Started: 10th of July
Finished: 25th of July (I had quite large break in the middle while I was out of the country)
Why did I choose it?
For a start, I haven’t read or engaged with nearly enough Japanese fiction. It might even be none (unless you count watching Memoirs of a Geisha a lot. No? Fair enough). There is so much amazing stuff that’s come out of Japan, and I’ve tried to make sure it’s well-represented on the master list, but my reading history doesn’t really include anything so far. That is frankly criminal.
When looking around for books, I read a lot of blurbs to make my decisions, and this one’s premise, the story of a Portuguese Catholic priest in Japan in the 17th century, just grabbed me. I had no idea that the Catholics had even *had* a mission to Japan at that time, and my tiny knowledge of Japan’s history only makes me want to learn more. I am fascinated by the forms that Christianity takes everywhere, and Japan provides some amazing history on that score. All in all, it ticks a huge number of boxes in terms of Books That Might Interest Me, and boy oh boy did it deliver.
What I liked
Where do I even start on this question? In short, I loved everything. This book is phenomenal. I have rarely been hit so hard simultaneously in the head, gut, and heart by something I’ve read.
For a start, the writing style is very different to a lot of the things I like. It’s very stark, brilliantly understated, and yet doesn’t fall short of the story it’s telling. The narration (this was another audiobook) put this across perfectly, relating Rodrigues’ escapades without melodrama or banality. It had the feel of someone who needs to tell a story that hurts them, a labour of love both to write and to tell. It’s magical and disturbing.
Aside from the events of the book, the questions of human nature and religious belief that it raises are dealt with sensitively and critically, whilst never turning the book from a novel to a treatise on the matters at hand. Like Farenheit 451, it makes you think about things without telling you it’s going to do so. This contrasts with the visceral drama of the experience of Christians in Nagasaki, the torture, the forced apostasy, and the psychological cruelty of the Inquisitor to make a book that knocks the wind out of you.
For me, the most striking thing was the discussion of Rodrigues’ reluctant waverings between agnosticism and his Christian faith. This is largely because I have been having these exact waverings myself for at least the last 10 years, and the book traced a lot of the same processes in Rodrigues’ thinking that have happened, and are still happening in my own. The problematic nature of Christianity when imposed on native peoples elsewhere was hugely thought-provoking, and made the authorities’ actions almost comprehensible but for the sheer level of cruelty inflicted. The breaking of Christ’s silence was heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil how it happens for those who’ve not read it, but it’s just devastating to have watched Rodrigues go through so much and end up where he does.
What I didn’t like
Not much really. I watched the Martin Scorsese film based on this book while also reading it, so I’d got to the end of the story by watching the film before I heard it on the audiobook. That had a very neat, satisfying ending as to where Rodrigues’ faith was at the end of his life, but I can understand that providing that in the book wasn’t necessary. I’m not so great with subtle clues in books, and my need for the occasional obvious, straightforward statement does sit at odds with the style of the book in places. The space this gives for thought was great, but in the whirlwind of the story, there weren’t many points on which to settle, take a breather, and then enter into the next scene. I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing, which I think is one of the amazing things about this book – it doesn’t walk along the usual lines of “good” and “evil”, but works in shades of grey between the two. Even the unspeakable evil of the Inquisitor is somehow justified in his rational, calm explanation of why he’s doing what he’s doing, which just makes him all the more disturbing.
Will I read this again?
I need to. This is one of those books that will keep giving every time I read it. It’s just stunning. At just under 8 hours of audio, which includes a long foreword from Scorsese, it’s half the length of the first Lord of the Rings book, and the same length as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but it packs in a huge amount of drama and thought. Even now, a few days after finishing it, I’m still unpacking it and working out, and I will be for a while.
I fell into the trap of asking this last time and failed a wee bit. After finishing this, I tried to carry on with Three Daughters by Consuelo Saah Baehr, but I’m finding it a little slow for my current fatigued state. I guess I’ll just work it out as I go – I have some long journeys and big tasks to do at home, so there’ll be something to listen to if I want! I have too many books to choose from, which I guess is the difficulty of a challenge like this. If you’ve any recommendations for what next, pipe up!