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.
©1966 Shusaku Endo; (P)2009 Audible Ltd
This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, bar none. With a forward by Martin Scorsese, who writes that he has found this book "increasingly precious" to him over the years and who is adapting the story for film, Endo's masterpiece asks the most profound questions which confront us about the meaning of our existence and of faith, especially the Christian faith. What is the true meaning of agape love? What is the meaning of human suffering and why does God seem to be silent in the face of it? What is the role of Judas in the Christian story and how do we share in his human weakness? Is there any such thing as "universal truth?"
The novel, inspired by actual events, revolves around a Jesuit missionary in 17th century Japan during a period when the Japanese rulers sought to purge their land of Christian influence. Devout Jesuit missionaries who went to Japan knowing of the Japanese crack-down did so fully cognizant, and even welcoming the prospect, of their potential martyrdom. What they did not expect were the much more difficult challenges to their faith presented to them by the Japanese rulers--challenges which ultimately caused some of them to renounce their faith.
Although the issues are most directly presented in terms of the Christian faith, this classic will be meaningful to anyone who puzzled over the deepest questions of our existence.
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.
It is the 1630’s. After several decades of Christianity being welcomed in Japan, a number of Japanese Christians were involved in a rebellion and as a result Christianity was outlawed and forced underground. The story begins with two priests in their early 30’s heading off to Japan to serve as missionaries. About half of the book describes the trip from Lisbon to Japan through the underground missionary activities of the two priests, with the other half describing the experience in captivity.
On the surface the book asks the simple question will the priest stand up for his faith or will he apostatize? Yet, this is a multi-layered story with many more issues at play. At one level there is the question of the relationship of missionary work to the political and economic imperialism of the nations who support the missionary work? At another level is the question of the extent to which any religion, that is part of the culture of a people in one part of the world, can be transferred to a radically different culture and still be the same religion? To what extend do the polarities among Christians and the related in-fighting destroy the credibility of the Christian witness? What does martyrdom mean? What is more Christ- like—to allow innocent people to suffer and die in order for you to maintain the purity of your faith or to act in a way that violates everything that you believe, that is despicable in your eyes and the eyes of your family and friends but will make it possible for the innocent to live? At another level the book asks where God is in the midst of all this suffering and death. It seems that the sound of God’s silence is deafening! Each layer of this tale is as urgent and demanding today as it was in the 17th century, as it was after World War II when this book was written, and as it was in the early Church, when these same questions were being wrestled with by the Church Fathers.
The author is a respected Japanese novelist and a descendant of the ancient Christian community about which he writes in this novel. Thus, be brings a unique perspective to the story and a depth of understanding that enriches the tale.
The narrator speaks with a British accent that lends a certain dignity to the story and for an American audience gives it a sense of foreign mystery that adds to the Japanese setting. He does a good job overall, though in a few places it was difficult to distinguish between shifts from one scene to another.
This is a good book that sets you thinking and is well worth the read/listen.
I am a retired teacher who listens because she is vision impaired and can no longer read. I love history, a touch of fantasy, and mystery!
Very informative. A part of Japanese History I never suspected. Really have to think more about it. Recommend it to people interested in history and how Christian Missionaries were received and thought of by different cultures. Also looks at the problem of Judas. If your faith is week, better stay away!
I'm a bibliophile since early childhood. Love speculative fiction, odd premises, mystery novels that teach about different places and times.
Most of us who have one faith or another are rarely asked where the limits of our faith are. And what we would do to follow it radically. This book does that, It's beautifully written, but pick a day where you can sit in a corner after. The end is a stunner.
Book blogger at Bookwi.se
Historic novel about the 17th century persecution of Christianity in Japan and a meditation about the Silence of God - A perfect book to read on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is a deeply morally ambiguous novel. It properly de-romanticizes persecution and martyrdom and at the same time explores the role of Judas as a model (not sure that is the right word) for us all. This is a book well worth reading, but I can understand why many are hostile or ambulant about its message.
This is not a book that has an easy message (Christian or not). Where is God in the pain? What does it mean to follow Christ? Can we reject God and love him at the same time.
The audio has some issues that I am not sure are intentional or not. Several times that are audible breathing and sniffing sounds that might be appropriate for the book, but feel out of place. The reader is fine, I am just not sure about the editing.
I enjoyed the pacing and universal themes. Highly recommended for anyone interested in history or philosophy. Soon to be made into a major motion picture?
This wasn't a light read. It's definitely a haunting book that will stay with you for awhile. I will likely have to read it again at some point in my life because it makes some pretty profound points when it comes to claiming to be a religious person.
It tells of an early Christian missionary in Japan at a time when Christianity was banned. The main character was a pious Christian priest and takes us through the ups and downs of believing something with our whole hearts.
An idea that was shared at the beginning of the book and haunted me through the rest was that we all one day come to see us become like Judas. It points out that we need to constantly need to guard our testimonies and that they are a lot more frail that we would like to admit.
Well worth the time but is really heavy.
"Silence" has a Biblical quality to it. I suppose it is the way it raises tremendous difficulties — moral and theological conundrums, and existential crises — and then only subtly, even indirectly, points in the misty direction in which we might find answers for ourselves. This great art, which Scripture does so well, is knowing when to fall silent.
