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.
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 write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
-- Wittgenstein, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus 7
The novel started off a bit slow, but once it hit its pace it was almost Dostoevskian in its depths. Endō, a Japanese Catholic, uses the story of two Jesuit priests in search of an apostate Jesuit to explore issues of faith, circumstance, belief, sin, courage, suffering, martyrdom, etc., especially during periods when God is silent. He examines Christ and Christianity and the way they adapted to Japan and were both accepted and rejected by the East.
Overall, it was probably 4.5 stars for me. It certainly belongs on the block next to some of the other great religious fiction (The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Les Misérables, The Razor's Edge, etc.).
I think some of the power of this novel exists beyond the text. I don't mean supernatural or anything silly or of that sort. I just mean that the prose of this novel (or at least Johnston's translation of Endō) was fine, solid. But the book chews on you after reading. It expands. It works you over days after reading. I am still haunted by the sea, the darkness, and obviously the silence.
Some of my favorite quotes:
"We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretched alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task."
"But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt--this is the realization that came home to me acutely at the time."
"Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, there heroes and those who respect them."
"Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind."
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.
Quote of the book: ‘Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.’
I listened to this book in two mammoth listens while on the road this Christmas and it kept me on edge for the relatively short listening time of 7hrs and 44mins. It had been on my reading list ever since the cover caught my eye in a Dubray’s bookshop last summer and with the impending release of a Martin Scorsese film, I badly wanted to get to it before it hit the cinema next month.
I loved this book for several reasons.
The historical fiction element: The more books that I read from this genre, the more that I feel it is underrated. Books like these have the added attraction of being based on actual truth or real events that happened in the past. This makes the story more authentic and believable. The story in this book centres around Jesuit missionary priests sent to 17th century Japan. It is fantastic to read how the Western Christian culture clashes with the Japanese culture at a time when Japan had all but closed its borders to European ships.
This book reminded me of the Joseph Conrad classic Heart Of Darkness: The story centres around two priests sent to find out what happened to the legendary figure of Fr. Ferrara. All we know is that Fr. Ferrara has dramatically apostatised his Christian beliefs and disappeared after twenty years of missionary work in Japan. His former pupils Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe refuse to believe these apparent lies and set out to find their former mentor. It takes us a long time to finally meet Fr. Ferrara and this is similar to the tension-filled search for Colonel Kurtz in Heart Of Darkness. Conrad’s book inspired the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Will Scorsese use the material here to create another classic? Watch the trailer for Silence here.
This book challenged me and my own beliefs: Christianity was outlawed in Japan in the 17th century and anyone caught practising it was punished severely. The Japanese quickly learned that killing missionaries made martyrs of them and so changed their approach. Instead of torturing their captives physically, they focused instead on spiritual and psychological destruction. Getting a priest to stand on an image of Christ or spit on a likeness of the Virgin Mary was a much more effective way of counteracting the spread of Christianity amongst the peasantry. As I listened to these tales of torture and mind games, I wondered what beliefs of my own would I be willing to suffer for and what beliefs would I renounce easily. I love books like this that make you think.
This book has some unforgettable set pieces: The search for Fr. Ferrara, the similarities and parallels with the betrayal of Jesus, the water punishment, the pit, the Judas like figure of Kichijiro and the despicable character of Nagasaki magistrate Inoue who masterminds the dissolution of Christianity in Japan…without giving too much away this book has many characters and moments that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.
The strong theme of silence throughout the book: Many times in the book, the narrator questions why God sits back and does nothing while his worshippers suffer. In two key scenes, the ocean waves continue to roll and music continues to play while people are dying. God’s ‘silence’ makes it seems as if nothing has happened and normal life seems to keep on going despite these horrible events. It is this ‘silence’ that troubles Fr. Rodrigues and his beliefs the most as the novel builds to its conclusion.
‘Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God …. the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.’
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. I really enjoyed it and it can only enhance my experience of the upcoming film. This book is a great work of historical fiction and yet another great export from Japanese literature.
This is, at least, a thought-provoking novel for any Christian. In contrast with the health and wealth 'gospel', it illustrates how God may seem to be silent, even in situations of prolonged pressure to renounce one's faith. The detailed account of a sincere and well-meaning Portuguese priest's thoughts and actions as he seeks to minister and withstand persecution in XVIIth century Japan Is compelling, moving, beautifully written, and very well read.
I enjoyed the book and it's a fairly quickly read, but the content is challenging. It's a graphic depiction the cruelties manis capable of inflicting. How strong is your faith? What do you believe in that's worth dying for?
Excellent story that explores the problem of evil and the silence of God. recommended for Christian and nonchristian readers alike. audio narrator was fantastic though his pronunciation of a few Japanese words was quirky to me as a native speaker.
definitely would recommend anyone and everyone read this at least once.
College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
will never acknowledge. Christianity is not the easy breezy nonsense they portray it to be, not when it is true, and Christians have suffered and will suffer mightily for their faith. An extremely powerful novel.
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!
"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.
loved it. very engaging. very good story, well told in a very minimalist execution. I'm looking forward to other books by the author.
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