Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo.

silenceI’ve been waiting a long time to read Silence by Shasku Endo. I find the history of the Jesuit order fascinating, particularly their spectacularly ambitious 16-18th century missions, and I’m currently living in Asia. What better book for me to read?

The book was a little more depressing then I thought. That’s saying something, since I knew very well beforehand that the Japanese missions (thus far) have not been very successful. Less than 1% of Japanese embrace the Christian faith. Still, the book was very good – it was one of those books where (though well written) you could tell it wasn’t originally written in English, but that added a certain “authentic charm.”

The general story of the book takes place after Japan expels all foreigners, except Dutch traders, but with a special focus on getting rid of missionaries. A prologue and introductory piece explain this and immediately introduce you to the protagonist, Sebastian Rodrigues, a Catholic priest determined to be a missionary in Japan. Sebastian is not a “real, historical figure” but is the primary lens through which we explore the story. It is the year 1638.

The story is largely told in the form of letters written by Sebastian, and thus you get a very personal look into the protagonist’s mind. He’s very genuine, has an exalted view of the priesthood, humility and a burning desire to serve. He’s naive (for the longest time he’s convinced a Japanese man is not a Christian because he’s not brave.) He’s not very introspective but he is very reflective. Most of the time, when he has time to think, he reflects on the “faces” of characters in the Gospels, particularly Christ, and the meaning of Jesus’ words to Judas on the night he was betrayed: “Go, and do what you are about to do quickly.” Above all, he struggles with the titular Silence of God in a time of trials and suffering.

As you can tell, this story is as much about the setting – the struggles of Christians in feudal Japan – as it is about the main character. The grand background plot can’t be anything but what it is historically; vicious persecutions wiped out almost all Christians save for a few thousand who memorized prayers and rituals. These hidden Christians endured until missionaries returned hundreds of years later, and without fanfare came out of their villages to learn about what it was they’d been holding onto in secret all those years. But Sebastian Rodrigues’ plot, being fictional, is one that could have ended well.

However, Sebastian Rodrigues’ personal struggles, to my mind, have a deeply unsatisfying end. Now, I’m biased slightly – I like stories with neat, tidy endings. It could even be a miserable, depressing ending, but I like to have an ending where the book leaves me in no doubt as to the means and outcomes by which the resolution of all the plot-lines were accomplished. This book does not provide that.

Silence at the end shifts from Sebastian’s letters to extracts from the diary of a Dutch clerk (and yes, it is as abrupt a transition as it sounds.) The letters give us little glimpses of who Sebastian became after our last chapter with him, but not why, and in this regard the book is deeply unsatisfying. The last pages of the book proper (Chapters 8 and 9) involve Sebastian making a tortured decision of great importance; yet a decision that does not seem to fit with the reports of the Dutch shipping clerk. The spiritual struggles of Fr. Rodrigues play a major role in the book, but after his final trial we’re shut out of those inner struggles. What moved the priest of chapter 9 to be the person he is in the reports of the clerk? I am left to wonder.

Final Verdict

I suppose if I can write a whole paragraph complaining about the resolution of a character’s inner struggle, the book has done its job and caused me to become invested in the plot. The setting, is, of course, fascinating. I would have loved a tidier ending. Read this book if you have any interest in the history of Japanese missions, but don’t pick it up for something light and cheerful!


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