The Other Side of Silence

BOOK: The Other Side of Silence
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André Brink

The Other Side of Silence

2002, EN

As a small child in a wintry Bremen, Hanna
dreams about the other side of silence, the place where the wind
comes from and palm trees wave in the sun. Seeing her chance to
escape from years of abuse in an orphanage and in service, Hanna
joins one of the shiploads of young women transported in the early
years of the twentieth century to the colony of German South-West
Africa to assuage the needs of the male settlers. Following
atrocious punishment for daring to resist the advances of an army
officer, she arrives in a phantasmagoric refuge in the African
desert – “prison, nunnery, brothel, shithouse, Frauenstein”.
When the drunken excesses of a visiting army detachment threaten
her only companion, Hanna revolts.

Mounting a ragtag army of female and natives, she sets out on an
epic march through the desert to take on the might of the German
Reich. This apocalyptic journey through the darker regions of the
soul will also reveal to her the hidden meanings of suffering,
revenge, companionship, love and compassion.

Table of contents

Part One


Part Two



The Other Side of Silence

Part One

The Other Side of Silence


he 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, a silence
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

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.

The Other Side of Silence


he 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 Kochel – Elly Freulich – Paula Plath – Babette
Weber – Use Renard – Margarete Mancke – Frida Scholl – Johanna Koch
– Olga Gessner – Elsa Maier – Dora Deutscher – Helena Hirner –
Charlotte Bockmann – Marie Reissmann – Clara Gebhardt – Martha
Hainbach – Christa Hofstatter – Gertrud Muller – 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 Lubeck, 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 Bohlke, 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)

Hanna X.

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

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 zerstort

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
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 Plate, 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
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.

BOOK: The Other Side of Silence
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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