The Other Side of Silence

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Based on historical fact, The Other Side of Silence recounts how the German government transported poor and desperate women to its colony in South-West Africa. There they attended to the needs of the predominantly male population as wives or unwilling sex partners. When the women arrived, the male settlers married the desirable ones to serve as helpmates and, ideally, to produce a new generation of Germans in Africa. The rejected ones ended up in a remote settlement called “Frauenstein,” which actually existed into the twentieth century.

The fictitious central character, Hanna X, evolves into a kind of “everywoman.” Through careless record keeping, she even lost her last name. Hanna grew up in a German orphanage, where she experienced privation, beatings, and sexual molestation by a minister. Placed in domestic service at an early age, she confronted a series of cruel mistresses and sex-hungry masters. An ugly and difficult girl, yet intelligent, she finds rare comfort and friendship from a teacher who introduces her to literature and history, including the story of Joan of Arc.

As a young woman, Hanna volunteers to go to Africa. Shortly after she arrives an army officer attempts to rape her. She resists and undergoes a severe whipping and knifing, which leaves her tongueless and physically disfigured. Banished to Frauenstein, she eventually rebels and, like Joan of Arc, forms her own ragtag army consisting of abused women and African natives. Much of the narrative recounts their symbolic trek across the desert as they set out to destroy the German Reich that ruled the colony so mercilessly.

Forceful in its breathless prose and violent in its exposition, the novel serves not only as a powerful indictment of colonialism but as a testament to the mistreatment of women.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 18 (May 15, 2003): 1637.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 8 (April 15, 2003): 550.

Library Journal 128, no. 4 (March 1, 2003): 116-117.

The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003, p. 6.

The New Yorker 79, no. 14 (June 2, 2003): 94.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 14 (April 7, 2003): 42.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 13, 2002, p. 23.

The Other Side of Silence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

André Brink frames The Other Side of Silence with an author’s commentary to explain that much of the novel draws from the history of the German colony formerly known as South-West Africa. Brink establishes how the German government, during the early twentieth century, sent to Africa destitute German women—of child-bearing age—to become the male colonists’ wives and to produce a new generation of Germans who would rule and exploit the region for years to come. He also reveals how the men rejected some of the women whom they considered unattractive or disobedient or barren. These castoffs ended up in a remote settlement called the Frauenstein, where they lived isolated lives and occasionally served as sex partners for the German soldiers who were patrolling the countryside. Historical documents support all of these lurid details.

What intrigues Brink, though, are the actual women who made the trip to Africa in search of a better life. Their names and vital statistics appear in archives, but the reality of their womanhood and their individuality has been lost. Here the fiction writer sets out to re-create one of these desperate travelers, a person actually named Hanna X. She evolves into a kind of “everywoman” as she is cast into the colonial wilderness and left to the mercy of the dominant male population. Brink explains going through the records and discovering the woman to whom he gives life: “The name was what first intrigued me. Hanna X. . . . Town of origin, Bremen. That much was known, but no more.”

In telling Hanna X’s story, Brink recounts as well the brief but brutal history of Germany’s colonial project. With the sanction of other European powers, South-West Africa—bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa, Botswana, and Angola—became an official German colony in 1890, even though German traders had already established outposts there. During World War I, South Africa occupied the territory, then annexed it after World War II. Following years of revolts led by native Marxist organizations, independence finally came in 1990 under a United Nations peace plan. Now known as Namibia, the country is rich in diamonds and minerals—which is what attracted the Germans at the outset.

Hanna’s sad tale unfolds in a series of disconnected fragments that follow no chronological pattern, which is a typical narrative device used by Brink. Her experiences in Germany and Africa interweave with one another to reveal a life beset by cruelty, disappointment, and loss. An orphan, Hanna grows up in Bremen, a gloomy German port city near the North Sea. She spends her early years in a church-operated institution called the Little Children of Jesus, where she regularly receives beatings, goes hungry, and endures the presiding minister’s sexual abuse. Turning old enough to go into service, Hanna is dispatched to a series of homes. There the mistresses of the various houses mistreat her, and the masters molest her.

Hanna, an ugly but intelligent girl, finds her only solace with a teacher who introduces her to literature and history—in particular Joan of Arc’s story, which plays an important role later in Hanna’s African experience. As a woman without means but with an adventurous spirit, she signs up to immigrate to South-West Africa. On the way out she shares a cabin with a young woman named Lotte. They engage in a sexual relationship, which ends when one of the ship’s officers rapes Lotte. Suffering from his continued sexual brutality, Lotte dies and is buried at sea.

Once Hanna arrives in the colony’s main settlement, she faces disillusionment when paired with a coarse farmer whom she refuses to marry. As a consequence, she finds herself on a train heading to Frauenstein. An officer attempts to rape her during the journey, but she bites his penis when he inserts it into her mouth. After he recovers, he orders his subalterns to punish Hanna. They cut out her tongue, trim off her nipples, and mutilate her genitals, then throw her off the train into the desert. Natives rescue Hanna, and after healing her wounds they deliver the woman to Frauenstein.


(The entire section is 1703 words.)