Read an Excerpt
The Other Side of Silence
By André Brink
Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2002 André Brink All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe hasn't always looked like this. There was a time, there must have been a time, when the face looking back from the mirror was different. Diffidence, yes, always. Abjection, fear. Pain, often. Terror, perhaps. But a difference still - and not only because once her hair was long and, people said, beautiful, but a difference that went beyond the obvious, hovering behind the cracked and mottled surface. She goes on staring, as if she is expecting something else and something more. Surely blood should leave a stain? She has washed her hands, of course. Her whole body in fact. Washed and washed and scrubbed enough to draw new blood from under the skin; but there may be something else that shows in ways the eyes are indifferent to. Does death not show? Murder? The ghost stares back, still inscrutable. And yet there must have been another face, once. Not a matter of age: even as a child she was old, they used to say. But that was in the Time Before, and it was another country. There was greenness there, a green intense enough to darken the eyes, unlike the hard flat solid light of this land, its hills and outcrops and dunes, its sky drained of colour, a landscape too old for memory. The Time Before was green and grey and wet, and it was permeated by the booming of bells. Here is only silence, asilence of distance and of space, too deep even for terror, too everywhere, and marked only, at night, by the scurrilous laughter of jackals, the forlorn whoops of a stray hyena. Or, more immediately, by the whimperings and hysterical rantings of the women withdrawn into their rooms. This is the Time After. Untrodden territory. And no weapon of attack or defence to face it with, no protection at all. Only this feral knowledge: I have not always looked like this.
The candle flickers and smokes in an invisible draught; nothing can keep out the night. This is a special kind of darkness. So dark, so palpable, it closes in from all sides on the meagre flame. There is no radiation of light from it at all, just the shape of the flame, no halo, no hope. As if the surrounding darkness is rolling in, like a slow wave unfurling, to spill itself into the small blackness in the heart of the flame; the night outside reaching inward to the darkness in herself. (From those early days in the Little Children of Jesus come the voices of the pious women chanting like crows in the gathering night: The light shines in the dark and the dark understands it not.) So one cannot be sure of anything one sees. The eyes are tricked as her face dissolves in the ultimate dark, the dark beyond individuality and identity, beyond any name.
Chapter TwoThe name was what first intrigued me. Hanna X. Again and again I worked through the documents in newspaper offices, contemporary reports, archives, all those dreary lists, all the names, each as tentative as the title of a poem, promises withheld. In typescript, shorthand, Gothic print, copperplate, italics, blotted scrawls. Christa Backmann - Rosa Fricke - Anna Köchel - Elly Freulich - Paula Plath - Babette Weber - Ilse Renard - Margarete Mancke - Frida Scholl - Johanna Koch - Olga Gessner - Elsa Maier - Dora Deutscher - Helena Hirner - Charlotte Böckmann - Marie Reissmann - Clara Gebhardt - Martha Hainbach - Christa Hofstätter - Gertrud Müller - and on and on and on, without any sense of alphabet or rhyme or reason, in that interminable shuttle of correspondence between Europe and Africa (in Berlin, Herr Johann Albrecht, Herzog zu Mecklenburg and his formidable sidekick Frau Charlotte Sprandel at the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft; in Windhoek, the Kaiserliche Gouverneur von Deutsch-Südwestafrika) concerning - and deciding - the fate of the many hundreds of women and girls shipped from Hamburg to the remote African colony in the years between 1900 and 1914 or thereabouts to assuage the need of men desperate for matrimony, procreation or an uncomplicated fuck. Thekla Dressel - Lydia Stillhammer - Josephine Miller - Hedwig Sohn - Emilie Marschall - names and names and names, each with its surname and its place of origin - Hannover or Holleben, Bremen or Berlin, Leutkirch or Lübeck, Stuttgart or Saarbrücken. Among all of them that solitary first name unattached to a surname. Hanna X. Town of origin, Bremen. That much was known, but no more. Later, true, after her arrival at Swakopmund and her confinement in the secular nunnery of Frauenstein somewhere in the desert, the name of Hanna X recurs once or twice in the odd dispatch or letter. In Afrika Post it surfaces in connection with a trial that was to have taken place late in 1906 but was cancelled before it could come to court, as a result of the suicide of an army officer, Hauptmann Böhlke, reputedly involved in the matter. After which, it seems, official intervention very effectively put a lid on it, no doubt to save the reputation of His Imperial Majesty's army. With that, she disappears once again into silence, still stripped of a surname, still fiercely, pathetically (or 'obdurately', as the report on the aborted trial had it) silent.
