In the realm of Christian literature, Japan does not loom large. Yet for years, I’ve seen Silence listed amongst the classics. Having finally read it, I find myself both wishing I’d read it years ago and glad that I read it now, in my thirties, with a few years of experience behind me.
The novel begins in the 16th century after Japan leadership has declared Christianity punishable by death and torture. The country is closed to missionaries, leaving those European priests and missionaries already in country stranded and endangered. Quickly realizing that putting Christians to death only creates martyrs for others to follow, the ruling powers work to force Christians to apostatize. They do so by torturing them until they will reject Jesus Christ and stomp on an image of him. (The book deals with Catholic Christianity, meaning that imagery is much more powerful and important to these believers than it may be to a modern Protestant.
The protagonist is a young Jesuit priest, who sneaks into Japan in search of his former mentor, rumoured to have betrayed the faith. We see the story almost entirely from his perspective, from his initial arrival with another priest, hiding in the mountains, to their eventual separation and his arrest. The story is intimate, horrifying, and heartbreaking.
This is a story about the silence of God. I can’t speak to how it might come across to a non-Christian but for me it was moving and, even five hundred years later, painfully familiar. While I have never been persecuted or tortured due to my faith, like most Christians, I have faced a silent God. Based on this book, I suspect Shusaku Endo has faced Him too. This is the question of Silence – what do you do in the midst of suffering when God seems to have turned His back?
The setting of medieval Japan is well-evoked; the peasants living in extreme feudal poverty, the samurais and warlords who rule over them. Endo evokes the extreme differences in these parties, from their power to their dwelling places to what they eat. On the other hand, characterization is slightly thinner. While we are deep inside our central characters mind and spiritual thought, there is almost nothing else known about him. He doesn’t seem to have ever existed before the story began. Likewise, the rest of the characters are shown briefly. Important while on page but hard to imagine otherwise.
For Christians who enjoy literature or readers wanting a fictional glimpse into a Christian experience, I highly recommend Silence.