Recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, it has been called Endo's supreme achievement" and "one of the twentieth century's finest novels".
Considered controversial ever since its first publication, it tackles the thorniest religious issues of belief and faith head on.
A novel of historical fiction, it is the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to seventeenth century Japan, who endured persecution that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion.
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What do you do when you know people are suffering?
As someone who is not religious, this was an incredibly insightful book into the complexity of Christian faith. Particularly of note is Shūsaku Endō's restraint from taking sides on the issue even though he was a believer. This is quite remarkable since most religious books tend towards extreme bias, but Endō takes the advice of his own novel and does not fall prey to being blinded by his own beliefs.
While the most obvious theme of the book deals with the silence of God in the face of the most terrible suffering, there is another theme: pride. This pride of Christianity has been a troubling issue through much of history as it relates to other cultures, be it in the middle east, the far east, or the new world. Pride has meant missionaries full of blind zeal have traveled all over the world and forced their faith on other people without the slightest idea of the pain they are causing.
In this novel, Sebastian continually compares his missionary work in Japan to that of Christ - he even envisions a martyrdom of himself just as glorious as Christ. And it is the Japanese, Inoue specifically, who recognizes this lack of humility in the missionaries and uses it against them. He forces them to renounce their faith, to be cast out of the church like a Judas, in order to save the lives of the miserable peasants.
Yet it isn't quite so simple, either. Inoue may think he has won, but Sebastian, even with his pride broken, knows that only Christ can be a martyr for the faith. Sebastian must trample on the face of Christ (the Fumie) and though he believes that damns him, in a way it also reinforces the power of his savior to forgive and protect the meek by offering up himself. In the end Sebastian is still able to hear the confession of Kichijiro, but the roles have almost reversed in that Sebastian is humbled far below the weakness of the strange Kichijiro.
Of course the title of the book, Silence, is the most important theme of the book and all through the book I kept thinking of all the periods in history when there was terrible suffering and yet nothing was done about it - for example the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Yet while God, in the novel, does seem totally silent, he does not seem absent either because Shūsaku Endō fills the novel with sound: we hear the rain, the children singing, footsteps, the sound of a sword killing a man, the moaning of the torture victims. And that sound is not for a God to hear, but for us to hear. Shūsaku Endō seems to be saying that only we can alleviate the suffering of each other.
But how do we alleviate the suffering of our fellow man while not making more trouble than we hope to solve? That's the dilemma here. Had Sebastian (and Garrpe)never come to Japan how many people would have been spared? Inoue even says near the end that there are still Christians living and practicing in Japan unmolested because he knows the seed of the religion will soon die out on its own. Yet had a monk traveled to those regions then the story would have played out all over again.
But then what do you do when you know people are suffering? How can you save them? Should you save them? At what cost? How many Kichijiro's would you make - wretched, tortured souls who wander around totally broken hearted because they are too weak to stand up for themselves and half wishing they were dead but also too cowardly to die?
There are no answers here, only very thorny issues. And that's what makes this novel so brilliant because Shūsaku Endō does not try to answer them for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.
Stylistically this novel is very interesting. The novel begins as a series of letters written by Sebastian and then switches to a third person limited (of Sebastian) and then shifts again to a series of official log entries first from the Dutch and then from a Japanese official where we learn the fate of Sebastian. This final shift is very confusing at first because a lot of it does not seem pertinent to the story and I had to think a long time about why it was written this way. What I think Shūsaku Endō was trying to do was place the context of Sebastian's (and also Kichijiro's) life into a larger frame - the frame of all humanity.
The novel begins very personal and gradually becomes less personal until we get almost a list of very foreign sounding names. Shūsaku Endō seems to be connecting all these lives together in a very subtle attempt to remind us we are all connected as human beings. And by doing so, by connecting a Portuguese monk with that of a wretched Japanese peasant, we are forced to see the humanity in each of us, to take away the pridefullness of our faith and our position in life and only see the common humanity on each person. And it goes both way - it's not just about Christians needing to see the error of their pride, but also the Japanese.
The Japanese are more than cruel to their own people. They keep nearly the entire population in servitude and the entire countryside is destitute and desperate. No wonder the peasants were so eager to latch into the religious idea of a paradise in the after life for the meek. Yet had the Japanese treated their people as, well, people, then their never would have been monks coming to their country to try and "save" them - and, of course, making more trouble than they realized.
In short, had their been respect for humanity, had the monks and the Japanese not thrown the rock, their hand would not have withered away (as the song goes at the end of the book "Oh lantern bye, bye, bye./ If you throw a stone at it, your hand withers away". That song in not about throwing a stone at faith, but at your fellow man and how that hurts everyone.
This is a beautiful novel in every way, and perhaps one of the greatest novels ever written. It is complex, difficult, has no answers, and it forces you to come to terms with your own beliefs and the beliefs of other people. This is a very necessary book and were more people to read it, to really read it and take it to heart, could do the world a lot of good. Too bad the novel is so obscure; more people should read it.
- Dan Harlow