Initially, it seems, the mystery might have been caused quite simply by a blotted scrawl in one of the lists compiled by Frau Charlotte Sprandel's secretary which her correspondents, either unable or too hurried and harried to decipher, replaced with the provisional, convenient, all-purpose X. And after that, most likely, no one could be bothered. Why should they be? What's in a name?
When nearly a century later I went to Bremen myself in a last-ditch attempt to return to sources, it only too predictably brought me up against the blank of the War. Almost nothing had survived that destruction: no records, no registers, no letters; and it was too late for the memories of survivors. I had no date of birth, no names of parents, to go by. At the time of her passage to Africa on the Hans Woermann in January 1902 she might have been twenty, or twenty-five, or even thirty (presumably not older, as one of the prerequisites for selection was to be of child-bearing age in order to be of use to the Colony); even if there had been town and district records left since 1875 or thereabouts, where would I start without a surname to guide me? As in practically all the other towns I'd visited whole blocks bore the sobering legend, 1945 Total zerstört. Wiederaufbau 1949. But if buildings could be rebuilt or restored, this did not apply to printed records. Gone, all gone: census details, public accounts, lists of domicile, registers of births or marriages, particulars about the inmates of orphanages or poorhouses, even of brothels. Here was, had been, no Hanna X. Or, perhaps, too many. Total zerstört.
Maybe it was my disappointment with my wild-goose chase which on that rainy morning during my visit to Bremen had made me particularly receptive to the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker in the Roselius Collection: those glimpses of humanity, of femininity, those solitary and deprived figures, images of almost terrifying isolation, and yet of defiance, a universe of melancholy and understatement and muted colours behind which one sensed a forever unexpressed secret world the onlooker could only guess at, never gain access to. Suggesting, it seemed to me, the male spectator, the heart of being woman, the pathos of being irredeemably young, or irredeemably old, two stages of femininity here remarkably collapsed into each other.
I can recall, from that visit to Germany, only one other painting that marked me so deeply: a large canvas in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich called Feierabend by an artist whose name I jotted down on a piece of paper and have since lost. A very young girl seated at a kitchen table with a middle-aged peasant suitor who has his back turned to the observer. One large blunt paw rests on her thigh. His whole body, his ill-fitting jacket, the back of his narrow head, everything defines him as a loser - a mean-spirited, violent, hard-drinking, abusive loser. She, too, is evidently poor. But she is young, her thin body can barely contain the rage and resentment that seethe in her against this moment which will decide the rest of her life. In the debilitating knowledge that he is the very last man she wants, yet the only one she may ever be allowed to lay claim to.
Behind the gallery in Bremen where I spent the whole morning, Modersohn-Becker's melancholy drawn across my shoulders like a threadbare blanket, lies the Rathausplatz with its post-war sculpture representing the Musicians of Bremen - the decrepit old Rocinante of a horse, the mangy dog, the scraggy cat, the dilapidated rooster from the Grimms' tale, their cacophony eternally petrified; but one could still imagine, turning away from the square, with what hellish abandon, given half a chance on a winter's night, they might once again break into braying and barking and mewing and cockadoodledooing to blast the fear of everlasting damnation into robbers and honest burghers alike.
From the Platz, too, came, at night - and that has become for me the defining memory of Bremen - the sound of bells invading the entire Hotel Uebersee in which I was lodged. It would continue for minutes on end, feeling like hours, a summoning of uneasy minds to heaven or to hell. Bells obviously of various shapes and sizes, at least one of which, judging from the sound, must be enormous, reverberating with a deep, unearthly boom that conjured up the image of a giant sculptor giving form and dimension to chaos, creating from it an entire town and its people and its dark history, ringing and ringing through all the centuries of crawling, teeming human life, and hope, and despair, and suffering, and suffering, and suffering.
