Silence by Shusaku Endo is an intense, personal exploration of faith and a meditation on Japan and Japanese christianity. It’s no wonder then that Endo is known as the Graham Green of Japan, an author who similarity broods on the mysteries of (Catholic) faith. I’m thinking here of The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, books that center around a man in a sticky situation wrestling with faith.
Set in late 17th century Japan, after the golden age of Catholic expansion and influence had come to an end and persecution was the order of the day by Japanese authorities, this is the story of the last Catholic priest and his apostasy. To provide some historical background, the Portuguese established Nagasaki in 1570 and proceeded to get rich as the middleman of the silk trade between China and Japan. At the height of Jesuit power and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Japan was the target of serious missionary work, and at one point there was thought to be over 400,000 converts. This all came to a close as the Tokugawa Shogunate established itself and in part an effort for social homogeneity, effected not only the sealing off of Japan to the outside world, but a brutally effective campaign to snuff out Catholicism. The appeal of Catholicism in Japan was based on the misery of the peasants, often treated as less-than-human. I think it’s fair to say that Catholicism has had an appeal in all feudal societies.
Father Rodriguez, the main character, travels to Japan to investigate the apostasy of Father Fierria, the last ranking Father in Japan. After an arduous journey, he meets a strange Japanese man in Macao who guides Rodriquez to some still-believing Japanese peasant villages. Initially things go well, but Rodriguez is eventually captured by the samurai and begins his own personal Calvary. Rich in dazzling caparisons to the Biblical story of Jesus, the conclusion is complex and complicated. Some readers will find it deeply fulfilling, others will be less happy with it.
I would not call this book “enjoyable” but it certainlly is interesting and works on the level of personal faith but also on the cultural level of “why did Catholicism not take root in Japan?”