Silence (reread)

I first read Shusaku Endo’s extraordinary novel Silence roughly eight years ago, and it has continued to haunt me. In fact, I’d put it on the short list of novels that have changed my life. It put me on a train of thought about God and faith and suffering and strength that led me places I never would have expected. But it’s not a book I’ve talked about much. I’ve recommended it to several people, but none of them followed my suggestion until last year when Jenny read and loved it. And now my book club at church has read it on my recommendation, which means I got to reread it and discuss it with a group of intelligent, engaged readers. What a pleasure!

Jenny has already provided a thorough overview of the plot in her review, so do go check that out. I’ll just provide a couple of sentences here and then delve further into the themes.

First published in 1966 and translated into English by William Johnston, Silence takes place in 17th-century Japan, a time when the Christian church was outlawed and the Christians in Japan were made to suffer terrible persecution. The main character in the book, Father Rodrigues, is a Jesuit priest from Portugal who has snuck into the country to provide encouragement to any Christians he can find and to learn what happened to his mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have abandoned his faith.

On this second reading, one of the things that struck me most vividly was the emotional and spiritual journey of Father Rodrigues. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan, he knows he may face terrible challenges and dangers, but he seems almost eager for the experience. This is partly because of his confidence in God’s protection, but he’s also confident in his own ability to stand up to testing. Indeed, for him, strength in faith is of supreme importance.

This becomes most evident when Rodrigues is contrasted with Kichijiro, the man who will be his guide into Japan. Kichijiro is a drunk and a weakling. He seems fascinated by the Rodrigues and his companion, Father Garrpe, but he’s also obsequious and afraid, perhaps even a bit Gollum-like in his demeanor. In a particularly telling moment, Rodriques and Garrpe encounter Kichijiro lying in his own vomit during a violent storm on the ship they are taking to the Japanese coast:

With the sailors we looked at the fellow with contempt. We were too exhausted to be interested in his stammering Japanese. But quite by accident jumbled in with his sentences I caught the words ‘gratia’ and ‘Santa Maria.’ This fellow who was just like a pig that buried its face in its own vomit had without a doubt uttered twice the words ‘Santa Maria.’

Garrpe and I exchanged glances. Was it possible that he was of our faith—this wretch who through all the journey not only failed to help but was even a positive nuisance. No. It was impossible. Faith could not turn a man into such a coward.

On my first reading of Silence, I felt a little scornful of Kichijiro myself, but I found this time that I actually had a soft spot for Kichijiro, partly because reading this book the first time changed my own definition of faith significantly, but also because I now see Rodrigues’s confidence in his own strength and faith as something more like arrogance. That’s not to say that Rodrigues is a bad man, or a man who lacks compassion. As it happens, there are moments when he acknowledges that his lack of charity toward Kichijiro is a problem. But he’s torn because there are times when Kichijiro goes beyond being a nuisance to being a danger to Rodrigues’s work. (Again, he’s remarkably Gollum-esque.)

One of the central questions of the book, and one which Rodrigues struggles to answer, is what it means to be a Christian. The Japanese officials state that Christianity cannot flourish in a country like Japan, but the Christian faith of the villagers Rodrigues meets seems strong, even in the face of torment and death. But is it the same as that of Rodrigues? And can it continue to survive when cut off from the church that initially brought it to them?

For me, this book raises really fascinating questions that touch on a host of issues related to missionary work, the malleability of the Christian gospel, and the nature of belief. On my first reading, it raised questions in my mind that it never occurred to me to ask. On this second reading, I find that I answer those questions differently from the way I did when I first read Silence, and in another 8 or 10 years, I may have still different answers. Endo himself provides no clear answers, making this a book that stands up to multiple readings and, as I’ve found in my book group, hours of good discussion.

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20 Responses to Silence (reread)

  1. It put me on a train of thought about God and faith and suffering and strength that led me places I never would have expected.

    Wow. How could I not put this on my list? Thanks, Teresa.

