Silence by Shusaku Endo

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Silence by Shusaku Endo is an unusual book compared to the other Japanese novels I’ve read. It’s an historical fiction novel, taking place in 1600s Japan, and it is about faith. It is about trusting in God, or not, when things get hard.

Yet, to some extent, Silence seems similar to the other Japanese novels I’ve read (Naomi, The Makioka Sisters, The Old Capital) because all occurs under the conflict of Japanese society versus western society; Silence happens to take place 300 years earlier, showing that such conflicts are long-rooted in Japan. Silence, although at its heart a Christian novel, is likewise a Japanese novel in the way it adopts the common struggle toward accepting western ideals that seems to recur in Japanese literature (at least, in the ones I’ve read: I suspect this is a common theme).

The main character in Silence is Father Rodrigues, a priest coming from Portugal to discover why the other fathers have disappeared from contact. Surely, those faithful men did not apostatize from the faith? At this point in the 1600s, Christianity has been made illegal, and anyone found practicing Catholicism is tortured, priests especially. Father Rodrigues is entering a place from which he will not emerge the same.

The novel’s writing felt uneven to me: it switched from first-person narration to third-person narration to “reports” by unknown officials. I didn’t like this writing style, I didn’t like the change in perspective, and it felt odd to constantly be searching for ground when I picked it up. I was not crazy about the novel for those reasons. The subject, however, made this a book I had to keep reading.

Although I am a Christian, I am not a Catholic. I don’t worship idols or images, nor do I consider such items sacred. The people’s specific faith and Father Rodrigues’ presence seemed very ritualistic and “western” to me. Father Rodrigues clearly had a strong faith in Christ. Yet, his relationship to the people seemed to be as a leader of ritualistic importance, from confession to providing rosaries and crosses. Despite the fact that the Catholic elements were not familiar to me, the need for missionary work in an area where it is not appreciated reminded me strongly of occurrences elsewhere in the world and in scripture.

The novel’s title, Silence, refers to the Father’s frustration with the heavens not stopping the atrocities happening to the faithful Christian people. He didn’t feel he’d received any understanding as to why these things were happening. Similar atrocities to people of faith have happened throughout history, from the early Christian missionaries to the Jews in the Holocaust.

One scriptural example from the Book of Mormon seemed to echo through my mind as I read Endo’s book. I share it simply because it gives me comfort to see that (1) God takes the righteous into his care; (2) God allows people to have agency, even when they choose poorly; and (3) God will hold people responsible for the ways they treat others, even if retribution is not evident here on earth.

Contextual note: After the missionaries Alma and Amulek taught the people in the community of Ammonihah, persecution arose and the missionaries were kept in jail while the righteous were tortured and killed. Amulek own family is probably among the wives and children.

8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

9 And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.  Alma 14:8-11

And so Silence also seems to me to echo the issues surrounding Milton’s Paradise Lost. People have agency to choose what they do, just as Eve and Adam did in the garden. The military leaders in Japan in the 1600s probably weren’t quite sure about Christianity; I don’t think those leaders fully comprehended the doctrine of the priests that they were torturing. Nevertheless, whether they did or didn’t, God knows: he will take all in to consideration and he will hold them responsible.

As for the novel: *spoiler* Personally, I don’t think Father Rodrigues truly apostatized, and maybe that is the point. He still believed. Putting one’s foot on an image, while breaking his faith to some extent, didn’t mean that he stopped believing in Christ. The last section of the novel, which was a series of “reports” from the era, seemed to suggest that Rodrigues was still secretly teaching of Christ. Christianity had to change tactics and go “underground.”

Silence is a Christian historical novel, and also a purely Japanese one. There is a definite conflict between East and West in it, and yet the main conflict is an internal one. It is a story of a man of faith coming to an understanding of the world and his place in it. Although his faith is tested in a violent situation, his story is one that I suspect resonates in Christians today, for who has not questioned the “why”s behind the relationships of God and man?

