Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the universe is asking you to read a book? A couple of months ago, one of my favorite students (who frequently discusses books with me and who also gave me Jiří Weil’s marvelous Life With a Star) recommended Shusako Endo’s novel Silence. Shortly after he handed me the book, I found out that this book, one I’d never heard of before now, was one that had greatly affected Teresa’s spiritual journey. This double shove in the back convinced me to move it to the top of my TBR pile.

The book takes place in the mid-seventeenth century, in Japan. A little background: Portuguese and other missionaries to Japan encountered great success there in spreading Christianity, making hundreds of thousands of converts, but finally the Japanese leaders became suspicious of their activities and fearful that the missionaries were a vanguard for military invasion and annexation. The leaders forbade Christianity, exiled the priests, and massacred or tortured those Christians who refused to give up their faith. A few villages kept their faith in hiding, and passed down Christian knowledge in one form or another, but the spark needed tending.

Into this scene of recent martyrdom and imminent danger come Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe, Portuguese missionaries. They know they are in peril, but they look for great things: they are both idealists, eager to nourish Christian life in Japan and convinced that the people are waiting for their ministry. Their other task is to look for the one remaining priest in Japan, rumored to be dead or apostate (or even both): Father Ferreira, whose faith before the danger had been so gloriously firm and such an inspiration to others.

When the two priests arrive, nothing is as they had anticipated. The Japanese peasants live in extreme poverty, which Rodrigues cannot help comparing to the life the priests led before the embargo on Christianity. Where is the wine, where are the fine vestments, the beautiful churches? All gone, and the remnants of Christianity seem absurd among these terribly poor people:

“Your name?” he asked.

“Monica.” Her answer was somewhat bashful, as if her Christian name was the only ornament she possessed in the whole world. What missionary had given the name of Augustine’s mother to this woman whose body was reeking with the stench of fish?

The villagers are glad to see the priests, and eager to keep them hidden. But they cannot keep their presence unknown for long, especially with a betrayer in their midst. Soon villagers are taken hostage and tortured to give away the priests’ location, and eventually the priests themselves are separated and captured. The Japanese leaders, especially one named Inoue, present Rodrigues with a stark dilemma: if he refuses to apostatize, it is not he who will be punished with torture, but the peasants. Gone is Rodrigues’s notion of a glorious martyrdom, an example to the people. Instead, he must choose between his ideals and the suffering of others.

This book is alive with theological and philosophical issues. It confronts the nature of mercy and the nature of justice. It asks persistent questions about truth: is religion a universal truth, true for all people in all times, or is it a “tree that will not flourish in a different soil”? Endo looks closely at differences between cultures through the eyes of Father Rodrigues, who in some ways is terribly condescending toward the Japanese people he has come to serve, and in some ways is utterly humble. Endo also asks how we can forgive others if we are unable to forgive ourselves. Is betrayal ever excusable, even if it is done for the love of others? Rodrigues’s eventual meeting with Father Ferreira, whose absence has been a presence during most of the book, highlights this particular question.

One of the themes that Endo follows through the book — indeed, it provides the book’s title — is the terror of the silence of God. Rural Japan in the seventeenth century was a very silent place — no motors, no airplanes, only the sound of the sea — and Father Rodrigues has all the time he wants to ask himself how God can see the martyrdom and apostasy of his people and remain silent in the face of it. How can he witness such pain and death, and never act? Yet at the same time, twinning this motif, we see Rodrigues following in the footsteps of the passion and crucifixion of Christ: riding into a city on a donkey, being betrayed, coming before “Pilate” for his trial, and so on. (Some of these moments felt too obviously signaled to me, but this may be because I am very familiar with the Biblical originals.) The idea of love and forgiveness as shared suffering, with Christ and with others, comes through in ways both subtle and strong.

The ending of the book is powerful, but it doesn’t offer clear answers to the questions Endo poses. I found myself crying, but less from a sense of tragedy resolved than from a sense of pain shared. In this way, it reminded me of some of Graham Greene’s best books: The Power and the Glory, for instance. I happen to like books that don’t etch out clear answers, but allow me to think about my own responses to the really big questions of our lives. This was a book to return to.

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8 Responses to Silence

  1. Rob says:

    One of favourite books of all time. Hugely powerful! There’s a movie adaptation coming from Scorsese too. It won’t be as good as the book though.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree, Rob, that this was enormously powerful. I think it would take more than one reading to get everything out of it; I found myself taking copious notes while reading. Wonder what the film would be like!

  2. Teresa says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you liked this, Jenny. I just got a copy for my permanent collection a few months ago and hope to reread it again in the next year or so (at least before the movie comes out). Every now and then, I take it off the shelf and read those last few pages. Just the thought of them puts a lump in my throat.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not surprised I liked it after your recommendation. I think I’m going to have my mom read it. Very moving.

  3. Jenny says:

    This sounds terribly sad but well worth it. I have problems with missionaries, but I think the concept of them is fascinating, the encounter between two really dissimilar cultures and the power dynamics between the missionaries and the “natives”.

    • Jenny says:

      Good observation, Other Jenny — and Endo does a lot with that in this book, observing mostly through the missionary’s eyes although of course he himself is Japanese. I think it’s a beautifully balanced book.

  4. rebeccareid says:

    I am going to read this for the upcoming JLit book group that Tanabata is leading, and I already have it out from the library, awaiting my read! I’m so glad it’s such a powerful book, and since so many people say it’s one of their favorites ever, it’s a book I really feel I must read SOON! Thanks for this.

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