As part of my job as a bookseller, I rely on sales representatives from various publishers to tell me of new books coming out which may be of importance to my customer base. It’s very rare for the reps to recommend an old book, but at the start of this year that’s exactly what happened. My attention was drawn to a novel written in 1966 by a Japanese author called Shusaku Endo. I had never heard of him, nor his acclaimed novel ‘Silence’ but the reason for its mention now is that it has been made into a film directed by Martin Scorcese, which is due for release at the start of 2017. I am not a Scorcese fan, and indeed this kind of novel wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but there was something about how this book was put forward to me that I instantly needed to find out more about it. So I ordered in 1 copy, and read it, and it instantly blew me away that even now as I write this blog, I cannot get it out of my head.
‘Silence’ is an historical novel set in the 17th Century, and deals with the persecution of Christians that was happening at that time in Japan. So already I knew we weren’t in for a happy read.
‘It is 1640 and Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealistic Jesuit priest, sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: to abandon his flock or his God.’
‘Silence’ is said to be Endo’s finest novel. He was a practising Japanese Catholic, who had a crisis of faith after falling seriously ill. He travelled to Palestine to research the life of Jesus. The trip transformed his perception of Christianity, and realised that Christ also suffered rejection (Endo had suffered racial-abuse while he was studying in France).
2016 marks the 20th anniversary of Endo’s death, but why would such a book appeal to us now, or even for that matter Martin Scorcese to want to direct a film on it? The novel is precious to Scorcese (maybe in the same way that The Brothers Karamazov was influential to Martin Sheen coming to faith, or Marilynne Robinson embracing Calvinism as a result of reading Moby Dick.) But you’d instantly feel that this type of novel wouldn’t be very Scorceseque in its influence for such a filmmaker. But in fact, this will be Scorcese’s 3rd religious film (his other 2, also novel or writing based, were the controversial 1988 retelling of The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and Kundun- based on the life and writings of Tenzin Gyatso- the 14th Dalai Lama).
In Scorcese’s own words, he states
Silence is the story of a man who learns- so painfully- that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present…even in His silence.
This so-called Silence of God is a pivotal theme throughout the novel. In fact, the word ‘silence’, or ‘silent’, appear 103 times throughout the book. And the use of the word doesn’t just refer to God. It has so many connotations that we in the 21st Century still experience. Troubled silence. Haunting silence. The silence of disappointment. The silence of the night. The mystery of silence. Hidden silence. Deadly silence. The silence of contemplation. Silence because of fear. Eerie silence. Ominous silence. Our silence as we witness something shocking. And then the afore mentioned silence of God. A silence when we sense God isn’t there in our trouble, especially in a world that is full of images of war, persecution and horrors. Even the psalmist expresses feelings of, maybe, anger and frustration towards God.
‘Why Lord do you stand far off?’ Psalm 10:1
‘How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? Psalm 13:1
This sentiment is echoed in one of the most powerful passages in Endo’s novel, which I’ve re-styled in the following poetic nature which I feel the text emphasises to me.
‘The sea and the land were silent as death;
Only the dull sound of the waves lapping against the boat
broke the silence of the night.
Why have you abandoned us so completely?
He prayed in a weak voice
Even the village was constructed for you;
And have you abandoned it in its ashes?
Even when the people are cast out of their homes
have you not given them courage?
Have you just remained silent
like the darkness that surrounds me?
At least tell me why.
We are not strong men like Job
who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial.
There is a limit to our endurance.
Give us no more suffering.
So he prayed
But the sea remained cold
And the darkness maintained
Throughout the book, the question to God about His silence is frequently bestowed, and the pivotal answer does comes at the end. A priest hears God tell him
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’
And so, for these reasons, and others, the book has stayed with me. And from that 1 copy, I ordered more, and it appeared in the shop. And suddenly I couldn’t stop talking about it, and recommending it to others. I wanted them to feel the same way I did, or maybe just to see that it wasn’t just me that was haunted by it. And it turned out I wasn’t alone. So many people told me the same. Some who had read it years before, who already knew of its influence were re-acquainted with it. My decision to stock it also raised questions, probably due to its ending. (It is a shock ending, and one we are not prepared for). At one festival, it sparked off a conversation with someone as to why I had it for sale. And I told them it was because I’d read it. They had heard of it, and debated about buying it online. The fact I had it there cemented the idea that they needed to read it. Even now I’d like to meet him again to find out what he thought of it.
At the start of this year we started a book club jointly with Canteen Kitchen Café on Belmont Road, and it’s there we have our meetings. We’ve spent this year going through the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis. With just one more book to read in the series, we decided to keep if for November which would be during the C.S Lewis festival, a yearly event to mark the month of the author’s birth and death. We needed another book to fill the gap. So I decided on ‘Silence.’ My choice meant that I had to read the book again; a new feat for me to read the same book twice in one year, and to read it with a pen and notebook handy. Once again I’m lost in the beauty of its words, the mystery of its power, my faith forever remaining strong. And the added bonus of discussing it with likeminded individuals who both agree and disagree with elements of it, but share the same feelings- that it is an important, compelling work written in a time despair, about another time of despair, and read in a time of yet further despair and unrest, and that throughout it all, we must try to remain faithful.
‘Our Lord was not silent. Even if He had been silent, my life until this moment would have spoken of Him.’
Please, if you get a chance, give this book a go. It might be one of the most important books you’ll ever read