  2. Emily says:

    I’m intrigued by all the loving reviews of this I’ve seen around the blogosphere. Would you tend to recommend it to a non-Christian, or do you think its primary intended audience is one of believers?

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think believers are necessarily the intended audience, especially when you consider that it was first published in Japanese, which has a very small Christian population, and it actually won the Tanizaki Prize, so it must have gone over well. It would be hard for me to make a recommendation, though, because most of my love for the book is bound up in the spiritual themes. However, I do think that the dilemmas Rodrigues faces and have some universal elements to them.

  3. Deb says:

    You never read the same book twice–you’re always a different person each time you read it.

    The priest in this book reminds me a little of Father Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s theological sci-fi novel, THE SPARROW–so confident that God has led him to where he is going and eager for the adventure that there’s both a sense of arrogance and forboding about him.

    • Teresa says:

      True. What I found fascinating was coming back and rereading a book that actually had a pretty significant role in shaping me.

      I read The Sparrow for the first time not long after reading this, and I can see parallels in the two priests for sure.

  4. Manny says:

    That is something I would love to read. Thanks for introducing me to it. It will now be in my Amazon cart and on my reading list.

  5. petekarnas says:

    You’ve written a great review. I’ve heard so much about this book and I’ve been wanting to read it for a long time. I’ll definitely have to put this high up on my list of books to get. Thanks!

  6. pburt says:

    Ii am a non-christian and I found the book to be very accessible. Faith and compassion go beyond religion and I thought the book wanted the reader to think about the very roots of what compromises a religion rather than focuses on the doctrine.

    I wish I had read this book with a group discussing it over a period of time. Even more than just reading it with a book group with one discussion after you finish it. I wrestled in my mind while reading it about the author’s intent and the interior journey of contemplation by the Father. Discussing it while I was reading it would have helped me a lot.

    Love The Sparrow as well – I think it would have been interesting to read the two books in conjunction with each other.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s very good to hear. I know that a lot of the questions related to suffering and care for others would apply to anyone, as would the questions about different cultures. As a believer myself, it’s hard for me to judge whether Endo bound those questions up too closely with doctrinal questions for a non-believer’s taste.

      I was so glad to get to discuss this with others on this second read. We spent two weeks on it, and I think we could easily have spent another week with it. Such a rich, rich book.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I found myself like wise fascinated by the contrast between Rodrigues and Kichijiro. I agree that Rodrigues comes across as a bit arragant, but I’ve found that adversity makes one’s faith stronger — and yet, one should never hope for it. Pride cometh before the fall. Anyway, I agree, lots of issues in this book. Although I didn’t love the writing (something irked me about it) I did enjoy reading it for the most part.

    • Teresa says:

      Kichijiro was by far my favorite character on this second reading. I loved him for his almost complete lack of pride and dignity. And yes, the adversity absolutely seemed to strengthen Fr Rodrigues’s faith–at the end, he’s on a completely different plane from where he was at the start.

  8. Kathleen says:

    It is rare when a book touches the depths of who we are as this one did for you. I will add it to my list to read.

  9. chasing bawa says:

    I’ve read two books by Endo so far (The Samurai and The Volcano) both of which really touched me and I really want to read this one too since there have been so many wonderful reviews. I think Endo’s strength lies in his characters and the way he manages to make them seem so real and human precisely by writing about their faults as much as their goodness. It’s a mark of a great writer that he or she can keep you thinking about the book long after you finish it.

  10. sakura says:

    Hello again:) Having just finished Silence, I wanted to pop by and read the interesting points you raised about re-reading the book. I think it must have made a brilliant book group discussion and I’m tempted to do the same when it’s my time to re-read it too. I think there’s lots to be learnt even as a non-Christian because we all go on a spiritual journey at some point in our lives in order to find out what it means to be human. Wonderful review.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m so glad that you got so much out of this, Sakura. That’s a good point about spiritual journeys, too. Whatever we believe, at some point, those beliefs will be tested, and figuring out how to deal with that is almost always a struggle, even if it isn’t as harrowing as Rodriquez’s.

  11. Pingback: Silence by Shusaku Endo « chasing bawa

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