Silence

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Author: Shusaku Endo
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1969 (2016)

Note: This review contains spoilers since the ending is an important part of understanding the novel.

We Christians, like many of different faiths, love to play the martyr. Catholics make the martyrs saints, starting with the very first saint, St. Stephen (although the Holy Innocents are often called saints even though they knew not why there were being killed). The martyrs are those who face death instead of renouncing their faith, showing their belief in God’s word and promise of resurrection.

Shusaku Endo uses this concept as the basis for Silence, an outstanding novel that will make any Christian uncomfortable and let non-Christians in on the depth of faith for most believers. The story is set in 17th century Japan and the persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians). We follow the story, partly by letters, of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues (based on the real life Giuseppe di Chiara) who travels with another priest (Franciso Garrpe) in search of Father Ferreira. Once their beloved teacher, Ferreira is believed to have committed apostasy and the priests want to find him and serve the persecuted Christians of Japan.

For a while the two priests hide together in a hut, but eventually are taken to an island and opt to split up so they have a better chance to succeed in their mission. We follow Rodrigues as he travels a short time before being captured. Much of his time is spent in a prison where he is allowed to offer support to other Christians in jail, but all the time he is wondering when he will be taken to the “pit,” a gruesome torture that is said to have caused Ferreira to renounce his faith.

At one point Rodrigues is taken to a location where he sees Garrpe and other Christians being readied to be taken out to sea and drowned. They are wrapped up so they cannot move and will be dropped into the sea. Rodrigues is told that Garrpe can save the others if he renounces his faith. If he does not, they all die. Endo has changed the martyr narrative from one of giving your life for your faith to sacrificing others for your faith.

“‘Apostatize! Apostatize!’ He shouted out the words in his heart to Garrpe who was listening to the officials” (143). Rodrigues continues to silently encourage Garrpe to do this as all are put out to sea and drowned. Garrpe is now a martyr, but so are three others he could have saved.

Rodrigues’ faith, far from wavering, becomes stronger through this whole ordeal. He is routinely “interrogated” but only in the sense that they try to show him how his faith is either false or at least not one that will work in Japan. Instead, he begins to see Christ heading to the cross or crying tears of blood as he too felt abandoned. He realizes Christ is with him and has suffered as much as he can.

Rodrigues is at last brought to see Ferreira who indeed did apostatize and is now essentially a prisoner of the government. He has been given a house, a Japanese name, and a wife, whether he wants one or not. It is also announced that he is writing a book denouncing Christianity. The fact that he is kept under guard and not allowed to travel signals that even the Japanese believe he has not truly renounced his faith, although he is good to use as an example to others. Rodrigues does not seem to believe that Ferreira has truly renounced his faith, but he does not understand why he lives like he does.

Example of the pit torture
Example of the pit torture

Finally, Rodriques is taken to a urine-soaked cell where his willingness to die for his faith only increases. Indeed, he looks forward to the opportunity and refuses to renounce his faith to his interrogators. Finally, Ferreira is sent to talk with him and Rodrigues discovers the noise he is hearing outside his cell are the moans of those hanging in the pit where they are slowly bled to death. “Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God — he does nothing either” Ferreira tells him (179).

It is the silence of the title. The silence of God when his followers suffer, the silence of a God who does not answer prayers. Should Rodrigues match this silence and suffer a martyr’s death at the expense of three other people suffering? Finally, like Ferreira, he chooses not to let them suffer for his faith and he apostatizes.

He will continue to wrestle with if he made the right choice. “Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith…I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved…I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness”(186).

Or, perhaps, God is not so silent. It reminds me of the old joke about the man who was on the roof of his house during a flood and when a boat came to save him he sent them off saying God would save him. He sends away another boat and then a helicopter — and then drowns. When he gets to heaven he asks God why he didn’t save him. God responds that he sent him two boats and a helicopter, so what more could he do?

