This story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan is affecting on many levels. The first is the beauty and economy of the writing and the translation. The darkest parts of the narrative are set in beautiful prose. I was also struck by the affection with which the early narrator and protagonist, Rodrigues, describes the villagers among whom he is living. They exist in the deepest poverty but they provide for and shelter Rodrigues and his companion Garrpa.
Second, the historical details are abundant and helpful and do not get in the way of the story. Rodrigues is based on a historical figure who . Rodrigues and his companions have a goal of finding a second historical figure, Ferreira, who is believed to have apostatized. The lives of the fictional characters revolve around historical figures in the places where those figures lived and moved.
Third, there is Kichijiro, a Judas-Iscariot-meets-Gollum character who follows Rodrigues through the entire story. He elicits as much response from Rodrigues, and such a broad range of response, as any other character or event in the story. He befriends, he connives, he betrays, he survives, he falls and repents again and again. He tests the capacity of Rodrigues to forgive, and in the end he calls out of Rodrigues his true sense of his calling as a priest as he asks Rodrigues to hear his confession and grant absolution.
Fourth is the role of silence. The God who brought Rodrigues to Japan is silent as the persecution of the believers grows. The ocean that brought Rodrigues is silent as well. Is Rodrigues expecting aid from or by way of the ocean?
Fifth is the role of faith and doctrine in the story. The Japanese officials insist that Christianity cannot survive in a pure form in Japan. That’s probably true of Christianity in any time and place. It becomes absorbed into the culture. In my lifetime in the Western hemisphere I’ve seen Jesus visualized as the theist Che Guevara of liberation theology, or as a bandana-wearing hippie of the Jesus-People movement. More recently we’ve seen Jesus arm wrestling a Halloween-costume Satan in a social media meme for some battle or other in our contemporary culture wars. Rodrigues seems to understand that God does not change even though how we see and approach God might.
If you are looking for a beautifully written, thought-provoking, albeit somber book to read this winter, Silence might be a good choice.
Thanks as always for stopping by!