Silence, by Shusaku Endo (also here)
Silence isn't a pleasure read, any more than you read The Power and the Glory or Heart of Darkness just for fun. But Terry Glaspey and Philip Yancey both said I should read this book, so I took it out of the library.
I avoided starting it. I left it to the bottom of the stack as long as I could. Finally I read it.
Even in translation, Silence is an excellent book, though so difficult to continue reading. The characters are strong, and the technique of writing much of the book as letters works; in fact, I think that the first-person parts of the book work the best. (The last section shifts to the third person.)
The main character is Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit of the 17th century, who arrives in Japan interested not so much in converts as he is in looking for news of his seminary professor, Ferreira, who is said to have apostatized after being tortured. (Reminds me a bit of Conrad's character looking for Kurtz.) Things rapidly go from bad to worse for Rodrigues. The Christian peasants he encounters are starving and terrified; the government has a "zero tolerance" policy on Roman Catholicism and particularly on priests. After a period of hiding and running, Rodrigues is arrested, and from that point on he is pitted, physically, psychologically, and spiritually against one man: Inoue, the magistrate and leader of the anti-Christian forces. That's good storytelling; the strongest battle stories always come down to one on one.
And that's the toughest part of this story for Rodrigues; he, reasonably, starts to feel like he is facing all of this on his own, without any help from God. He sees few miracles, and much to make him doubt. Why does God seem to be silent?
Silence is about the impact both the evangelization and the persecution have on a particular society. It's about how someone's pride and faith are torn to the point of allowing him to do what he never thought he could stoop to do: apostatizing (denying his faith). (I'm not giving much away here, all you have to do is read the endpapers.) Endo suggests an alternative interpretation: perhaps the act of apostatizing, in this situation, was actually an act of faith.
Japanese Catholics criticized Silence when it was first published. They didn't want to read about a fallen priest; they would have preferred to hear about martyrs and glorious deaths. Others took the theme of the book to be the problem of Christianity as a Western faith being imposed, unsuccessfully, on Eastern minds. Endo insisted that he was writing literature, not theology, and I don't think he was wrong about that, although many theological discussions could come out of the book.
Finally, there's an extra reason to read this book soon. The only film version was made in Japanese in 1971; but Martin Scorsese has a new version in production, starring Daniel Day Lewis and planned for release in 2010.