Breaking Bread and Breaking Ties: Silence, Pearl, and Learning How to Read Again

My first reading of Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence, defeated me. The book was a part of a contemporary literature class that I took my senior year of high school, in which I encountered the likes of C. S. Lewis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marilynne Robinson, Walker Percy, Chaim Potok, and Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps needless to say, the class was a weird mix of Christianity, existentialism, and often times Christian existentialism. I found each of these authors to be something of a challenge to my faith, the contours of which I was just beginning to flesh out. Lewis, Robinson, Potok, and Percy assisted me in doing just this. I’m sorry to say that O’Connor didn’t woo me like she should have, and I’m even sorrier to say that Sartre wooed me a little too much. Silence, however, left me deeply disturbed, for it forced me to wrestle not only with my understanding of God’s character, but also with my method of reading.

The story of Silence recounts the fictional travels of a 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit named Sebastian Rodriguez who treks to Japan after receiving news that a well-known missionary and mentor, Father Ferreira, has apostatized under Japanese persecution. For the first half of the novel, Rodriguez narrates these events through a series of letters to Portugal, in which he describes the torture that the Japanese Christians are suffering as well as its devastating effects on the Church. The act of apostasy enforced by the Japanese authorities is simple enough: one only has to place his foot on a small engraved image of Christ known as the fumie. Yet despite the simplicity of the act, many remain resolute in their faith at the expense of their lives. While taking refuge with an underground Christian community near Nagasaki, the priest watches as entire families are burned alive, and old men are tied to wooden crosses in the ocean to slowly drown in the surf. During this time, one question lingers in Rodriguez’s mind: Why does God remain silent in the midst of this suffering? Over time, Rodriguez begins to wonder whether the only thing that is keeping him committed to his faith is his sense of duty to the priesthood—or even worse, his own pride. Throughout his struggle with doubt, the image of Christ serves as Rodriguez’s greatest comfort, pushing him forward in spite of his inner turmoil.

The book takes an abrupt turn when Rodriguez is captured by the Japanese authorities, and the narration shifts to a third-person omniscient perspective. All of the sudden, the reader obtains a glimpse into Rodriguez’s inmost thoughts as he is brought before the Japanese magistrate for a series of interviews. Rather than being subjected to physical torture, Rodriguez experiences mental torture as the magistrate tries to convince him of the futility of his mission. Japan, the magistrate says, is a swamp in which Christianity simply cannot take root: to apostatize would only be to acknowledge the fact that Christ has no place in here. Throughout the story, Rodriguez—and indeed the reader himself—is tormented by a single repeated phrase: “It is only a formality.” These words become even more of a temptation once uttered by Ferreira, the apostate priest whom Rodriguez has been seeking. Having apostatized, Ferreira now lives as a Japanese, writing books that denounce Christianity and, he says, finally being “useful” to the Japanese. Why does Rodriguez insist on forcing his faith on a people who do not want it when he could actually be making a difference in Japan? With these questions ringing in his ears, Rodriguez soon receives word that the Japanese magistrate has promised to torture the other captured Christians as long as Rodriguez refuses to place his foot on the fumie. Ferreira’s words begin to burn in Rodriguez’s ear: “You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation.” It is, after all, only a formality. “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”[1]

The scene in which Rodriguez finally faces the act of apostasy is one of the most emotionally suffocating scenes I have ever encountered. All of the sudden, the narrator leaps from past tense to present tense, and the reader feels as though it is he who now stands before the fumie. We are Rodriguez. We feel the pain in his ears as he hears the distant moans of Japanese men and women hanging upside down in pits only big enough for their bodies. We feel the pain in his foot as he raises it above the image of Christ. We hear the voice of Christ—or is it Christ?—telling the priest to surrender: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” His foot comes down, the cock crows, and it is all over.

The end of the novel left me speechless. I was at once perplexed and angered by Rodriguez’s claim that Christ had told him to apostatize. How was it even remotely plausible that the Son would ask someone to blaspheme His Father’s name? Was it really Christ speaking to him? Was it Satan? Or was placing his foot on a little man-made image of Christ really just, as the Japanese authorities said, “a formality”? Was it even a betrayal, if he apostatized for the sake of the suffering Japanese? I found myself questioning whether I could even trust Rodriguez’s perspective, or the narrator, or Endo’s Christ, or Endo himself. Simply put, I did not know how to read the book. In my semester paper for the class, I ignored these questions completely, utterly lost as to how to even begin to process them. It felt like a defeat.

