Focusing on silence

2008-05-13 00:00

MARIANNHILL Monastery is a local landmark. And there are other mission stations, some little more than ruins, dotted around East Griqualand and KwaZulu-Natal, that are so much part of the landscape that passers-by hardly notice them. However, one man’s curiosity about them has led to the publication of a new novel — or history — that lays bare Mariannhill’s soul.

For the Sake of Silence blurs the line between history and fiction. Author Michael Cawood Green, head of the School of Literary Studies, Media and the Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, admits this fascinates him and has been a subject of his academic research. “I’m not a trained historian,” he says. “Someone said to me that’s why I love history so much. But every writer has something that gets him or her going, and for me, it’s the research.”

Green talks about how writers invent characters to articulate their creators’ concerns. And about what he calls the bottom line of storytelling — the “and then, and then, and then” that creates a narrative around the facts.

In 1997, Green published a verse novella, Sinking, and thought he would do a quick follow-up. But For the Sake of Silence took over his life for 11 years, wore out two cars on KwaZulu-Natal’s worst rural roads and involved travel to remote parts of Europe. Green had grown up in Pinetown and knew Mariannhill. Its Trappist origins — the original monks were members of that contemplative order, whose rule demands silence — also fitted in with Green’s concerns at the time.

“I wanted to focus on silence; the way texts can silence things as well as breaking the silence around things. And I was thinking about learning to shut up — as a white male of a certain age in a position where things are changing. Part of that was learning to silence myself so that I could allow other voices to come through.” Green wanted to test his ideas and history gave him a concrete example.

“A monastery seemed a good place to start, so I went to Mariannhill and discovered they had been expelled from the Trappist order — they don’t like to talk about Trappists. I found a better story than I could invent.”

The book is narrated in the first person by Father Joseph Biegner, historically a shadowy figure said to be a right-hand man to the order’s founder, Abbot Franz Pfanner. Biegner was always around when major events happened, although on the periphery — the historical record seems to gloss over him So, for Green, he was a perfect choice. “I wanted the narrator to have a sense of real complicity in the worst elements of the story,” says Green.

Green’s research uncovered some hair-raising events — 13 children murdered at the Lourdes mission in East Griqualand, exorcisms and the hugely destructive rift between Pfanner’s missionary fervour and the passion for the Trappist rule of prayer and silence that he makes so central to Father Joseph’s being.

Green only found out about the murders when he was quite far into his research. He went to Lourdes and when he introduced himself to the five nuns who live there, the immediate reaction was: “You’ve come to talk about the murders.”

“Mine was — what murders?” says Green. There is a pretty deafening silence about them, or the exorcisms, in the official histories, although plenty in the press of the time. “It was never established who the killer was — so we had unsolved murders.” This allowed Green his fictional head — he could suggest his own, startling, solution.

Father Joseph is an endearing narrator and a complete contrast to the decisive and authoritarian Pfanner. “I wanted that hesitancy. He lacks confidence, but he is passionate about the rule. I wanted to emphasise his awareness that he is breaking the silence by writing what is a secret, oppositional history, and that it is a penance, something he has to do, but doesn’t wish to.”

While Green has created his main character from the shadowy Biegner, one of his villains is a well-known name — Arthur T. Bryant, who in his Trappist days at Mariannhill was Father David. “I didn’t even know he was originally a Trappist,” says Green. “He is still an important figure in the writing of South African history, even if not politically correct now. And he comes out as a villain, because at this time he was a villain. He was an extraordinarily destructive presence, certainly as a Trappist.” Green insists that his portrayal of Bryant — linguist and missionary — is all there in the records. And admits that the more he found out about Bryant’s role in the split between missionaries and contemplatives, the more relish he took in depicting him the way he does.

Green, who describes himself as “a lapsed Methodist”, came to have a deep respect for the Rule of St Benedict. “Not that I would want to join,” he says. “But I got enmeshed in that world; it made me see the history of my region — about which I care passionately — through 11th-century eyes. And it kept shaking my perceptions, even about the landscape.”

His respect made him wary about how the book would be received. “I worried that I might be the subject of a Catholic fatwa — there are some things that will be shocking to certain people. But I didn’t want to be exploitative.” He has been relieved — and delighted — to hear from the Trappist order in Rome that they approve. And the head of the Mariannhill Mission also enjoyed the book, and read its almost 560 pages in three days. “I would have been prepared to take flak,” says Green. “But I didn’t want my book to come across as cheapening the story.”

For Green, publication means moving away from the Trappists who have absorbed him for 11 years. He is already planning another novel, but all he will say is that it will be shorter.

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