Ferreira's tombstone
Ferreira’s tombstone

Perhaps Ferreira and Rodrigues have been truer to their faith then Garrpe, who died a martyr’s death. They now live as an embarrassment to their faith, rejected by their own faith community, and forever imprisoned to serve as an example of the weakness of their faith to the Japanese. But what Rodrigues does learn as he continues to see the suffering Christ is that God may not relieve suffering, but we do not suffer alone. Endo does not provide any easy answers but he challenges those who follow his faith, as he was a Catholic in a modern Japanese culture where his faith was at time persecuted.

The novel has been made into a film three times. First, Masahiro Shinoda Masahiro Shinoda made Silence in 1971. Director Joao Mario Griolo’s Os Olhos da Ásia in 1996 used the novel as a starting point. Finally, Martin Scorsese made a version of the film, also titled Silence, in 2016. I have not seen any of the films, so I offer no recommendations on them. But I highly recommend this incredible novel for everyone.

The Keys of the Kingdom

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Authors: A.J. Cronin
Publisher: Rosetta Books
Publication Date: 1941 (2015)

The Keys of the Kingdom book cover

A. J. Cronin wrote books well positioned in the Catholic tradition, but he does not present a sanitized view of the Christian faith and the challenges it presents to its followers. As a result, this excellent novel manages to delve into the depths of Christianity, show it sins, and still present the reader with hope. And this from a writer who does not fit into the traditional Christian framework.

The novel is set in the late in the 19th and early 20th century and tells the story of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest who discovers that his plans and God’s plans for him are not the same. He finds himself a curate who quietly does God’s work when others do not seem to like it. So, while his childhood playmate (friend would be too strong of a term) finds himself heading off to a glorious priestly career, Chisholm finds himself being sent off to rural China.

Even there he cannot follow the path set for him. While the Church prides itself of the number of converts, Chisholm loses his first converts when he finds out they are Christian because it provides them employment. He then turns down the conversion of a powerful village member who is converting because of medical help Chisholm offered to his family but Chisholm only accepts a conversion that is authentic.

Instead of seeking converts Chisholm decides to serve the village. With the help of some nuns sent to support him, Chisholm builds a mission that offers children an education, takes in the orphans, and feeds the village in times of need. But when a new warlord comes into the area and battles with village forces, Chisholm finds himself in a quandary. He rescues the wounded from the village and the new warlord demands compensation that will destroy the mission and the children and people within it. As a Christian, he is faced with the idea of entering the battle to save his people or to offer no harm, as his faith teaches him, and allow others to be hurt, raped, and/or killed. Either decision means death for others — not to decide is to decide.

It is these types of dilemmas that add such depth to this book. Chisholm is friends with the Presbyterian mission in town, refusing to see them as competition. He also peppers his conversations with quotes from Confucius. His openness to other faiths and denominations raises concerns among the institutional church. Even his greatly simple way of living, although very Christian, is viewed with suspicion.

In the midst of this Chisholm’s childhood “friend” is now his supervisor. While Cronin takes some easy shots at the priest who follows the company line to gain more power, he avoids a weak caricature that is easy to knock over. His characters have depth and he does a great job of creating a complex characters (in other words, realistic) such as Mother Maria-Veronica with whom he has a tempestuous relationship that develops into one of great friendship. No one is perfect in the book but Chisholm’s humility is born out of true faith.

The main story is held together between bookends of Chisholm’s time in Scotland which opens with him as an old priest who shares his story. At the end it returns to Chisholm as an old priest, but now we see him with new eyes.

A great book for Christians to read as it offers a realistic picture of the challenges and joys of faith, and a great book for non-Christians looking for an honest picture of the stumbling followers of Jesus.

A. J. Cronin

A.J. Cronin
Cronin was a Scottish physician who was sent to the countryside for six months to recover from an ulcer. During that time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was such a success he spent the rest of his life writing. He wrote over 30 novels, many of which were made into movies, including the influential The Citadel in 1937 which won the National Book Award in the U.S. Although many of his books deal with the Christian faith, he was for a time agnostic and later came to appreciate the mixed marriage of his Presbyterian father and Catholic mother. You can read more about him here.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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It seems obvious that a writer will love books, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is one that celebrates books. It opens with a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where father and son go for the passing on of a tradition. The young boy is our main character, Daniel, and he learns that in this hidden library “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul” (5). He is to choose one book that he will ensure will live forever and he takes a book he has never heard of, “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax. And then the story takes off.

