Reading Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of those magical experiences in which you find yourself transported to a completely different time and place. In this case, to a 17th century Japan in the midst of its battle to eradicate Christianity. We follow two young, committed Jesuit priests on their clandestine journey from Portugal to an island off the coast of Japan. Their mission: to keep the Catholic faith alive and to find out what happened to a predecessor who is rumoured to have apostatised. Justly considered a Japanese classic, Silence raises questions around religious colonialism, clash of cultures, freedom of religion and the very core of faith itself while being an absolutely gripping read.
Our protagonists, Sebastian Rodrigues and compatriot Francis Garrpe, set out with youthful enthusiasm and religious fervour. Fully aware of the risks and fates of many before them – horrific torture culminating in a slow death – Rodrigues and Garrpe make the dangerous journey from Macao to the hills of an island outside Nagasaki with the help of the cagey Kichijiro (who might or might not be a Christian himself). From a little hut on the mountainside, they receive Japanese Christians by night for confessions, baptism and prayer.
Endo’s description of the landscape, sea, sounds and weather are sublime. It feels like nothing short of being there. While the mist keeps rolling in and out from the vast silent ocean and the flies keep buzzing there’s a foreboding sense of doom and claustrophobia. When stories of horrific torture and forced apostatising of those in their secret ‘congregation’ reaches Rodrigues, he starts questioning why God remains silent, even his very existence.
‘If he doesn’t exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes.’
This is a book that makes you think about what it means to be a Christian, about the role of Judas in Christianity (yes, he makes and appearance), and how far one should go in defending one’s faith. You definitely don’t need to be religious to enjoy this book. There are so many questions here that go beyond religion and to the very core of humanity itself.
An excellent book that will stay with me for a long time.
Silence by Shusaku Endo is published by Picador, 288 pages.