It was not until last semester, when I encountered the works of the Pearl-poet, that I realized why Silence had seemed so impenetrable to me. The fact that a 14th-century chivalric poet from the Northwest midlands of England became the key to a 20th-century Japanese novel only speaks to the permanence of the writing craft. What I soon learned was that the method of reading that the poems of the Pearl manuscript encourage is not limited to Middle English literature, but rather is applicable to nearly every literary work out there. Rather than forcing any one character’s perspective on the reader, the Pearl-poet wrote in such a way that facilitates the reader’s freedom to accept or reject any of the textual perspectives offered to her. I may read Gawain’s tale of bliss and blunder from Gawain’s perspective, or from the Green Knight’s, or Arthur’s, or the narrator’s—but the poet does not command me to take up any one of these. As readers, we are free to remain within the text or travel outside of it. This is true for the Pearl-poet’s other poems as well: we may read the dream-vision of Pearl from the eyes of the dreamer, who still grieves the death of his two-year-old daughter, or from the eyes of his daughter, who has been raised to new life in Heaven and is now wedded to Christ. But once we have participated in the story as insiders, we are free to remove ourselves entirely and read the events of the poem as outsiders.

Before reading the works of the Pearl-poet, I had not previously known this deeper level of reading to exist. At the first level of reading, the reader observes the chronological unfolding of the events of the plot. Once this has been established, the reader moves on to the second level of reading, where she steps into the story and recognizes the possible perspectives inside the text from which she may read those events. The reader begins to read the events of the story on the story’s own terms, so to speak. Having done so, the reader is then free to choose which of these perspectives she will take up—or whether she will reject all of them and choose to read from outside the text. She is free to reject the very terms on which the story is based. Upon realizing that this third level of reading exists, I felt like I was learning to read all over again.

This all may sound rather simple, and it probably is. Yet what I had been unconsciously doing up until then was rejecting the books themselves rather than the textual perspectives they offered. If I did not accept the “most likely reading” presented (i.e. the reading taken up by the main character or characters), or if I could not get on board with the author’s terms, I’d pitch the book. This is the way we read as children, for this is only the second level of reading. This kind of reading is not “wrong,” but it is limited. It casts narratives as either “good” or “bad” solely based on the cognitive or moral reliability of their narrators, thus hampering the reader’s ability to see truth in the morally, aesthetically, or factually gray areas. After taking stock of the possible readings she may assume from within the text, the young reader casts judgment on the merit of the narrative before even attempting to develop a reading from outside the text.

This method of reading collapsed during my first reading of Silence. I did not trust any of the textual readings offered to me by the narrators of the plot. Yet even while I rejected the narrative’s terms of reading, Rodriguez’ struggle was far too true to life for me to denounce the book as a whole. Hence, my bewilderment. When Rodriguez asserted that he heard Christ telling him to trample on the fumie, I did not trust him, but I also did not feel at liberty to distrust the central character’s perspective—and thus reject the novel’s “most likely reading”—and still affirm the novel. This phenomenon of recognizing the truth of the work and yet distrusting its representation of Christ seemed paradoxical, and thus disorienting.

 Upon re-reading Silence this past December, I realized that it is this seeming paradox that makes Endo’s novel such a brilliant work of art. Rodriguez’s claim that Christ told him to trample on the fumie—to symbolically blaspheme His Father’s name—forces the reader to wrestle simultaneously with her understanding of Christ’s suffering as well as her method of reading. I have the liberty to reject Rodriguez’s understanding of Christ’s suffering, and even to reject Endo’s Christ, while still praising the book as a whole. In this way, Silence is nothing short of a gift to the thoughtful Christian reader.

Great literature pulls us into the text so that we inhabit it. “And what I assume you shall assume,” Whitman writes. Here, Whitman speaks of the first level of reading: that which occurs once the reader assumes a perspective from within the text, assuming, or “putting on,” a textual understanding of the work. We may read Odysseus’s dealings with the suitors from the perspective of Odysseus, or Telemachus, or Penelope, or Eumaios, or the gods. Homer invites us to partake in any and all of these readings. But the reader is not to stop here, for while great literature pulls the reader in, great reading begins once the reader is able to step outside the literature the read it on her own terms. By all means, she is to break bread with the narrator and drink with the characters. But once she has done this, she must step away from the table and decide for herself who the traitor is—or, perhaps, whether all are traitors. For we know that God, the Author himself, inhabited his own text, in order to suffer with his characters so that they might join him in assuming a full perspective from outside that text.

 My analogy is an eschatological one, for I believe that a full reading of any text is just that: eschatological. After inhabiting a work, we have the freedom to read from the end, from the outside. Just as the fullest reading of human life occurs within view of Christ’s atoning death, resurrection, ascension, return, and eternal life, the fullest reading of any literary work will take into account the story which continues after and outside of the epilogue.            

Lara Forsythe is a junior studying English and French.


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