Daniel has unwittingly entered a mystery as someone is determined to destroy all the books Carax wrote, even though hardly any of his books were sold. He is confronted by a man disfigured by fire who threatens him to turn over the book, but Daniel refuses. He also refuses to sell it to a rare book seller. Instead, Daniel is determined to find out what happened to Julian Carax and why someone wants all the books destroyed.

As the mystery continues, Daniel finds himself questioning his own choices, which begin to look like parts of Carax’s life story. He tries to explain all this to one of the people whose life intersects with Carax and Daniel. While it explains his involvement in this story, it also explains why so many people seek out novels. “I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger” (179).

…I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel…

Zafon

The mystery takes Daniel into another world where sanity is lost, revenge is sought, and evil has power. Zafon takes the reader deep into the world, but loses the thread as some of the mystery becomes obvious. Toward the end of the book he drops in a long letter (over 80 pages) from one of the characters which basically ties up on the loose ends in a way too convenient for a book this well written. Zafon is a great writer and his characters speak in an other-worldly fashion that helps create a nearly magic-realist novel. Even if the mystery is wrapped up too neatly, the shadowy world he creates is an attractive place to spend time.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The novel, published in 2001, is one of the best-selling books of all time and Zafon has followed it up with three novels connected to this one as well as young adult novels. You can learn more about him and his writings at his website.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

behold the dreamersJende Jonga is a dreamer. He has dreams for his own life, but more importantly, that of his family. And in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, he gets a glimpse of where dreams can lead you and realizes that perhaps reality is better.

Jende is from Cameroon (Limbe) and he arrives in New York City to make his way in the land of dreamers. After working hard for two years, his wife, Neni, and son, Liomi, join him. When the book opens they are all in the city and Jende is interviewing to work as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. He gets the job and is exposed to a different world as he drives members of the family around the city. Clark’s wife, Cindy, emerges as a complex and tragic character. Having been raised by a single mom in a dirt-poor household, she knows what she has and she wants to keep it. One son, in college, is almost stereotypic in his rejection of his father’s lifestyle, which, of course, supports him as he rejects it.

 Working for the family, Jende sees the “one percent” in action. While they live the lavish lifestyle, their personal lives are falling apart. Clark is struggling to act professionally honest in the midst of the financial crisis meltdown of 2008 (and his company goes bankrupt), but at the same time, his personal dishonesty creates more of a barrier between him and his wife and sons. Although Mbue presents Jende as a confidant of Clark, he is really no more than a foil for Clark’s musings. Mbue attempts to create a stronger bond between the two, but it is primarily a utilitarian relationship for both of them.

Mirroring this is Neni and Cindy’s relationship, and they connect in their roles as mothers. But in a climactic scene between the two, Neni acts completely out of character. Mbue may want to show us the desperate act of a mother, but she instead shows the willingness of Neni to allow another person to be destroyed in order to advance her and her family’s dreams. Although she talks about the family, it is clear that Neni wants to stay in the U.S. for her own desires even more than that of her family. In many ways, she resembles the Clark family in how she uses other people to meet her personal goals. I don’t think Mbue was aiming for this, but it seems to be a logical connection.

The struggle of being able to stay in the U.S. is an undercurrent in the entire novel. Jende continues to work for and is always worried about citizenship, and reaches a point where he realizes all his work may fall short. While Jende starts to actively think that returning to Cameroon will be better for his family, Neni is using every method at her disposal to keep the family in New York. Jende has seen what the dream fulfilled looks like and realizes that dreams and reality are different. He is not a fatalist, but a realist who sees that his dreams of success may not lie in the direction he was heading. It is the age-old story that material success does not equate with happiness, and Jende’s dream is for happiness.

