This post is a review of the novel, Kiku’s Prayer, by Shusaku Endo. Mr. Endo was a Japanese Catholic writer whose novel, Silence, has been adapted for film several times in the past and in a soon to be released film by Martin Scorsese.
If you are planning to see Silence, and read the book, you might be interested in Kiku’s Prayer. Silence is about the suppression of Christianity in 17th Century Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is Endo’s most famous work. The persecution, as measured by worldly metrics, was largely successful. Many Christians were killed and forced to renounce their faith, and the teaching of Christianity and public worship was outlawed for about two centuries.
Kiku’s Prayer is about the events that led to the end of the official persecution, which occurred during the late 19th century after the restoration of Imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration. It could be called a work of “historical fiction,” in which real people and events are used as the basis of a novel. Mr. Endo helpfully includes endnotes at the end of each chapter to better identify the real people, places and events referenced in the novel.
However, the main characters are not based on real people. Rather they are ordinary Japanese, Christian and non-Christian, who lived in the Nagasaki region of western Japan. Kiku is a young woman from the small village of Urakami who moves to town for work, and falls in love with Seikichi, a young man, and secret Christian. So unlike Silence, the main characters are Japanese.
A secondary character is Father Bernard Petitjean, a young priest who has come to Japan to help build the first Catholic church in centuries (to serve foreigners), but who initiates a secret mission to make contact with the “Kakure Kirishitan“, or “hidden Christians”, who have practiced their faith in secret and passed on the traditions for two centuries. He is successful in meeting them, and this sets in motion a chain of events that leads to their persecution but opens the door to the free exercise of religion in Japan.
I do not speak Japanese, and the book has been translated by Van C. Gessel. This is the same translator used for all English versions of Endo’s work. Accordingly, I cannot comment on the writing style or “literary” quality of Mr. Endo’s work. The novel is very plot driven, and heavy on dialogue and brief descriptions of what the characters see and do. Mr. Gessel’s translation seems fairly straightforward to me (I am not a literary critic). This is not a “post-modern” work of fiction, nor does it involve long descriptive paragraphs of what’s going on inside people’s heads or around them. It’s a brisk read.
If you are curious why Christianity had so much trouble making headway in Asia, Mr. Endo effectively uses the local government officials to voice a criticism of how European powers and their colonial predation, sometimes with Church assistance, tainted the faith in the minds of many peoples.
The title of the book is an intended irony, as Kiku is not a Christian, and her prayer is more in the nature of a complaint to the Blessed Mother statue she visits from time to time. In this book, as in books written by Georges Bernanos that I’ve reviewed, it is often the people with no faith, those who renounce the faith, or even persecute the faith, that have been given the greatest crosses to bear in life. If you are a Christian, it is largely an accident of birth whether you were baptized and raised in the faith. Imagine the cross you had to bear if you apostatized under torture or threat of torture. Those people probably felt a sense of despair and very distant from the Lord the rest of their life. But in fact He drew very close to them, and they were drawn into the mystery of the Cross in return.
In this vein, one of the more powerful scenes involves a confrontation between Father Petitjean and a Japanese official, Ito, responsible for persecuting the Japanese Christians:
““I’ll bet you don’t know the first thing about the pains of those who are beaten. And you know nothing of the torment of those who administer the torture!”
Then Petitjean said something completely unexpected. “No, I don’t know those pains. But I do know that God loves you more than he loves Lord Hondō.”
Itō looked up at Petitjean’s face in amazement. He thought perhaps he was being mocked, ridiculed. “You say this God of yours … loves me more than Hondō? A man who’s tortured and inflicted pain on you Kirishitans?”
“You are suffering. But Lord Hondō feels no anguish in his heart. His heart is filled with the dream of taking advantage of the mounting opportunities in this age of Meiji and making a success of himself.”
“And what … what’s so wrong with that? I’m … if anything, I’m jealous of the success Hondō is having.”
“But it’s your jaundiced, wounded heart that God is trying to penetrate, not Hondō’s. God has no interest in a man like Lord Hondō, who is inflamed right now with the lust for success. He is drawn instead to a heart like yours.”
Hatefully Itō said, “I really despise the kind of nonsense you people use to trick the hearts of men. You prey on a man’s weaknesses, but no matter how hard you try to charm me with your Kirishitan babble, I’m not falling for your lofty words and schemes. I see exactly what you’re up to.”
“You’re wrong.” Petitjean shook his head vigorously. “Someday you’ll understand. By inflicting pain on the Urakami Kirishitans, you’re splattering your own body with blood.””
In closing comments, Endo notes his thanks to the City of Nagasaki, which was the location of the last use of an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the intended target for the second bomb, but the primary target was obscured by smoke and clouds. When the bomb was dropped it drifted somewhat away from the urban core and landed in the Urakami Valley, where the story of Kiku’s Prayer begins. The surrounding hills prevented higher casualties, but the Urakami Cathedral, the first built in Japan, was destroyed and all those attending mass for the Feast of the Assumption were killed.