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.

Book Review: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, his first in ten years, is The Buried Giant (2015)–a provocative crossover between literary fiction and fantasy. It seems like a novel written from a long withheld desire of mine. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, post-Arthurian England with magic, gallivanting, pixies, and boatmen: I remember a field trip to replica Saxon villages in Middlesex as a primary school student there and pouring over runes and rhymes in Old English classes in college. This novel goes deep into his philosophical concerns about memory and identity: I remember being wowed as I tried to extrapolate meaning from Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) in my senior year at high school. To combine these and create a fantasy in the fallen world that not only explores, but triggers understanding of existential themes is a great achievement and, it turns out, a stellar, devastating read.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro

Axl and Beatrice are an old married couple living in poverty and confinement in a small Briton village. They are aware that they are losing their memory, but they conclude that this is not an individual phenomenon. It seems like others too are forgetting their histories and why they are performing tasks. Early in the novel, they seem to remember that they had a son and that he had traveled to a nearby village. Their constriction and mortality compel them to break the routine of their bodies and search for their son. The novel is a tale of that journey on foot through the damp, forbidding mounds of untamed England country.

This collective phenomenon of the retraction of memory is called the mist. And a pleasure of this book is to see this mist lift for the narrative to reveal itself. But I’ll say this. Their journey on foot, escaping monsters, conversing with witches, witnessing battles, is a trip back through their memory and its stories and its set narratives. They start their journey sure of each other, their marital love, and the promise of their continued union, but that is questioned, tested, and judged in the final pages of the novel. With this shifting, I wonder: what is the use of these set narratives–these memories–if they program us to act a certain way? And not only that, but determine the mental understanding of our identity? Their journey is a reverse Odyssey. While memory loss of Odysseus prevents him from fulfilling his desire to return to his wife, memory itself clouds and casts aspersions on what these partners are to each other.

Release from the demands of memory can be a release from the past and an enabler of growth. But there is a hidden step here. There is the recognition brought on by memory and then the adherence to memory. When a Saxon warrior, who suffers no memory loss due to the mist, tells his acolyte to promise never to forget and to always hate the Britons, he is demanding allegiance to a certain narrative brought on by a collective memory. If there is an ethics of identity, where members of a certain group are ethically required to act in a certain way, then there appears to be an ethics of memory. While adherence may not be necessitated individually or collectively, it takes courage to break the cycle and perceive the world with the story of the past, the promise of the future, but, in the foreground, the light of the present.

Book Review: 8/10: Kazuo Ishiguro has created not a fantasy, but a detective story. The criminal is memory and the victim is who you know you are.

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude starts with what Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember as he faces the firing squad–“that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That beginning sentence clues us in to the strategy of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bold and telling details are presented to frame the passions, play, sadness, quarrels, wonders, and conflict of daily life. By design, inevitably these episodes circle back and illuminate those details. Discovering ice was the happiest moment of his life. He fought wars upon wars out of arrogance and to spare him from the crippling solitude that afflicted him and the whole Buendia family. As he faces the guns, he thinks of that time when he was free from solitude in whatever form. On “that distant afternoon” the family learns of the death of Melquiades, a gypsy who introduced their landlocked town to the wonders of the wider world.

If the Colonel before the firing squad is an event at the center of the novel, Melquiades and his parchments encircle and preside over the novel as a whole. All this was inlaid in just the first sentence.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The novel is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Buendias, a family who led a pack of trailblazers to a new territory inland and founded a town Macando, nestled in the swampy rainforest somewhere in South America, which flourishes for a while. In addition to the foreshadowing details, the progeny of the first in line, Jose Arcadio Buendia and Ursula, have names of the previous generations. The progeny exhibit similar patterns as their namesakes, as if those names clued us in to a selfish gene that had to manifest itself. Much has been made about this novel’s magical realism.

Before reading this novel, I was initially wary of it. However, it works because ghosts of family members that live in the house, a girl rising up to Heaven, rain for more than four years, and flying carpets of the gypsies, don’t draw attention to themselves as different from given facts and because this magic isn’t uniformly good or bad. This magic seems to be an expression of desires through time that had been percolating in the minds of the characters-letting them loose into the natural world adds texture.

Click this picture for more resources on this novel
By Pedro Villalba Ospina

One Hundred’s story has military campaigns, adventures, colonial exploitation and extermination and a devastating, revolting picture of decay and oblivion. But any of these isolated would not amount to much but for how Garcia Marquez marshals all these details of the family’s daily life. He spins these through the reader’s mind until the incantatory, blazing end when the saga wraps onto itself-the details and stories illuminating each other become one–and the axle of the wheel of time collapses.

Book Review: 9/10: Fabulous, rich, wonderful trip into the magic and terror of daily life

Introduction to Movie Book Reviewer

Hello All,

Welcome to the Movie Book Reviewer blog! Here you’ll read posts and longer pieces on movies, books, TV, and culture. I chose to include movies and books on one site because I want to promote greater interest and discernment about stories we tell each other in our culture and what our culture is telling us.  I like to think about how different forms of media shape the telling of a story, but here I will try and foremost have a conversation about work itself and what we can learn from it.

Thank you for reading,

Naat Jairam