 

Mbue+author+photo+(c)+Kiriko+Sano

Imbolo Mbue

Mbue succeeds in showing the challenging life of the immigrant without losing hope. But she misses the opportunity to take us more into that existence as most of the action takes place in areas of wealth. We get glimpses of the Jonga’s family life outside of the Clark world, but not enough to get a fuller picture of their day to day struggles. Mbue can capture the reader as her writing style is inviting and the narrative flows. She draws us in and she just needs to focus on where she is taking us. In the end, this is a book worth reading and a writer worth watching. It is not a perfect novel, but it does give a glimpse into an existence most of us do not know.

Imbolo Mbue’s Website

Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary by Josh Bishop

bw-book-coverSheep stolen in the night, people disappearing, rumors of beasts and one boy determined to find out what is going on. This is the underlying plot beneath Josh Bishop’s delightful first novel, Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary. Although aimed at a young-adult readership, the book will delight old-adult readers as well.

 
Pilcrow is an adventurous teenager at a time when villagers get to town in a horse-drawn cart. But it is a society edging into modernity and Pilcrow, like the rest of the villagers, is unknowingly on the cusp of change. Pilcrow, and other children can still wander the fields without fear, yet something lurks in the shadows that introduces fear into the world. And, as it turns out, it is a fear the modern world wants to forget at the expense of living. In addition to the unnamed fear, a stranger arrives in town. Actually, he is called the Stranger for most of the book. Put together, we have the creation of life’s greatest fear — fear of the unknown.

Instead of hiding from this fear, Pilcrow seeks to understand the unknown. Some of the knowledge comes in an unusual book, the “Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary” of the novel’s title. However, Pilcrow also learns from others, including his elders. His relationship with his parents, especially his father, is strong and although he pushes the boundaries (he is a teenager!) he clearly respects their input. He is also surrounded by other adults from whom he learns to live, more by their example than by lectures. The Shepard lives a simple life by choice, Father Chestnut is a priest of wisdom, wit, and width (sorry, couldn’t resist), and Grantham Ken, father of his friend, Alinea, is patient and encouraging.

These relationships are essential as Pilcrow finds out that people will lie and put others at risk just for money and acceptance. While he learns this when visiting the university in a neighboring town, there is also a person, Tayben Rod, like this in the midst of their own village. While he is the wealthiest man in town, he is more accommodated than liked. And in him, Pilcrow learns how not to live.

As Pilcrow goes into the midst of the fear, quite literally when he enters The Bloodwood, he finds that Alinea has preceded him. In other words, we do not need to enter the unknown alone. The tender relationship between this boy and girl is one of trust in the midst of chaos or distrust. Bishop treats their relationship with a respect too few people give to young love and it is a wonderful sub-plot in the novel.

The main plot centers around the fear which is encompassed in one character (I don’t want to give too much away!) who brings death and destruction. Yes, it is a young-adult novel which is willing to show you the cost of ignorance in somewhat graphic scenes. And Pilcrow, with the help of Alinea and others, faces this fear in a climatic finish. They succeed because they trust one another, learn from the past, and seek the wisdom of others.

Bishop has written the classic “page-turner” novel. It was a one day read for me as I kept wanting to see what is next. A sign of a good novel is the reluctance to set it aside. Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary will stay in your hands right to the end.

You cannot find this on Amazon or your local bookstore, yet, so visit the website and order a copy today! You even get to create your own illustrations and can submit them to the website for everyone to see.

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

lark-and-termiteOur connections with others are sometimes obvious, but often we are influenced by people we are not aware of or with whom we see little connection. It is as if absence can be a stronger connector than presence, and in the hands of Jayne Anne Phillips, we find those connectors, not just in people but events.

“Lark and Termite” follows two storylines that connect in ways the participants will never see. The story takes place in the 1950s and focuses on Lark, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and her younger stepbrother, Termite, who is unable to speak or walk. Their mother is the absent Lola, but they are raised by a loving aunt, Nonie, who works at a “greasy spoon” owned by the man she loves but will not commit to. The other story is of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea who does not live to see the birth of his child.

