Fiction Review: “Silence” by Shisaku Endo

“Silence” was on my  Japanese-authors-to read list for a long time. Now  that it’s come out as a major motion picture, and I wanted to take it up before I saw what Martin Scorsese did with it.

What the story is about

The plot centers around a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, who travels to Japan. His mission is to find out what really happened to his former mentor Ferreira who is rumored to have forsaken his faith due to intense persecution and torture.

Despite the rumored persecution by the Japanese samurai, Rodrigues desires to spread the Christian faith just like his forefathers who were also missionaries to Japan.

Understanding the genre

“Silence” falls somewhere in the category of historical fiction and literary fiction. If you’re interested in learning about the historical context of Japan and the spiritual philosophy of Endo, the translator in the Modern Piccador Classics version, William Johnston, provides a good introductory summary.

Not a hagiography

This book is not meant to inspire religious dedication in face of extreme persecution.What you can read into it are attitudes of the Japanese toward Catholic Christianity. It’s not clear whether those attitudes are those of an older Japan or if they’re attitudes still held today.

It’s also a Roman Catholic flavor of Christianity you get. Think ritualism, icons, mysticism, latin, and the priesthood.

The Theology of “Silence”

The story is interesting because it conflates Catholic theological confusion with cultural misunderstanding. For instance, does the insistence on relics lead to a devotion to the relics themselves? Can you really be a devout believer if you continually disavow Christ but turn back to him? Can you be silent about your Christian faith and still be a Christian?

The God believed in by Rodrigues emphasizes the life and suffering of Christ without really relating to the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Endo’s God is one who stands so completely inside history that his transcendence, holiness, and sovereignty are completely swallowed up.

 

 

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