Such silence affects us strongly: it is pedagogically provocative and aesthetically magnetic. It is the silence which challenges us, drives us to reflect upon the "sparks flying upward" and wrestle with an angel in the dark.
When Jesus tells His disciples, "It is better for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you," He indicates that His tangible presence is somehow less helpful to us than His intangibility. It is better for us if His presence sometimes seems silence, than if His presence were something we could validate by experiment and sensation.
The striving, the reaching, the 'leap of faith', the crisis which requires us at last to rely purely upon our own subjective, soul-to-soul knowledge of Him as a Person — would we ever exercise ourselves in these if He were always within reach of our fingers or our prayers for fire to rain upon the altar? Thus is the silence of God.
And thus, after the Biblical art of silence, Endo's "Silence" reminds us all at once of Job's apparently senseless suffering, of Abraham's moral crisis, of Jacob's embattled renaming, of Judas' pious betrayal, and of Jesus' Ninth Hour.
But, of course, "Silence" is more about God's silence, than Endo's.
And it is just as much about what it means to really admit that we are weak, that we are not courageous, that we sin — it means to participate, not only in the suffering of Christ, but in the infliction of Christ's suffering.
Indeed, "It is for that reason that I am here," He says to us, as He says to the character Rodrigues. We need Him to suffer for us. He knows this and has come for this very purpose. And it is in this sense that we betray Him, and it is in this sense that He opens Himself to our betrayal: "What thou dost, do quickly."
He comes to our door, in our frightened and guilty times, to tell us that we should make Him our scapegoat. "Trample on me," He says, "I will bear your sin. I came to be trampled of men. I am your lamb. I am your sacrifice. Slay me."
"Lord, I resented Your silence," we say with the priest, when at last we feel we are heard.
"I was not silent. I suffered beside you," He replies, as we learn that this is not a God who wields power like a man, or stays distant and wholly apart.
"Then from the lowest, weakest tone of suffering, up to the loftiest pitch, the divinest acme of pain, there is not one pang to which the sensorium of the universe does not respond; never an untuneful vibration of nerve or spirit but thrills beyond the brain or the heart of the sufferer to the brain, the heart of the universe; and God, in the simplest, most literal, fullest sense, and not by sympathy alone, suffers with his creatures." (George MacDonald, "The Marquis of Lossie")
Scorsese's forward says he loves this book, and he seems to have a fascination with Judas, perhaps identifying with him most among the characters in the Bible. In a pivotal point in the story, a defrocked priest makes the claim that "Christ would apostatize" and the protagonist ultimately decides to do the same, being egged on by an imagined figure of Christ asking him to trod on his face. While I do not want to condemn someone who has faced a trial I have never had to endure, the fact is that Christ did not apostatize when given the chance. He had the choice to denounce his divinity claims, but did not. The priests in this story did not make the same choice.
What bothers me about this story is that it seems to be telling people who are asked to deny their faith at the tip of a sword that their lives are being given in vain. If Christ is real, it says, he will forgive them for apostasy, and if he is not, they are dying for nothing. Either way, their sacrifice is pointless. I disagree that this is the lesson to be taken from the martyrs in Japan (or the current martyrs dying in the middle east). I don't think you need to even believe in God to see the valor in the sacrifice these martyrs made and the evil of the men torturing them in an attempt to control their beliefs. The priests in this story not only betrayed their faith, they helped the government hunt down other believers, promoting the very evil they pretended that their apostasy was meant to end.
It is not through apostasy that the church will grow. It is through the faith of the brave peasants who gave their lives for a hope in the world hereafter. Perhaps our faith is not as strong as these peasants, but we diminish their sacrifice and we call evil good when we pretend that the role of Judas has equal value in this world as the role of Christ.
The book should have dealt more with the negative impacts of the priests' denials rather than leaving it to be inferred in the details of the epilogue. It does not honor the deaths of these martyrs to claim that their deaths were avoidable if they had only understood that Christ forgives apostasy. It is by their faith that the church is built, not by pragmatic decisions of people who convince themselves that evil is good.
I was moved by the character of Monica who looked into death unafraid and gave her life for a priest who would abandon his own faith and everything she had died for.
it was an interesting story and an important period of history for anyone in the church or with European or Japanese blood to understand.
"How a man comes face to face with God"
This novel follows the journey, literal and metaphysical, of one man, a missionary in 17th century Japan. He realises how human he is, and how inhumane his fellow humans can be. In the end he comes face to face with his own humanity, and in doing so comes face to face with God. Endo reaches the heart of the link between faith and the church. At times I found this novel sad, sickening, disheartening, yet as it progressed it became illuminating, challenging and ultimately life-affirming. A truly remarkable novel, one of the best books I have ever come across.
I highly recommend this audio book; for me, a somewhat complex Catholic, 'Silence' lived up to its reputation as one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century. It is similar in theme to Graham Greene's 'Power and the Glory' but far better. The narrator was excellent, he did countless voices and I felt like I was listening to a radio play. I look forward to Scorsese's coming film adaption.
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