The absence of these parents is as palatable as the presence of those who love and support Lark and Termite. Lark’s birth father is unknown to her and we are not sure what Termite understands. Phillips tells the story through the voices of the different characters, and through Termite, we see a world of wonder and joy. However, his voice is the weakest in the novel not because of the character, but because Phillips lets his voice slip out of character too often. But that is a rare slip in this otherwise strong novel. In fact, Phillips excels in giving an authentic voice to these West Virginian people struggling to make it day to day. They are poor, but they do not focus on their poverty as much as each other. Nonie takes these children in with no complaint and Lark takes care of Termite since he is more comfortable with her than at school. The neighbors are a father and sons abandoned by their wife and mother; they are a hardscrabble lot but they make sure that Lark, Termite, and Nonie are also taken care of. There are no saintly figures in this novel, but there are real people who make mistakes, care for others, and focus on the next day. For Lark and Termite, the community is very present and generally supportive.

But that does not mean Lark never wonders about her absent mother and her unknown father. And for the scenes in Korea, as Leavitt fights for his life, it is with the absence of his wife and the presence of a young girl trying to care for him. We are changed by those with us as well as those far away. Phillips bounces between Leavitt’s story in Korea and Lark’s in West Virginia, and neither one knows the impact they have had on each other even though they never met. Their connection is Lola, and she is absent from both of them at crucial times.

phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips

While Phillips spends a long time (a bit too much) setting up the climax, events at the end unreel at a dizzying pace and in unexpected ways. This is not simply a “slice of life” look at these different people, but a story that is driven to a point where the people must decide their future. Those decisions became both easier and harder because they become more informed of what has been missing. Awareness of an absence becomes a powerful presence.

“The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

24611425Historical fiction is not my usual area of reading, but this book was given to me by a friend whose reading tastes I trust! The struggle I have is that while I think fiction can be the best way to reach the truth, historical fiction places on history ideas and events that may or may not contribute to a greater truth. For example, the writer Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam vet who uses fiction to tell the truth. He uses story truth over happening truth (the usual facts we think of as truth) to get us to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that war. Facts and statistics will not tell you what the experience is like, so he tells stories to create those experiences for the reader. So, you could say he is writing historical fiction. However, it is a history he lived, so he knows the larger truth he is seeking to portray.

In traditional historical fiction, we take historical fact (or historical stories) and write them for today’s world. If they are showing a greater truth about a person or event, we’ll never know since neither the writer nor we have experienced it. So, it is best to focus on the “fiction” of the novel and not confuse it with telling us more about anything that actually happened.

Which brings me to “The Secret Chord.” Brooks is a Pulitzer prize-winning author, and

geraldine-brooks-location

Geraldine Brooks

while this book is not Pulitzer material, it does weave a great tale. She centers around the character of David from the Old Testament. If there was ever a character ripe for storytelling, it is David. We have family, religion, war, adventure, royalty, sex (lots of sex), fratricide, incest, rape, betrayal, murder, massacres, and even a giant (or, at least a big guy). And that is all in the Bible! Brooks takes off some of the innuendo and fills in the gaps, creating a rather difficult read if you take your Bible seriously (as I do). Of course, her details beyond the Bible are completely fictional, but she is trying to give us a glimpse of this complicated man. And, where she succeeds is that we see David as a flawed man who loves God. That, in a nutshell, is David. And, God loves him despite all his faults. We see all this through Natan, the prophet of David’s time and one of David’s closest friends. Natan is both attracted and repelled by David, as is the reader.

 

A plot summary is unnecessary as she follows the well-known story from the Bible (and, since she is a Jewish writer, for Brooks this is “the Book”). Does she succeed? If the goal is to take off the varnish and show us the context for David the man, then, yes. Whether she is accurate or not is another story, but then I refer back to the idea of “happening truth” and allow for fiction to point us to a greater truth.