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A crisis of faith

Silence by Shusaku Endo Picador paperback 267pp 2017, 1966 Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 395 baht

While martyrdom indicates the intensity of belief in, not the truth of, a religion, religious wars have been bloody throughout human history. Though not regarded as a war of religion, six million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust. Christianity in general, Catholics in particular, experienced persecution for centuries.

A plethora of books have been penned on the sufferings of those who refused to stop believing in their god. Despite the cruellest of torture, Catholic nuns chose horrendous deaths instead. Other religions have had their own martyrs for the same reason.

All were brave. Woody Allen wasn't smiling when he said that he could stand anything but pain. Can you imagine the anguish of priests and those not of the clergy forced to make that choice? A 20th century Japanese Catholic wrote a historical novel on the subject.

First published in 1966, Shusaku Endo's Silence is considered a classic in its field. Reprinted several times since, I have the latest, 2017, version. Translated from the Japanese by William Johnston, it includes an introduction by Martin Scorsese, who recently directed a film adaptation.

It is set in the early 17th century, when the Shogun, fearing that the mainly Portuguese missionaries were setting up the island for annexation by Portugal, expelled the lot. Japanese converts were ordered to give up their new faith on pain of death.

Priests refusing to leave were burnt at the stake. Those willing to be deported were refused permission. Give up Jesus Christ or else. They were subjected to barbaric torture to ensure their decision.

Surely unbelievable. Then again, maybe not. A priest was determined to hear it from his own lips and left his homeland for the lion's den. After many adventures, including capture, he meets his mentor. There is much talk about faith, the original 12 disciples, a new look at Judas Iscariot, and the soul-searching new priest also remains. This reviewer found it interesting that no mention was made of the Inquisition during the same period, when non-Catholics filled the dungeons.

 

Dark Forces by Stephen Leather Hodder paperback 424pp 2016 Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops 325 baht

Attacking IS

Cloak-and-dagger writers had no difficulty finding villains for their heroes to best during the 20th century: Germans during World War I, the Japanese and again the Germans during World War II, Russians during the Cold War.

In the 21st century, Russians again and Muslim terrorists. The terrorists take two forms: suicide bombers and those who bomb and then flee. The latter -- IS or Isis (Islamic state) -- are regarded as the more dangerous, as they are the most determined to keep on killing.

The free world rightly devotes much of its resources to countering terrorism. What makes this task difficult is that more than a few terrorists are born in the country they mean to destroy. They look and speak like its average citizens, have no police records. But when ordered to strike, they do.

Fearful of writing about them at first because of retaliation, they have chosen the valour course and are now pulling no punches in IS bashing. Perhaps the foremost author who made the switch is Brit Stephen Leather. And he gives the foe its due. Best to not underestimate the intelligence of IS.

Well-trained, dedicated, sophisticated, IS is a formidable enemy. And what it does best is killing. It keeps its targets secret until the last moment, too, for the counterterrorism agencies to set up the necessary defence. In Dark Forces, Dan "Spider" Shepherd, MI5 undercover agent, is after an IS sniper.

Most of the plot has the UK special agents keeping IS suspects under surveillance, hoping that will lead to the target and the sniper. IS is given credit for its countersurveillance expertise. There's gunplay along the way, a helicopter shot down.

The author is noted for building up tension. He's well-versed in how IS picks and trains recruits. Martyrdom doesn't mean being awarded 72 virgins, but being honoured to stand on Mohammed's right side in heaven.

The target is a filled stadium. Spider and company have only seconds to save thousands in a race against time. Can they do it?

Stephen Leather is critically and popularly praised for his thrillers. A leader in the literary campaign against IS, other scribes are following in his lethal quill strokes.

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