I demand a lot of the books I choose to read. Over the last decade my reading has become more directed–possibly narrower. When I reviewed books for a newspaper, I read widely: biographies, memoirs, literary fiction, history, commercial fiction. While I still read from all of those categories, most often I’ll read literary and commercial fiction, or historical biographies. There are some research books, too. Time is an issue. That’s a rather long way of saying that I’ve become very particular.
Even as I write this, I know I’ll finish Silence by Shūsako Endō.* I might even finish before I go to bed tonight. There are so many things about the book I’m predisposed to like: Japan! History! Moral quandaries! Faith journeys! Torture! (Okay, not torture so much as danger.) Excellent writing! Yes, I’m being a bit silly about it. It’s a fairly simple book on its surface: two Portuguese Jesuits secretly enter hostile Japan (17th century) in order to both spread the faith and find their teacher, Father Ferriera, who, it has been reported, apostatized, and is either dead or lost. The story quickly comes to belong to one of the Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues. Most of the first half of the book is comprised of his letters to his superiors, and the rest–after his capture–is told in third person, or in government documents. Martin Scorsese currently has a film out based on the book, so I won’t spoil it for you, in case you go to see it. (William Johnston’s preface describes the exquisitely horrifying tortures that Christians in Japan faced to compelling effect. It turned me off of going to see the film.)
As I read it, I wonder if I have become unused to being so affected by individual lines of prose. Or maybe I no longer have the attention span to appreciate truly difficult work. (I started it more than 6 weeks ago.) Or maybe I no longer have the stomach for a story that contains so much suffering. That I might not distresses me. The message of Silence is stated in its foreword. I don’t have to read the details if I just want to know how the story ends.
Today, I found myself tearing up as I listened to the last lines of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I wasn’t sure I liked it all that much at first. It’s not a pretty story. Vengeance is never pretty, and her protagonist, Felix/Prospero, starts out crazy, cold, and unlikable. But it is a story told by a great writer who fits it over the frame of a story written by a genius, and it ends in a wedding, so we know all is well, and our Prospero learns his lesson without having to suffer too much. Even in its unprettiness, the book has a comforting shape, and I was able to wrap myself in it as though it were a warm blanket.
Silence is not a warm blanket. It’s a hair shirt of a book. But while I sometimes catch myself playing the martyr, I think that reading every word of it is not a martyrdom. It feels like it’s a kind of mission. Rodrigues, up to the point I’ve reached, is serious, but not a man of great depth. I dislike his arrogance, but a journey to true humility is a tough one to watch, let alone participate in–and great writing makes the reader a participant. Maybe it just feels too personal. Hits too close to home. It makes me wonder about my own arrogance. My own journey. Ugh. I hate when that happens. “Self-examination is hard,” says Barbie.
Thank you for letting me work this out here. Time to finish the book.
Have you ever not wanted to finish a book because it cut too deep?
*(Picador has put a new cover on it to reflect the film, but this one is better IMO.)
January 31 Words
Journal: 300 words
Long fiction: 0 words
Short fiction: 0
Non-fiction: 0 words
Blogging: 643 words
Exercise: 35 minutes treadmill, 10K+ steps. (But then totally blew it with restaurant herb rolls, way too much chocolate, and 1/3 bag of stress-relieving Goldfish Crackers. At least the salmon I had for dinner was healthy.)