“Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God …. the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
In the mid-1630s, in the regions of Shimabara and Amakusa of Japan, over taxation, famine and religious persecution of the local Christians led to the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising which involved mostly Christian peasants. After the rebellion was defeated in 1638, 37 000 rebels were beheaded and Christianity was banned in Japan. The shogunate suspected the European Catholics to have been involved in this rebellion and trading with Portugal ended at that point.
‘Silence’ is set right after the Shimabara Rebellion, and it follows the story of father Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who sets sail for Japan wishing to help the oppressed Christians there. He also wants to find out the truth regarding his former mentor, father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. He finds it hard to accept this idea but as he arrives in Japan, his own faith will be put to test.
Less than half of the novel is written from a 1st perspective, as a journal of Rodrigues, and the rest is written in the 3rd person and it follows the physical and mental struggles our main character goes through and that will eventually lead him to doubt everything he was taught and believed in.
Rodrigues arrives in a Japan where Christians are forced to practice their religion underground. The suspected Christians are made to step on a ‘fumie’, a carved image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, in order to prove they are not part of the outlawed religion. If they don’t do this, they are tortured until they renounced their faith or otherwise executed. The authorities have also forced the catholic priests still in Japan to renounce their faith by torture, and Rodrigues soon finds out that himself and Garrpe, who travelled with him to Japan, are the only Catholic priests around.
While hiding from the authorities and searching for underground Christian communities there, Rodrigues goes through a lot of hardship and witnesses Japanese peasants being tortured and executed for not renouncing their faith. All the time he is praying to a God that remains ‘silent’ to all the horrors happening around him.
“Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent…?”
He will eventually be put in a situation where he has to decide what is more important to him in the end, his own faith or saving humans lives.
I was a bit nervous going into this book as I knew it was about religion and I was scared it might be praising one religion over the other, but it wasn’t the case. I read it as a psychological novel more than anything. It goes into the mind of a priest that is taken from his normal environment and all his beliefs, everything he was trained for, suddenly lose their meaning in this world. He dreamt of becoming a martyr by coming to this place and ‘saving souls’ but in the end, what he finds is so much different than what he had expected and dreamt of.
“You came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.”
I won’t tell you this book is fun to read, it is not, but it is definitely a book that will leave you thinking and I highly recommend it.
Martin Scorsese has also said that he’s read this book “countless of times” and he has adapted it into a film which I believe was released on the 1st of January this year. I’ve yet to see it but I’ll be looking forward to do so now that I’ve read the book.