a prison cell, and pounds his fists into pulp punching at the wall. This scene must bear within it something integral to Scorsese’s imagination because Silence is essentially a prison drama, a film about waiting for torture in a dirty cell. In Scorsese’s conception, I think, human beings are entrapped, prisoners of their own selves, and, ultimately, must confront who it is they have become from within their solitary confinement.

The "grotesque irony" that suffuses Endo’s novel – this is how Rodrigues imagines his mission – arises from a series of misunderstandings. Rodrigues has come to Japan to "to lay down (his) life for (the Japanese Christians.) But, in fact, they are laying down their lives for (him)." (Taplinger Publishing edition at 136). Rodrigues is told by Ferraira that Christianity can not take root in Japan’s "mud-swamp" because the Japanese perceive God as a "beautiful exalted man" (150). But this is not so different from Father Rodrigues’ obsession with the beautiful, shining face of Christ, a visage that sometimes merges with his own features. If the Japanese are heretical in their understanding of God so is Rodrigues. Clearly, the emphasis of the book is not on God the Father, nor on the Holy Spirit – Endo’s book is about the mission of Jesus Christ in the world – and Rodrigues’ progress toward ultimately beholding Christ’s face. In this regard, the book’s "grotesque irony" is that so much suffering must occur before Rodrigues’ grasps a fundamental element in his own theology – Christ doesn’t always come as the King in triumph, converting and refuting the pagans; in fact, Christ is best understood as an aspect of God that has come to suffer what we must suffer. One can argue that in his apostasy, Rodrigues has achieved a more abundant and profound faith: he is joined to the aspect of Christ that is humbled to the human condition, scourged or trampled under foot, the man of sorrows who bears our misery with us. Endo’s novel makes this point and, then, moves away from it in a plethora of intentionally bland, incommunicative official documents with which the book ends. Scorsese dramatizes this more vividly with the image of the cross hidden within the garments of Rodrigues’ corpse as he is cremated. The notion that a triumphant Christ the King should be subsumed within the humiliated and suffering Man of Sorrows is consistent, and harmonizes, with a perverse strain of the Japanese imagination – there is a willful interest in torture and sadism in Japanese art. This is visible more acutely in Mishima who imagined himself as Saint Sebastian, naked and pierced by innumerable arrows and who wrote out in gory advance detail the circumstances of his own hara kiri; even the mild Murakami is not immune from this tendency – consider, the horrific war scenes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles including the passage where a man is flayed alive, an episode recounted in loving detail. British horror films always were produced in three versions: a relatively sedate U.K. edition of the film in which the physical torture was suggested and not dramatized, a more brutal version showing obliquely the torture for the Americans, and a Japanese version with the violence amped-up and performed in gruesome close-ups.

Scorsese’s film counts, I think, as a "late work." In "late work", an artist often simplifies and denies the very qualities that have earned him fame. Scorsese always has had a "late work" or hyper-simplified style – an example is The King of Comedy, the extremely restrained film with which the director followed the baroque flourishes in Raging Bull. But, I think, the selection of Endo’s novel by Scorsese signifies a repudiation – in fact, a kind of renunciation and penance in the theological sense – of the flashy camera technique and spectacular pictorial design that made him famous. Endo’s novel focuses extensively on things that are heard or sensed but not seen. This is integral to a novel about faith. From his prison cell, Rodrigues hears Nagasaki but can’t see it. (139). The book’s sensory cues are mostly non-visual sensations with three notable exceptions: first, there are many images of nature, the sea, and nature generally deployed to suggest the indifference of the natural world to human suffering – this theme has an auditory correlate as well, the sound of cicada ubiquitous throughout the book; Rodrigues fixates on the blood trail left by the decapitated corpse of one of the Christians (the old man with the "decayed eye"), and he also imagines Garrpe’s "black head" swallowed up by the sea when the Japanese Christians are drowned. But other than these cues, most of the texture of the novel is smell and sound – the cell where Rodrigues is confined before apostasizing is foul with urine, Kikijiro’s treachery is signified by the taste of the salted dried fish, there is a memorable bowl of "sweaty" half-decayed pumpkin, and innumerable references to the rotten fishy smell coming from the Japanese – see, for instance, 160 and 164. At one point, hearing a confession, the stench from the Japanese’s peasant’s mouth makes the hero want to vomit (141). Most notably, the climax in the book involves sound only – Rodrigues hears what he thinks is someone snoring. Then, he is informed that the sound is that of the Japanese Christians’ dying as they suspended over the pits full of offal and excrement (165). (Scorsese shows the torture albeit from a restrained and remote point-of-view.) Endo never portrays the torture visually. The sensory impression of this agony that persuades Rodrigues to apostatize is entirely auditory. In fact, the form of the book is mostly non-visual – the text begins with letters purportedly despatched by Rodrigues and follows this epistolary model, a type of writing that is not primarily pictorial or descriptive, through the fifth chapter. As noted above, the novel ends in the citation of a variety of Kafkaesque bureaucratic documents, again eschewing any kind of description. Remarkably, Scorsese, perhaps the greatest living exponent of a vivid pictorial story-telling, elects to direct a film made from a novel that seems to be resolutely unfilmable – it is like Beethoven’s late sonatas that seem to renounce musicality and that use the piano like a device for torture, a sort of rack on which musical forms are twisted and destroyed.

The novel is the Western sense is not a form that is rooted in traditional Japanese esthetics. The emphasis on the travails of the individual self is inconsistent with aspects of Japanese culture that emphasize communal values. In one sense, Endo’s Silence is a novel broken on the wheel of Japanese traditional values – just as Christianity could not thrive in Japan’s "mud-swamp", there is a sense that the kind of novel that Endo is writing can not really exist in Japanese. Hence, I think a certain blankness in the text, a kind of indifference, the way that the gaze of the writer turns away from human suffering to the great thunder clouds hanging over the ocean or the mechanical cry of the cicada.

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