Is there anyone there?
Shusaku Endo has often been described as the Japanese Graham Greene. There are certainly parallels between them - both as people and as authors. Both are Roman Catholics, both have their fair share of Catholic angst, and both write about religion in their novels, often examining the struggles of a Christian soul.
Christianity came to Japan in the sixteenth-century brought there by the Jesuits and Portugese traders. At first Christianity was welcomed, many of the Japanese ruling class converted, probably in an attempt to gain extra leverage in trading negotiations. By the seventeenth century however a backlash had started, Christians were cruelly persecuted, forced to recant, and were then often further tortured or murdered in order to persuade others to recant. A small body of Japanese Christians however stayed true, and it is from this small group that Shusaku Endo is descended.
Silence is the story of a group of three Jesuit priests, who, at the height of the persecutions, attempt to steal into Japan to minister to the Christians who are left. One becomes very ill during the journey and never makes it any further than Macao, two continue on, but are betrayed and captured soon after landing. The novel then follows the struggles of Father Sebastiao Rodrigues to stay true to his faith and to himself while being persuaded to recant. It is a bleak, bleak novel. Extremely well-written and very moving, but nonetheless hard to read.
I suspect that it's the sort of novel where readers will latch on to different aspects. In the edition I read there was a translator's preface which had a very interesting section on the history behind the novel, and then a further section focusing on what the novel was about. During the second part of the book there was a comment by the chief interrogator in which he states that Christianity was unable to take root in the "swamp of Japan" - this, the translator suggested, was the central theme of the book - the "otherness" of Japan, and the way it dealt with outside influences. This became a major topic of discussion in the Japan in which the book was published in the late 1960's. This however was not at all what I thought the book was about - I thought that the central theme was the age-old Christian topic of how do you deal with suffering, and what is perceived as God's response to it.
As the novel draws on Rodrigues becomes less able to deal with the silence of God in response to the suffering of the Japanese Christians, he neither appears to save nor punish. However at the end following his own recantation, Rodrigues comes to believe that God is neither silent nor absent, Rodrigues' own personal struggle, and his attempts to deal with it are, he believes, a reflection of God's own thoughts. A coda to the novel shows Japanese Christians continuing to silently follow their own path of worship.
I actually found the translator's preface quite irritating, with his insistence that there is one form of Christianity alone - as I think any Christian will tell you there are many, many forms. There are certain central tenets, although even those are often up for discussion, and as Christianity has gone into different cultures and countries it has changed dramatically. However Shusaku's theme of the silence of God, and mans' response to it is something that will be recognised by those of a religious bent worldwide (and not just Christians either). Beautiful taut writing and an unforgettable storyline, this would make a great read for a reading circle.