Reviewed on June 3, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • This sounds both intriguing, and boring at the same time. I am not Catholic either, nor do I always like it when the narration changes within a story like that between first person, third person, etc. If I saw this in a sale bin I might pick it up, but not something I’ll go out of my way to look for.
    .-= Amy´s last post on blog ..Review: Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg =-.

    • Amy, oh dear, I don’t know that I’d say it’s boring. Maybe because it is a short book (less than 200 pages). I couldn’t stop reading — like watching a train wreck because it was powerful in it’s description of the violence. But the “reports” at the end were not as gripping to me as the first person narration. It was still an engaging read just not wonderfully written, in my opinion.

  • I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I read Endo’s Wonderful Fool awhile back. His writing is mesmerizing to me, and I won’t ever forget the ‘fool’…Also, Tanabata (of In Spring It Is the Dawn) is hosting a read-along for Silence June 28th, and it would fit in with my Japanese Literature Challenge 4 which began a few days ago. There’s nothing like Japanese literature, is there, for thought provoking reading? I’d love it if you’d care to join in.

    • Bellezza, I know about the readalong– that’s why I had it. It was supposed to be in May, but then the day was moved to June and I ended up in between the two days!

      I’m pondering the JLit challenge. It was the JLit 3 challenge that got me in to JLit as is, but see, since I’m now already reading JLit, it isn’t really a CHALLENGE anymore….

  • As you know, I love this book. I do remember that when I read it (and it’s been at least 5 years), I did have some trouble getting into it, but once I got interested, I could not put it down, except when I needed a break from the intensity of it.

    Since reading it, I’ve taken a class in Global Church History in which we talked a bit about the Jesuit model of missionary work in Asia and some of the challenges of mission work in other cultures, as well as the mistakes Christians have made over the years. I’ve wanted to reread this with that information in mind because I suspect that there’s a lot about the underground Christian community the Rodriquez first encountered that went over my head.

    And regarding the point you made in the spoiler, I totally agree that what he did wasn’t apostasy. Yes, to the people around him, it looked like it, but his vision of Christ speaking from the cross makes that “betrayal” look to me like an act of faith. Coming from an evangelical background where the worst thing you could possibly do was to deny Christ in the face of persecution, the idea that such a denial could be an act of obedience (under certain circumstances, not just out of convenience or fear) was huge. The book got utterly under my skin. My thinking around some of these issues has never been quite the same since reading it.
    .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..The Dark Child =-.

    • Teresa, I do remember you loved it! You got me to read it with you praise of it!

      I can really see how the missionary work around the globe struggles for similar reasons. And I”m glad I’m not the only one thinking that he hadn’t really apostatized. I thought his faith was so much deeper than that. It definitely has got me thinking and I won’t forget it anytime soon!

  • The shift from first person to third in the middle I found really effective. His enthusiasm for his faith in the beginning, marked by his own voice, showed, shining. The turning point, when he questions God’s silence, and the voice shifts, detaches us from his inner conflict and allows us to observe him from afar, keeping us guessing and wondering and assuming (and allows us to challenge ourselves or, at least, myself :D).

    While I don’t have anything particularly glowing to say about the writing, I thought it was okay, because it was unobtrusive and therefore effective in making me focus on the story instead of the writing. The writing in some other books are styled in a way as to be distracting, and you either have to be a really good writer to do that or else fail. In the case of Endo (and/or his translator), its unobtrusiveness just allowed me to absorb myself in the story.

    Like you, I’m Christian but not Catholic. Although I am extremely familiar with the Catholic world because I was born one and continued to study in a Jesuit school for all of my academic life. I don’t have the exact same convictions as Rodrigues with regards to, for example, as you mentioned, the idols, but the book has definitely challenged me in many ways. No, it didn’t challenge my faith but challenged my preconceived notions of how I might react under such dire physical conditions. In this sense, I loved the book.

    Thanks so much for this great post, I loved hearing your view on it.
    .-= claire´s last post on blog ..The soul is a fickle flame =-.

    • Claire, “challenged my preconceived notions of how I might react under such dire physical conditions”. Well said, I think it did something similar for me as well. Glad you enjoyed it!

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