Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, July 12, 2010

Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence by Shusaku Endo (1969, trans. from the Japanese by William Johnston, 201 pages)

Shusaku Endo (1923 to 1996) is a very highly regarded post WWII Japanese novelist.    He studied French literature in college and was raised as a Catholic, a very rare thing in Japan.    There is a very good background post on Endo on In Spring it is the Dawn, which is hosting a discussion of Silence.   There are links to several very good posts that cover the thematic details and talk about the historical period the book is set in, Japan in the 1600s on that web page.   Given this I will just make a few observations on the work.   

Silence is about the horrible persecution of the early Christian Missionaries (Catholics from Portugal) in Japan by the authorities.    As the religion began to take a hold, those who had become Christians  also could be subject to horrible punishments.    To be a Christian was basically a criminal act in Japan in the 1600s.    A good bit of the book, and the current discussion on it, revolves around the courage shown by most of the missionaries and the betraying of clandestine converts by others for payment.     I was intrigued by conversations in the book concerning the relationship of Jesus to Judas.    I found the descriptions of the tortures of the Christians very well done and, as all would, I felt great admiration for those who kept their faith while being tortured.   I learned some interesting things about life in Japan in the 17th century from this book.  

As I was reading Silence I began to imagine the Japanese sending missionaries to Portugal to convert the natives there to forms of religious belief and practices current in 17th century Japan.   The Japanese missionaries might have the best of intentions (even if those who financed them had other uses in mind for their work) but they would have been met with exactly the sort of reception the Christian missionaries got in 17th century Japan, if not worse.     Leaving aside any spiritual considerations, the missionary is the tool of the colonizer in almost all cases.   A missionary in 17 century Japan, The Philippines or Brazil might and often did have wonderful intentions and did his best to help those who he tried to convert but their efforts were financed by those interested in commerce and empire building, and not in saving souls.   In many cases or even most, the missionary may have no idea why his mission is really being funded.    This use of missionaries as a colonial tool is not just a European matter.    Sometimes in reading Silence (which is in part about the seeming silence of God) I felt that there was a silence over these matters in the narrative.

Silence is a well written historical novel.    The introduction by William Johnston is very good.    I think some readers appreciate this book almost as a religious text more than as a work of art.    I am glad I read this book and think others will enjoy it also.

Mel u


Suko said...

Very interesting review as always. I had not heard of this book before stopping here.

Bellezza said...

This novel really caused me to examine my faith, which I consider to be strong, and the role of missionaries to other cultures. I don't have clear answers, except to say that I would certainly pray that I myself would never apostasize. I loved the discussion and the issues raised.

@parridhlantern said...

Not read this book, although have just finished Stain Glass Elegies, a collection of short stories by the same author & it appears (based on you review) to cover the same ground, which I found very disturbing & thought provoking, those that weren't physically tortured, who renounced their faith (apostasized), appeared as tortured although its nature wasn't physical, the burden of what they had done still crippled them.