Shusaku Endo’s novel ‘Silence’ is not for the weak-willed

Megan Hanner

In December of last year, the film adaptation of “Silence” by the famed Japanese author Shusaku Endo hit the big screen. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the big-budget film brought the novel to life on a large scale for the first time since its publishing in 1966.

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Picador Modern Classics cover of Shusaku Endo's "Silence." Photo credit: Megan Hanner

“Silence” is classified as a historical fiction novel. This means that although the story is not completely true, the time in which it takes place was a true part of history. “Silence” transports the reader back to the 17th century during a time in which Christianity was an “outlawed religion” in Japan. The Japanese government actively sought out priests, missionaries and those that practiced the religion. Threats of imprisionment and torture were used in order to force people to abandon their religion.


“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit monks who make the decision to travel to Japan during this harrowing time of persecution. After hearing the news that their old mentor was tortured into leaving their faith, they immediately leave their home country of Portugal to find him. They make the decision knowing full well of the dangers they could encounter. What ensues is a gut-wrenching story of losing hope and challenging faith.

The book does a fantastic job of setting the reader up to enter Endo’s world. The Forward and the Translator’s Preface explain in detail the historical context needed to appreciate the novel. Although it may by tempting to skip over them, it would be detrimental to the reader’s experience to do so. Having the full knowledge of the historical context of the book adds a monumental amount of understanding to the world in which Endo is taking the reader.

A lot of things can be said about “Silence,” but the main thing to know is that this book is not for those who cannot handle violence. Many parts of the book are extraordinarily hard to read. Graphic depictions of torture and persecution are common in this story. Those that cannot handle themes like these should avoid “Silence.”

Do not let the size of the book fool you. Though the book itself is pretty small at 204 pages, the intense subject matter can make it feel as if one page takes hours to read. For the first half, the book takes the form of letters written by one of the monks, Sebastian Rodrigues. Endo’s eloquent writing puts the reader in Rodrigues’ shoes as he struggles to keep his faith when all the cards are stacked against him and continues to do so when the narrative changes halfway through the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing about “Silence” is that the reader doesn’t have to be of a particular faith to appreciate it. Though the novel centers around Christian persecution, the overall message is just how strong the human spirit can be. “Silence” is a true testament to what humans are capable of in the midst of chaos and injustice.

The novel does not preach a certain belief system, however, it details the obstacles that come with believing. The loss of hope and insurmountable challenges to all that a person believes in is a theme that can be found across all cultures and faiths.

Should you read it? Maybe.

Endo’s “Silence” is a story that is riddled with pain, torment and death. It challenges the soul to imagine what it would be like to be in the same situation as the characters in the book. If a reader is looking for a fun or light read, “Silence” is not it. If a reader, however, is looking for deep life-affirming novel, “Silence” might do it for you. Although darkness is prevalent in this book, the light and perserverence of the human spirit can be found in it as well. It all depends on the reader.