Book Review: Silence by Shūsaku Endō

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Silence by Shūsaku Endō / ★★★★☆

Summary: Seventeenth century Portuguese priest Sebastian Rodrigues sets sail for Japan, where Christians are being brutally prosecuted, in the hopes of spreading his mission and finding his old teacher, who is rumored to have renounced his faith in the face of torture. When Rodrigues finds himself faced with the realities of prosecution himself, the decisions he must make are worse than he could have imagined.

Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Plot

Oh my…where to begin with this book?  Silence presents a brutal examination of not only Christian faith, but faith itself, of religion and culture, courage and cruelty, strength vs. weakness, vanity and martyrdom – and more. Silence is not very long at all, just over 200 pages, but it was packed with an incredible amount of substance. I feel like this book deserves an essay from me rather than a review.

This is not a fun book, but it is a fascinating book, particularly if you have an interest in religion more so than its historical content. This book does not aim to analyze history as much as it does religious faith. This book is no easy read, either. Unless you have specific knowledge of Japan’s early Christian history, this is one of the few books I’ve read that requires you to read its preface and its forward so you can learn it, simply because if you skip it, getting into the story will be very difficult because the book does not provide that context for you. Basically, you need to do your homework before you jump into the story, and to be honest it did make it difficult for me to get into this book. Getting past the first chapter – really centering myself in the area of history and mindset of the narrator – was difficult, but once I did, the story was much easier and interesting to read. This book definitely felt like a “school book,” one I might easily have read in a history or English class. It dealt much more with theme and concept than it did actual story and plot.

I read this book as someone with a fairly good knowledge and deep interest of Christianity, and I don’t think this book would have been half as interesting to me if I’d read this a few years ago, when I didn’t have as much of an interest in these things (not that previous knowledge about Christianity is necessarily required to understand this book!). I love when books go hard with religion, and this book hit very hard – so, naturally, I loved it. Particularly, I loved how it dealt with the question of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, and who has always been fascinating to me. Why did he do what he did, and how? Was he just a pawn? How did he feel? How did he choose to do what he did? How did Jesus regard him, truly? This book shed a fascinating light on Judas, and it was my favorite aspect of this book.

I also loved how this book dealt with the the concept and the action of martyrdom- of Christian martyrdom, of Jesus’ martyrdom, of martyrdom for any kind of faith at all. Endō shed particular light on the vanity of martyrdom and the harsh realities of it, and honestly I found it humbling to read. As the reader, it was obvious that these concepts, ideas, questions, and answers were burning in the heart of the author.

If I was rating this completely on a critical level, I’d give it five stars. This book left an impression on me, and I thought it was an amazing and deep exploration of faith. But it was a dense book, the actual story and plot were slow, and there were periods in this book that I found myself slogging through the pages. So on an enjoyment level, I need to dock a star.

If you have an interest in religion and specifically Christianity, I’d say this book is definitely worth a read.

Characters

This book centers around the account of Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues and several other historical figures from this period of time, but focuses on two characters in particular, Rodrigues himself and a Japanese man, Kichijiro.

Rodrigues starts out as a naive, idealistic priest who can’t imagine what it would take to apostatize his faith, and his development over the course of the book, the hardships he faces as he comes to realize exactly what it does take, is fantastic.

Kichijiro was my favorite part of this book. He acted as Rodrigues’ guide, his companion, his foe, and his foil. Introduced first as Rodrigues’ guide to Christian Japan, Kichijiro time and time again is forced to apotatize- and does it. And time and time again, he comes back, claiming himself a Christian. Kichijiro was the most intriguing part of this book, and he would be a fascinating character study. I loved stopping and trying to piece him out, and I love what he represented throughout the book.

Writing

The copy of this book I read was a translation from the original Japanese, and while it was a short book, it was densely written, and it was difficult to read for long periods of time, so it took me a few days to get through.

The format of this book is very unique. The first half of the book is written in first person, told in letters written by Rodrigues, and it was written so authentically that I had to double check that this book was in fact fiction. Midway through the book the narration turns over to third person, and the writing changes subtly yet drastically- I don’t know how else to describe it. The tone tone of the book remains perfectly consistent, but once the author turns over to third person, the writing is much smoother, more descriptive, easier for the eyes to read, as if the sudden distance makes it easier to breathe once farther from Rodrigues mind. And yet slowly, it begins to narrow again. It was great writing.

Was I satisfied?

Yes. The only thing is, it gives SO MUCH I almost don’t know what to do with it all. This book was very, very rich and if you have an interest in religion or faith in general, it’s definitely worth a read.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Silence by Shūsaku Endō

  1. Oh wow, this one sounds really intense! This has been on my radar for a while but for some reason I hadn’t officially added it to the TBR until the other day. Thanks for the thorough review and the tip to not skip the intro – I’ll admit I’m guilty of doing that quite a bit, but it sounds like it contains crucial information! I’m not sure how I’ll fare with this as someone who isn’t terribly knowledgeable about Christianity – but I do find it fascinating so I definitely want to give this a shot at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I almost alway skip the intros, and if not I usually just skim them…oops. I’m usually too eager to get the to book. And sometimes I find they reveal spoilers or start analyzing the book anyway. The copy I read had a forward by Martin Scorsese and he did start going into spoilers, so at a certain point I stopped reading what he wrote. But the actual historical preface I’d definitely read! Just beware Martin Scorsese’s forward lol.

      I don’t think you necessarily need to be knowledgable about Christianity to understand or appreciate this book- just interested in it! I only brought it up my previous knowledge about it in my review because this book addressed certain topics and questions about Christianity I’d had previously, so I think it added to my experience, but I don’t think not having a lot of knowledge about Christianity would take away from it!

      Liked by 1 person

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