Silence, what a title. It says so much and I was assuming that this novel was about the silence of Catholic priests in Japan during the late 17th century, when the shoguns tried to forbid Christianity on Japanese soil. But in reading the book, it tells more the story of God’s silence in not speaking to one of those Jesuit priests while he was undergoing persecution, imprisonment and torture at the hands of the authorities. The Portuguese Jesuit priest Rodriguez arrives in Japan in 1639 with his companion Fr. Garrpe. They hope to find ‘hidden Christians and minister to them. Rodriquez also hopes to find out what has happened to a former priest, Ferreiri, who was said to have apostatized but whose fate remains a mystery. They are taken to a hidden colony of Christians by Kichijiro, a Japanese Christian who had formerly renounced his faith under torture, and who plays a significant role in the fate of Fr. Rodriguez. The hidden Christians meet secretly with the priests who hear their confessions and receive blessings. Rodriquez and Garrpe must hide in remote areas and only come outside after dark, with no light and very little food, only what the poor peasants can spare. As seems inevitable from the very start, they are soon caught by the authorities and imprisoned. The Jesuits are made to watch as members of their Christian flock are subjected to torture and death. They are told that they can stop the persecution of their flock simply by renouncing their faith, by putting their foot upon a small, crudely made crucifix. Rodriquez longs to be tortured himself so that he may play the role of the Christ by clinging to his god no matter what the cost. But the Japanese authorities are too sly to allow this and Rodiguez’s choices become much more complex.
There is a foreward by Martin Scorsese included at the beginning of my copy of Silence. In it he says, “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.” Scorsese’s movie based on the novel has just been released.