From this Bremen, from this sound, from the memory of those throwaway musicians, came Hanna X. Into a life marked by her own several deaths. The first of these must have occurred even before she was dumped, more dead than alive, on the doorstep of the Little Children of Jesus on the Hutfilterstrasse. And then twice during the years in the orphanage. Once, we do know, on the Hans Woermann ploughing through darker than wine-dark seas on its way from Hamburg, past Madeira, and Tenerife, and Grand Bassa, down the coast of Africa. And then, of course, any number of times in German South-West Africa, now Namibia. Each of these the shedding of an old skin, a death, a new beginning, like a menstrual cycle. A little mourning, a little celebration. Life does go on. And each of these might be the starting point of a story; each, like the sound of the giant bell in Bremen, the shaping of a person, of people, of memories, of a history.
For me, for reasons too dark to unravel, that moment when Hanna X's life breaks into story comes - not the moment of death, but in between deaths - in the lugubrious building of Frauenstein, as it looms against the night sky like a huge ship marooned in the heart of the desert: she is staring by the light of a dripping candle into a cracked mirror on the landing where her image has been caught, in passing, like a ghost. It is the first time since she has been brought here, the first time in three years, seven months, thirteen days, that she faces herself in a mirror.
She does not flinch. The reason is that the reflection is so alien, there is no memory to set beside it. (She hasn't always looked like this.) This may as well be a ghost, one of the innumerable shadows that steal through Frauenstein at night, sometimes even by day. She studies it, detached, unmoved, as if it is a curious large pale moth suspended in the glass. Not scary, because it is not alive. The tufts of blonde or greying hair, hacked off unevenly with a kitchen knife, surrounding the face like ectoplasm. Part of the right ear missing, leaving a dark hole set in a kind of mushroom growth. Only half an eyebrow on the left, trailing off into a twisted line of scar tissue. The eye below it protruding slightly, as if it has been removed and carelessly thrust back. The bony nose crooked. The entire surface of the face criss-crossed with scars, some white, others purplish. Most startling is the grimace that widens the thin-lipped mouth, itself more scar than orifice: it opens across part of the right jaw, below the cheekbone, so that the broken teeth are visible, stuck unevenly into the jaw. A face already partly resolved into skull. Perhaps she is, or slowly becomes, as she stands and stares, fascinated by the image after all. Raising the candle an inch or two, she opens her mouth. She makes a sound. Ahhhhhh. There is no tongue. Only a small black stub, far back. Ahhhhh.
This must be she. This must be what they see, when they face her. But usually of course they look away.
Now she sees. It has come to this. Tonight she has killed a man. She alone is awake in this dark rambling house.
Chapter ThreeThe house. More an outcrop of the earth than a house. Set in an Old Testament landscape, a moonscape, a dreamscape. To the women transported here the days and weeks by mule-cart or ox-wagon must have seemed not so much a journey through geographic and geological space as the traversal of a region of the mind, an abandonment of uncomplicated time, and undoubtedly of hope; the arrival an entry into a peculiar mentality, an emotional state, warped most likely. Kilometres and kilometres and days of arid earth with tentative patches of brittle grass, or scrub, small flinty koppies or ridges, flat sheets of scaly rock showing through the unrelenting ground like blackened bones through the skin of a massive primordial animal left to the ravages of sun and wind. Then the gradual sloping upward to the high tumulus of eroded rocks which especially at sunset or by moonlight would appear like a congregation of petrified figures. (There were giants in the earth in those days.) Dominated by what to half-crazed sex-starved men from the desert might seem like a giant woman, a figurehead on the prow of an absent ancient ship, face turned up, breasts exposed, a grotesque parody perhaps of the Victory of Samothrace. The strayed wife of a Biblical Lot. The Frauenstein, the Woman Rock.
Just beyond the Woman looms the house, improbable even in the full glare of daylight. No one knows its origins. 'It's always been there,' people say if you ask. It certainly bears little resemblance to the early colonial buildings of Swakopmund or Windhoek. Those not inclined to ascribe its foundations to some lost tribe, black, brown or white, 'from the north', with obscure connections to the vanished Monomotapa, Mapungubwe or Great Zimbabwe, if not to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or to the inhabitants of a sunken Atlantis, advance theories about early Scandinavian whalers, or possibly crew members who jumped ship when Bartolomeu Diaz first set foot in Africa at Angra Pequeña. Historical reality is likely to be much less fanciful.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Silence by André Brink
Copyright © 2002
by André Brink
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.