Wow – I have just finished reading Shusaku Endo‘s historical novel Silence.  I know that the story will stay with me for a long time. Powerful and haunting. I strongly recommend it as a good Lenten read.

Its main theme is the silence of God in the face of the terrible suffering of Japanese Christians in the face of a brutal persecution by their own government. However perhaps this is misleading. Without wishing to spoil the book,  if you read it carefully it seems that God is not silent – the main character having a few mystical experiences in which God’s presence, encouragement and love have a deep effect on him. So silent or not – maybe the question should be : Do we have the ears to be able to listen and recognise the divine – or are we’ God-deaf?’   In this way it reminds me of another excellent book I read a long time ago – Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.

Cover of "Touching the Void"

Cover of Touching the Void

Like Silence this is also a true story, about a famous British Mountain Climber. Climbing with a friend in a remote part of the Andes – Simpson broke his leg – a almost fatal development in such a remote and harsh place. Needing to descend quickly with bad weather closing in and daylight fading  Simpson’s friend inadvertently lowered him off a cliff.  He could not see or hear Simpson; he could only feel that Simpson had all his weight on the rope. Simpson could not climb up the rope, and his friend could not pull him back up. It looked like they would both die so his friend had an excruciating ethical dilemma –  in the end he has to cut the rope in order to save his own life whilst almost certainly sending his friend to his death.  Simpson plummeted down the cliff and into a deep crevasse but amazingly survived – and having been given up for dead – he crawled back to base camp to arrive just as his friend was burning his clothes and getting ready to depart.

What intrigued me most about this book was that first night that Simpson spent on the ledge in the crevasse.  Staring death in the face Simpson said he touched the void that night – God seemed silent or indifferent and this experience became the basis of his atheism. It might seem to be incredibly presumptuous to disagree with this interpretation. Of course – Only Simpson was there on that terrible night. But by writing a book about it I think he allows us to share his experience in an intense and intimate way.  In his absorbing account of the subsequent events, it is clear that there are two voices in his head.  One telling him to give up – lie down – and let exhaustion and sleep takeover. But there is another voice that keeps urging him on – telling him to get up. maybe that was the voice of God – whether acknowledged or not. Voices of consolation and desolation, voices of death and life.

Both books are rated as classics – Silence in Japanese literature, Touching the Void in Mountain Literature.  A word of caution for Martin Scorsese who is working on a film version of Silence.  I think the book Touching the Void  is much better that the subsequent film was.

…… Of course Scorsese reads this blog!!