Book Review: Silence

The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo is set in the Nagasaki during the severe persecution of Christianity in 1600s Japan. With letters, documents, and third-person narration, Silence chronicles the journey of a Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues to corroborate whether his esteemed mentor apostatized during his mission. This novel grips to major questions and does not let go. With some of the existential sharpness of Kierkegaard, Silence is a vehicle to investigate the possibility of cross-cultural communication, endurance, and faith. But it is not an erudite exercise; in his depiction of human frailty and depravity, Endo combines this novel of ideas with the pathos of short, painful lives.

Rodrigues and his mission does seem like Marlow’s trip into the Heart of Darkness. His journey from his native Portugal, stowing away on a boat to Japan, learning about the new culture, and facing a warped doppelganger mirror the structure of Joseph Conrad’s work. In Heart of Darkness, the machine of colonialism is revealed as an elaborate form of the savagery in the Congo. While spreading Catholicism may seem like a parallel, for all their politics, the lone priests have kindness and conviction to lift peasants out of a brutish existence. And in Silence, the brutality of the natives is utterly remorseless, yes, but also intellectually devious. In Endo’s work, the would-be subjects colonize the mind of the colonials and seek to end their movement not by force per se, but by a turn of conscience.

Endo describes Rodrigues’ precarious life in feudal Japan with periods of ease before the inevitable capture. We are almost led to believe that his mission, as one of only a two remaining active priests in this unforgiving land, may succeed. What’s most riveting, however, is when the conflict becomes internal. When he is in dialogue with his captors, at first, he is strong, but he seems to partially agree to their statements, and then seems to have little foundation to stand on. They want to use him to break the resolve of the Japanese Christians holding onto their secret way of life. They want to prove that their beliefs are foreign, could never live inside them, and must be ejected as not Japanese. And these captors could be replaced with Japanese society, specifically, at many other times when authorities were resolute on destroying individual threats to the power structure with bureaucratic rigor. It is an endemic pattern that repeats elsewhere: the goal of the captors brings to mind Winston’s fight against Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.

The climax shows the power of a novel to express a change in consciousness. This change is unexpected, but resonates with the narrative. Quite different from what his captors wanted, this change may even show how Christianity is not as foreign as his captives want him to believe. Whether you believe that Rodrigues’ trip had not merely been a fatalistic nightmare–the descriptions of the slow crucifixions of poor people at sea are particularly harrowing–may depend on whether you believe in his mission in the first place. But Endo has made us witness one resolution to the conflict between culture or races. There could be some kind of accommodation or persecution and death.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Shusaku Endo uses a traditional close third person and first-person perspective to uncover the relation between the Japanese thought and Christianity. He endeavors to find not only whether a universal truth is possible for a Japanese person, but whether this faith, tested in extremis, is universally true in itself.

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