Shusaku Endo is considered one of the world's great writers and I had never heard of him till I heard him mentioned on the BBC's program Open Book (siShusaku Endo is considered one of the world's great writers and I had never heard of him till I heard him mentioned on the BBC's program Open Book (side note, this is a good show, if kind of highbrow. And it's available for free on iTunes. I love the BBC.) Their recommendation encouraged me to pick this book up. Otherwise I would never had heard of it and if I had, I'm not sure I would have been anxious to seek out the story of the misadventures of some Portugese missionaries in 17th century Japan. Happily, this was a good, thoughtful book and relatively short.
Endo was a Catholic himself which makes the book doubly interesting, especially since he chose to write it from the perspective of a young Portugese priest. Endo often felt himself an outsider in his culture due to his religion. He also suffered from tuberculosis for many years. The story is based on historical events and figures from the early 17th century when the Japanese feudal government was tiring of foreign meddling in their country and Catholicism in particular. A group of three priests has set out to Japan from Libson to find their old teacher who has disappeared amidst rumors he has apostasized. This is no small undertaking since Catholics have been banned from the country and those that remain are being rounded up and tortured. No surprise, things don't go well. What I liked about the book is that Endo was able to make the story come alive. I really felt the immediacy of the events as they unfolded and Endo clearly used the voice of the main character to thrash out his own doubts and ponder what he would do in that situation. And because of that, so will you regardless of your feelings about missionary work and proselytizing. I also knew nothing about this period in Japanese history therefore much Googling resulted. I learned, among other things, that Nagasaki was actually founded by the Portugese and the Wikipedia article on it will give you much of the historical background of the book, including a map of the route the missionaries would have taken from Lisbon to Nagasaki. I also learned you can kill lice by taking your clothes off and crushing them with rocks.
I had to get this from my library via an interlibrary loan but there is a new edition coming out with a preface by Martin Scorsese (!) who is evidently making this into a movie. It might be easier to find soon. ...more