This is not a happy book or a comfortable book. It is a work of historical fiction set in the 17th century. A Portuguese priest travels to the tortured and persecuted Christians of Japan. Endo masterfully charts the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey of the priest as he experiences hospitality, deception, poverty, faith, doubt, torture, manipulation, courage, and death.
What was most provocative was Endo’s ability to capture the gradual stripping of the priest’s arrogance and confidence in his position and mission to his humbling restoration of belief. In the priest’s narrative he connects his own suffering with that of Christ’s final hours in an effort to find comfort. But it is his confrontation with the Judas of the Christian story, a Japanese Christian who apostatized, and his own anti-climactic apostasy where he finds some semblance of an answer, or reason, or understanding.
The silence of the title refers to so much that is not known or heard or felt. It is most keenly understood as the priest’s interpretation of God as silent. When the answers that the priest brings with him from Portugal about suffering fall by the wayside one-by-one in the face of brutal reality, the question is stark: God, why are you silent? Endo does not trifle in subtlety. His story is clear, the arguments are relentless and overwhelming at times, the situation is desperate, and the themes drive the story.
Endo juxtaposes the use of silence with the imagery of the eye. The priest wrestles with what God’s face looks like. How he imagined it looked, how the Japanese imagined it looked, how the fumie looked, how he sees it in the end.
The senses are always on alert in Silence. Perhaps the proximity of the narrative and situation to physical torture and distress naturally heightens sensitivity to these areas, but Endo focuses intently on them in every page. Our senses are our physical abilities to understand the world. We give them precedence over all else to this end, but the silence that haunts the priest’s experiences cannot be answered by hearing or seeing.
For any reader, it is not an easy book to digest. For Christians, there is much to absorb through the lens of faith and history. The role of missional work, belief and faith in the face of suffering and silence, mercy and faithfulness, and the weight of motive to balance respect for leadership in the church and personal ambition. Graciously, it is about 200-pages long. Reading Silence will not take long, but wrestling with the questions will continue long after the novel has been set aside.