The Other Side of Silence

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703

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.

Enduring a lengthy period of resignation in the confines of this secular nunnery, Hanna finally takes action when a soldier during a drunken orgy attempts to rape Katja, a young girl whom she has befriended and for whom she has developed a sexual longing. She murders the intruder and buries his body. Soon after this act she and Katja leave Frauenstein and venture into the desert. As events unfold in a surreal fashion, Hanna forms a ragtag army consisting of outcast natives and the bitter wife of a German missionary. Like Joan of Arc in her mission to free France, Hanna leads the avengers into attacks on the German Reich to rid the land of this menace. Hanna’s ultimate goal is to find the officer who ordered her mutilation and to exact her revenge. The tightly constructed passages that recount the military exploits of Hanna and her army provide high adventure. Brink excels at forceful yet economic narrative that lends immediacy and vitality to the action.

Throughout the novel a denunciation of the colonial experiment emerges in an effective and original way. In fact, Brink’s indictment of the Germans’ savagery toward those they considered savages is one of the strongest literary records of imperialism’s dark side. Brink calls once more on the historical record to bring events into focus. In 1904 the Germans’ appropriation of land and resources, their racist attitudes toward the natives, and their mistreatment of them, along with the catastrophic cattle plague, led the Herero and Nama tribes to rise up against these unwelcome occupiers. The revolt was a hopeless one, for the Germans, with their superior army, quickly and ruthlessly quelled the uprising. One historian has called the retaliation, led by a general named von Trotha, the first genocide of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of the native people were slaughtered or were forced into starvation when driven into the wilderness of the Kalahari desert. This well-documented scourge hovers in the background throughout The Other Side of Silence.

Brink’s prose style resembles the rhythmic sound of a stormy sea crashing against rocks. The breathless and choppy sentence structure manages to lend clarity to a multitude of characters and exactness to complex events, either personal or historical. Even when the uneven constructions appear overwrought or repetitious or self-conscious—as they sometimes do—the prose redeems itself in its rare mixture of suggestiveness and frankness. Here is a typical passage, which records Hanna’s thoughts as her army is disintegrating and her mission of revenge is turning futile:

Is this what she has become—an avenging demon? Nothing but this? In the dark silence, long after Katja has gone to sleep, Hanna remains looking up at the night. Words cannot reach where she wants to go. Only sounds and images remain. The sound of a piano broken apart, all its strings exploding, releasing the pent-up sound of years, lifetimes, darknesses. And behind the sound, the shadow of a woman she will never know and has never met, yet who will haunt her for ever, the shadow of whatever has remained unrealised in herself. The second part is for you.

Another of Brink’s stylistic hallmarks is his graphic depiction of violence. In this novel, like much of his earlier work, such as An Instant in the Wind (1976) and A Chain of Voices (1982), blood flows freely, castrations and sexual mutilation multiply, bodies suffer dismemberment—all delineated in explicit detail.

This account of South-West Africa’s bloody history under German rule evolves into dual and closely related thematic statements: one the stuff of violence, the other of violation. The European conquest of Africa in the nineteenth century grew out of violence, even as the interlopers declared that they were bearing “the white man’s burden” to civilize and lift up the savages. While the destruction of the native peoples in South-West Africa may be the most barbaric exercise in the history of colonial power, the Germans were not alone in enforcing the white man’s will once it was threatened. The Belgians in the Congo, along with the British in South Africa and the French in other regions, share the guilt, which Brink makes universal in his recollection of the massacre in the German colony.

It has been said that Africa was conquered by Bibles as well as guns. The German missionary depicted in the novel does not carry out violent actions against the Africans. In a way, he practices something worse: that is, the act of violation. By trying to convert the so-called heathen to Christianity, the missionary violates the core of a people’s culture—their customs, traditions, and beliefs. Holding nothing but contempt for his converts, he acts as though he is dealing with a total blankness on which he can inscribe a superior set of values. Ironically, in German his first name, Gottlieb, means Godlove.

While colonial Africa turned into a dangerous place for its native peoples, women in their own way also fared badly in this masculine world. The practice of sending out hapless women as breeders for the empire was not limited to Germany. England, for example, supplied Australia with woman convicts. According to one account, the day a ship carrying this human resource arrived in Sydney Harbor, the governor remarked: “There’s another boatload of those damned whores.” Brink’s vivid description of the women’s arrival in South-West Africa carries the same implication: that women are second-class creatures intended to serve and to be subservient to men.

How much Brink exaggerates the violence these hapless women experienced is difficult to determine. The rapes and multiple attacks likely did take place in a community of men who had been living in an uncivil environment without female companionship. While the extent of the violence might remain in question, the personal and physical violation the women suffered cannot be disputed.

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.

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