Shusaku Endo's Silence as a Travel Book
One of Japan’s greatest novelists is Shusaku Endo (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, may 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 journeying from Europe via 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 that 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 (it’s usually categorized as 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.
My thanks to a security guard in Girón, Colombia for posing for this photo.
In the quote above, the priest offers one definition of sin. For a definiton by a character in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, click on “There is Only One Sin”.