Posted on February 26, 2016
7. ‘Silence’ by Shūsaku Endō
I decided to read this book only because it has recently been made into a movie, and I saw it on lots of ‘books to movies 2016’ lists. That means that I went into it knowing virtually nothing about the plot. All I knew was that it was written by a Japanese writer (always a selling point), and something about it had appealed to Martin Scorsese.
There is a very useful introduction to the historical context of this story at the front of my copy of Silence, and it did a lot to ground the novel in what was happening at the time. Silence is set in seventeenth-century Japan. The country had previously embraced Christianity, but various suspicions amongst Japan’s leaders meant that they condemned the religion, banned it, and began to torture in horrific ways whoever they found practising it. In the novel two Portuguese Christians, Rodrigues and Garrpe, travel in secret to Japan to covertly keep the flame of Christianity alive, and to try to discover what made their erstwhile mentor, Ferreira, betray his faith.
The experiences of the characters in this book are entirely alien to my own, but that did not matter. Although I am not religious, and the idea of suffering and dying for a religious belief is unfathomable to me on a personal level, Endo made it easy to feel compassion for the plight of the Christian missionaries. It doesn’t matter if you do not share their beliefs – in some ways what they are doing transcends their ideas and becomes a story simply about a noble struggle to defend what you believe is right, no matter the cost. Contrast Rodrigues and Garrpe’s stoicism with the cowardly actions of Kichijiro and you see two extremes of human behaviour – one inspirational, one abhorrent.
Of course, that is not to say that religion isn’t the most crucial element in this story – it certainly is. The idea that is revisited most during the course of the story is that Japan is not suited to Christianity, that the western religion is like a tree which, planted in the ‘swamp’ of Japan, can only wither and die. This is central argument of the novel: according to the Japanese authorities the tree must necessarily die because it does not suit the conditions; according to the Christians the tree is only dying because it keeps being forcibly uprooted.
At the centre of the story is Rodrigues, who struggles with his faith throughout. Many scenes brutally describe the torture to which the Japanese Christians are subjected, and Rodrigues’ biggest sticking point is why God remains silent through it all. As the atrocities build up, our ‘hero’ asks over and over again how God can stand silently by while His followers suffer and die. Ultimately, Rodrigues’ final act – after he is eventually reunited with Ferreira – is a controversial one: does he truly do it as a grand, self-sacrificing gesture, or does he use that as an excuse to disguise his cowardice?
I found this book to be a fascinating insight into an area of world history I knew nothing about and a religious mindset that I do not share. Definitely one to read if you want to broaden the mind and, if not agree, at least understand a little better.
“You came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.”
Have you read this book or seen the movie? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.