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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In Shsaku End’s Silence, when the rumor of Christovao Ferreira’s public renunciation of his faith reaches his former students, they refuse to believe it and determine to travel to Japan as missionaries to discover the truth for themselves.

The first part of the novel consists of letters written by Sebastian Rodrigues, one of the missionaries. Rodrigues tells of the immense difficulty he and his companion, Father Garrpe, face in attempting to travel to a Japan that is hostile to Christianity and has closed its doors to nearly all Westerners. They manage to find a guide named Kichijiro, whom Rodrigues instantly mistrusts.

Kichijiro’s story, which is gradually revealed in the course of the journey, is one of continual wavering in the face of persecution. Like Judas (or like Peter), Kichijiro is presented as having betrayed Christ and apostatized. However, he does agree to put the Jesuit missionaries in touch with underground Christians; after doing so, he becomes enormously proud of his role in bringing the priests to Japan.

The Japanese Christians have been without priests for six years, but they have managed to create a system for maintaining, as best they can, the structure of the Church and its sacraments. Rodrigues’s pride begins to grow as he speculates about his own importance to the continuation of Christianity in Japan.

At this point, government officials arrive in the village where the Christians live and demand that they send three representatives to Nagasaki for questioning. The usual means for determining whether villagers are secret Christians is to ask them to step on a fumie, an image of Christ, usually made of bronze and designed to be stepped on. By desecrating the image of Christ in this way, the people prove that they are not Christians or are rejecting their Christian faith. The representatives (one of whom is Kichijiro) ask the priests whether they should step on the fumie. Surprisingly, Rodrigues immediately tells them that they should trample on it. They do so, but the officials demand that they also spit on an image of the Virgin Mary. Kichijiro is the only one able to do so—he has, once again, apostatized.

The other two Christians are brought back to the sea near the village and are martyred there. Rodrigues likens the horrible silence of the sea to the horrible silence of God during their martyrdom.

At this point, Garrpe and Rodrigues part ways—if one of them is captured, the other will be able to continue the priestly work Japan needs. The novel follows Rodrigues in his solitary journey though a silent and empty Japanese countryside. In this long section, the last of Rodrigues’s letters, Rodrigues continually compares his situation to that of Christ in his final days: He wipes his face and discovers that what he thought was sweat is blood. He then likens his reflection to the face of the crucified Christ and compares his thirst to that of Christ on the cross. He recalls Christ’s words to Judas at the Last Supper: “What thou dost, do quickly.” Finally, he encounters Kichijiro, who, despite calling out, “Father, forgive me,” has betrayed Rodrigues. The reader is left with the image of three hundred silver coins being thrown in the face of Kichijiro.

The shift to an omniscient narrator at this point mirrors a shift in the novel’s concerns. Rodrigues is to be questioned by Inoue, a magistrate who was responsible for getting Ferreira to apostatize. Inoue argues that Japan is like a swamp and that Christianity is like a tree that is not suited to swampy conditions. In other words, he says that Western Christianity cannot thrive in eastern Japan.

Meanwhile, Kichijiro asks to be imprisoned with Rodrigues because he, too, claims to be a Christian. In the prison, Kichijiro confesses his sins—of weakness and of apostasy—and the priest says the words of absolution to him. Not long after, under threat of torture, Kichijiro once again tramples on the fumie and is set free.

Rodrigues is then called to...

(The entire section is 1,665 words.)