This is a Japanese novel, translated by William Johnston, written by a famous writer, who was baptised into the Catholic religion. Endo has been aptly described as a Japanese Graham Greene.
The book is about the futile efforts of Portuguese missionaries to sustain the Christian communities in Japan after the official policy of suppression of Christianity was in full swing. It follows the personal experience of one particular priest and his personal suffering and the suffering he inadvertently causes to those to whom he ministers. He and they are tortured and urged to apostatise. Gruesome tortures are described in detail.
The book is fascinating and important for several reasons. It illuminates the mixing and clash of cultures, which was an immense chasm of difference in the 16th Century between feudal, isolationist Japan and the expansionist, energetic West. The macro historical picture explains events in terms of winning trade routes, wealth and influence. However Endo concentrates on the amazing personal bravery and sacrifices made my individual priests. In the end the protagonist has no personal possessions, wearing lice-ridden peasant clothes and eating whatever he was given.
The ‘silence’ referenced in the title is very profound. The priest prays to God and hopes for some tangible improvement in the lives of his flock, but there is no response from God. There is a complete silence, which undermines the faith and sanity of the priest. God seems completely indifferent, even harsh and absurd. (The book was published in 1966 in the midst of the Western theatre’s obsession with absurd drama, of which he was well aware). Like Graham Greene’s priest in ‘The power and the glory’, the priest is admirable, but their efforts appear ultimately futile. Greene ekes out a little salvation, but Endo chooses a sad, tragic, deflating ending with no salvation.