Side of Silence
The Other Side of Silence is André Brink’s fifteenth novel in English. The South African novelist has long been known as a committed Afrikaans writer, who started translating his own novels into English when Kennis van die Aand was censored, in 1973.
Since the end of apartheid, Brink has moved on to a different kind of fiction, freeing himself from the burden of committed literature. His most recent novels all endeavour to explore Southern Africa’s history, with particular emphasis on the aspects that were erased by the Afrikaner regime. The aim is always to restore what has been lost, that is to say, the voices of the losers of history: women, the Khoisan people, slaves... As Brink himself puts it in an article about literature in the “New” South Africa: “History, even in the most traditional sense of the word, is not composed only of texts (written and otherwise), but strung together from silences. And this, it seems to me, is what primarily attracts the novelist (as it originally attracted the historiographer?)” [“Reinventing a Continent,” in Reinventing a Continent. Writing and Politics in South Africa, Cambridge [Ma.], Zoland Books, 1998, p. 240].
As its title clearly suggests, The Other Side of Silence is precisely a novel about the silences of history. The title echoes a quote from Middlemarch which Brink has chosen as an epigraph to the novel: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
The novelist takes us with him to “the other side of silence”: he tries to recapture Hanna’s voice, which, like the sounds of the broken piano in the Grubers’ farmhouse, “must still be somewhere. If only one could find it” [p. 198]. The parallel is suggested by Hanna herself, in a conversation with young Katja: “It’s like what you said about the piano, remember? Those sounds are still somewhere. We are somewhere. And someone must find out about us and hear our sounds” [p. 200]. Hanna’s voice has been silenced by violence and colonization: it is clearly—maybe too clearly—suggested by the fact that her tongue has been cut out.
The first-person narrator therefore undertakes to tell the story of anonymous, forgotten, voiceless Hanna X, to make up for all the evils that were inflicted on her: “I believe more and more that as a man I owe it to her at least to try to understand what makes her a person, an individual, what defines her as a woman” [p. 153]. This is strongly reminiscent of what the author himself said in a recent interview:
The heroin, aptly called Hanna X, is the voice which the author tries to hear, and to make us hear too. Born in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, she grows up in an orphanage in Bremen, then goes into service for a few years before being transported to the colony of German South West Africa along with other young women destined to become the wives of the colonists. But everything goes wrong, and as she refuses to obey the man she was allotted to, he rejects her; she is then tortured and raped by brutish German soldiers who are travelling on the same train. After this, she is sent to Frauenstein, a house planted in the middle of the desert where women like her can live quietly, far away from the violence of men. One day, soldiers come, and with their arrival violence starts all over again. But this time, Hanna decides she does not want to be a victim anymore: taking her young friend Katja with her, she crosses the desert to find the man who has maimed her for life, Hauptmann Böhlke, and to avenge herself. A few other victims of colonization, women and Nama warriors, join them in their quest. Identifying with one of her favourite heroines, Jeanne d’Arc, Hanna convinces them to wage their own war on German soldiers.
“She hasn’t always looked like this” [p. 3]: the first pages of the novel show Hanna looking at herself in a mirror, taking stock, for the first time in years, of her horrendous physical aspect, of the wrongs that were inflicted on her by men and by society. The chronology is not straightforward, and the whole novel revolves around this turning point. In the first part, Hanna recalls all that has happened to her until this key moment, at Frauenstein, when she stands in front of the mirror after killing a man for the first time. The second part takes us from Frauenstein to Windhoek, where Hanna hopes to find Hauptmann Böhlke.
Brink’s attempt at hearing “the other side of silence” is not always successful: as several critics have pointed out, some characters and situations are quite stereotypical, and Hanna herself sometimes seems to be too much of an epitome of abused women, and too little of a full-fledged individual. All the people who have power—great or small—over her are nasty, evil, or at least indifferent: at the orphanage in Bremen Pastor Ulrich and Frau Agathe both abuse her, punishing her for every little mistake she makes and teaching her that her genitals are “the site of evil” [p. 61]; they even come close to killing her: after discovering her reading Goethe’s Young Werther, they devise such a severe punishment that she almost dies of pneumonia. In the same way, nearly all the soldiers in the novel are evil, cruel and violent. Even Frau Knesebeck, the woman in charge at Frauenstein, does not read Hanna’s account of what happened to her: to Hanna, writing “has become the only way open to her to grope through the wall of silence surrounding her, reaching out to someone out there who may respond. There must be someone, something, at the other side” [p. 87], but Frau Knesebeck does not read, cannot read, and even if she did it would make no difference, because “the truth cannot be told, that is why it is the truth” [p. 90].
The portrayal of femininity in the novel is rather clumsy. The frequent allusions to the physical aspects of womanhood, especially menstruation, generally seem unconvincing and useless; they recall Brink’s Imaginings of Sand, in which he already tried to revisit South Africa’s history from the point of view of women, and in which a few scenes that supposedly epitomized femininity bordered on ridicule. The reader also wonders whether in The Other Side of Silence Hanna’s lesbianism, which seems to spring from her unsuccessful—to say the least—relationships with Pastor Ulrich and with her successive masters, was really necessary. Here, Brink’s tendency to make his point quite insistently weakens the argument instead of reinforcing it.
Yet, The Other Side of Silence is a gripping read, perhaps because of Brink’s writing. He seems to have cleansed his prose of the overstatement that used to characterize it in his first novels in English, perhaps, as he himself suggested, because English is not his native tongue: “I write in English, but I can never be an English writer […]. The English I use must bear the weight of my Afrikaans, of my Afrikaansness, because only in that way can I be true to my experience of the world as it takes shape, and assumes or produces meaning, in the act of verbalization” [“English and the Afrikaans Writer,” in Mapmaker, Writing in a State of Siege, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1983, p. 115]. Here, the style is much more concise: the sentences are short, as are the chapters. Chapter 68 is a case in point; it is made out of only two sentences: “Katja no longer bleeds. She is pregnant” [p. 280], and the effect of this almost blank page is rather striking. Some of the shortest chapters add a poetic dimension to the novel; for instance, chapter 4 describes Frauenstein as a ship ready to break loose from its moorings. The passages devoted to the desert, “a landscape beyond, or before, words” [p. 220], are often quite successful as well, even if the trope of the desert as a blank page has often been used in literature. This is efficient prose, and in spite of—or maybe thanks to—its stereotypical aspects The Other Side of Silence is a haunting novel.
It is also a haunted novel, since Hanna is compared to the ghosts that haunt the corridors at Frauenstein:
Speaking Hanna’s name, telling her story, the narrator briefly brings her back to life, conjuring up her ghost, allowing it to come to life so that it might go to rest forever. By remembering her story, the narrator “re-members” her [p. 149]. The novel, which is the product of the author’s imagination, is like Hanna’s dream about the army she dreams about,
In The Other Side of Silence too, the trees are always upside down. It is a bleak, violent novel, and travelling with Hanna is not always easy, but it is necessary if you want to try and hear what may lie on the other side of silence.
Finally, Brink’s novel is like the shell which little Susan gives Hanna in Bremen, a shell in which you hear sounds that have disappeared, because “sounds do not disappear, not ever, not really” [p. 37]: