- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE

By Andre Brink

Harcourt, $25, 311 pages

REVIEWED BY JUDITH CHETTLE

Pity a writer like Andre Brink, whose usual beat— apartheid in his native South Africa — underwent a sea change, and who’s obliged to find not exactly another line of work but certainly new literary territory. And to a great degree, the resourceful Mr. Brink, noted for his anti-apartheid novels like “A Dry White Season,” has adroitly done just that in such novels as “The Rights of Desire,” set in post-apartheid South Africa, and “Cape of Storms,” in which Mr. Brink creates new myths to explain the country’s complex past.

“The Other Side of Silence,” his latest novel, is set in what was once South-West Africa, currently Namibia. It is one of those African countries that was long ignored by the rest of the world, lying as it does between the Atlantic Ocean on the west and South Africa to the east, with a desert terrain, a harsh climate, and a small, mostly nomadic population.

This mix of Bushmen and warring African tribes was seasoned with a few Boer farmers, and renegade Hottentot bands from the Cape who coexisted uneasily together. Tribal rivalries led to frequent and brutal wars, the Bushmen were enslaved by the tribes people, and the Hottentots warred with the Africans.

But two historical events — the Scramble for Africa in the 1870s and the discovery of diamonds in 1908 — ended this obscurity. In 1884, imperially ambitious and newly united, Germany annexed the territory, and began administering it as a German colony. In 1915 the German forces were defeated by South Africans, who, under a mandate from the League of Nations, administered it until the country became independent in the 1980s. Mr. Brink’s novel is set in the early 1900s, a period when Germany was encouraging emigration of single women who would become the brides of the numerous bachelor farmers and traders who lived in the colony.

Now Mr. Brink, always alert to the zeitgeist, tells a story that, as it graphically details the horrific treatment of its female protagonist and, to a lesser degree, the indigenous peoples, indicts both colonialism and sexism. Mr. Brink has done his research, and the German administration he describes was notorious for its brutality. After the Herero war of 1904, for example, the Herero tribe was reduced in number from 60,000 to 20,000 and prisoners were shot, but Mr. Brink is not interested in shading. The white men, with rare exceptions are sexually obsessed brutes, the Africans noble, and the women, especially the heroine Hanna X, helpless victims.

Framed by the conjectures of an anonymous writer, who is researching the life of Hanna X in both Africa and Bremen, Germany, where she was born, the novel vividly evokes the Namibian landscape. It is a landscape of “arid earth with tentative patches of brittle grass, small flinty ridges (and) flat sheets of scaly rock” where improbable buildings — Rhenish castles, and grandiose fortresses — are set amongst the tumble of rocks. In one such building, Frauenstein, Hanna X has just killed a German soldier who tried to rape Katya, a young girl.

Frauenstein, where the two women live, is a mysterious place rumored to be a bordello, but is also a refuge for rejected and abandoned women, like Katya, whose missionary parents were killed by a roving band of Ovambo tribesman. Hanna, an orphan, was raised in a sadistic orphanage, ironically named The Little Children of Jesus, where she was sexually abused by the chaplain. She later worked for a succession of equally abusive employers, and her only consolation was reading about Joan of Arc and places where palm trees grew. The opportunity to travel abroad and live in a desert place where palm trees presumably grew seemed heaven-sent to the hapless Hanna, even if it meant marriage to a stranger.

Moving back and forth between the past and the present as Hanna decides to flee Fraunstein with Katya, she recalls her past and the events which brought her to this refuge. She recalls her life in Germany, the terrifying voyage as the men raped many of the women passengers, including her dearest friend, who committed suicide, and then once ashore her own murderous assault. On the train from the port to the capital, Windhoek, she was raped and horribly mutilated —her tongue was excised, and her ears and nipples cut off — by an officer.

Hanna, whose icon is Joan of Arc, has more than simple flight in mind. This time, she decides, she will not be running away from, but towards some thing, Filled with hate, which has “the bitterness of a medicine that restores life” she will finally fight back by gathering an army of the dispossessed and brutalized, to attack the colonial government in Windhoek. This change in Hanna seems particularly more plot than character driven, from being preternaturally passive, she now becomes preternaturally aggressive, as she gathers a group of Namas who have their own grievances against the whites, and, armed with guns they acquire, begin their march. They kill a notoriously cruel white farmer, destroy an isolated fort, killing all the soldiers, but then the disasters and disaffections begin, and only the two women are left when they reach Windhoek .

In a novel that is more a clumsy allegory, characters are too obviously playing their assigned roles as suffering women, victimized tribespeople, and vicious conquerors, that didactically exemplify the evils the novelist wishes to expose. Mr. Brink ends on a redemptive, if improbable note, as Hanna begins too late to question the hate that has driven her. But though the settings are vividly evoked, and the story often compelling, it is too message-driven to completely satisfy.

Judith Chettle is a South African born writer, now permanently living in the United States, who reviews frequently for The Washington Times.

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