For the Sake of Silence
by Michael Cawood Green
Apart from its beautiful cover image and an intriguing title, Michael Cawood Green’s For the Sake of Silence is not the kind of book which would usually attract my attention. To a devout atheist, reading almost six hundred pages in ant-size print about monks and missionaries seems like doing penance for some unimaginable crime. Yet, after only the first few pages I could not escape the book’s irresistible attraction. This is mostly achieved by Green’s fascinating narrator who opens his story with the poetic insight, “I have learned at last to measure grace by silence. But only by doing the unspeakable.” His account is preceded by a brief “Translator’s Note”, which, unable to pin down the following as a story, a history, or a chronicle, immediately arouses one’s curiosity.
As the author of Novel Histories: Past, Present, and Future in South African Fiction (1997), Green is an expert on the ongoing narrative affair between fact and fiction, and has transposed the meticulously researched founding history of the Mariannhill monastery and its many missions in present-day KwaZulu-Natal into a superbly imagined story.
Because of the sheer proliferation, nowadays, of novels ranging from Shaun Johnson’s acclaimed The Native Commissioner to Patricia Schonstein’s less-so The Apothecary’s Daughter, one cannot help but sigh at the sight of yet another book endorsement by JM Coetzee. But this novel is certainly one which deserves the highest praise, and Coetzee’s comment that For the Sake of Silence “will grip and sometimes amaze the reader” is spot-on. Grip it does from the start, and amazes one every few pages as the narrator, Father Joseph – so named after Joseph of Cupertino, the Holy Fool and Gaper – reveals the tale of the disintegration of the Trappist Order in South Africa, and the story of one of its most prominent members, Abbott Franz Pfanner, the founder of Mariannhill.
For the Sake of Silence spans two continents, with the narrative unfolding between the sweet smells of Viennese cakes in Austria, the dense woods of the medieval Mariawald Monastery in Germany, the monotony of a small community of nuns in Croatia, the internal power struggles of the Catholic Church in the Italian capital, the sounds of ringing bells in the predominantly Muslim Bosnia, and eventually the remote landscapes of eastern South Africa.
In May 1909, at the foot of the cross towering over one of Mariannhill’s stations, Father Joseph, our narrator, buries the heart of the man whose story he feels compelled to write in spite of everything he believes in and aspires to. As a monk of the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known more commonly as Trappists, he is bound by the Vow of Silence. Yet, as a witness to the incredible rise and fall of Father Franz, he resorts to words to reveal the “evil under the habit, a death’s head in a cowl, sinister intent in the hiss of sandals slipping along empty corridors of echoing stone”, and above all, the nature of intrigue which does not stop even at murder. So begins his narrative – “not a confession”, maybe “a proclamation” – of the life and times of Fr Franz Pfanner and his journey from a small parish priest to the Abbott of the largest Trappist monastery in the world.
The story – what Fr Joseph as its narrator refers to as “that sinful thing” – is, as he says, his attempt at having “the last word”. It begins as Franz, after serving as a secular priest and finding the position unsatisfactory, enters Mariawald, a Trappist monastery strictly observing the Rule, which guides life of the community in great detail and does not tolerate any dissidence. From the beginning Franz wrestles with “the most prominent feature of Trappist life: its silence”. Speaking, as well as writing and reading, is regulated by clearly defined rules. The same applies to any kind of work, and it is Franz’s “hunger for work” combined with his intolerance of “indolence all about him” that brings him on to a confrontation course with the community he chose to be part of for life, a community which sees work as a form of prayer and not a means to a specific end.
Asked by his Superior to leave the Order, Franz refuses and manages to obtain permission to found a monastery in Bosnia. Against all odds – the Muslim Turkish authorities in Bosnia doing everything in their power to curtail his ambitions – he succeeds in building an imposing Trappist establishment. It is during this enterprise that Fr Joseph enters Fr Franz’s life and, for the most part, his confidence.
Born as Josef Eduard Biegner into a well-off family in a small town in Moravia, Fr Joseph also shares his story with the reader. We become his “Father Confessor”. He takes us to Brünn and one of its churches where an African figure catches his imagination, remaining with him as an early encounter with the temptation and seduction the African continent comes to represent for him in his later life. With him, we also travel to Vienna where, before devoting his life to God, Biegner works for the Imperial and Royal Austria Lottery and falls in love with the sensual M. Their relationship ends in disappointment and Biegner joins the Trappists. The longer he lives by their Rule, the more and more he comes to “resent […] the tiniest alternation in their observance”. In this respect, meeting the progressive Fr Franz has dire consequences for the monk devoted to silence and observance of all Trappist Regulations.
Fr Franz’s enterprise in Bosnia, where Fr Joseph assist him, grows out of proportion and is the first serious indication of the “seduction of his power”. Fr Joseph, concerned with his Superior’s “vision and energy”, which are totally discordant with the Rule, cannot help but admire the man, at the same time fearing the repercussion his striving for greatness and achievement might bring upon them.
Internal power struggles make it impossible for Fr Franz to remain in Europe. Seduced by the promises that an Irish Bishop stationed in South Africa makes to him, Fr Franz and a small group of monks travel to the distant shores of Africa, arriving in Port Elizabeth in 1880 to found another Trappist monastery. Expecting “the jungles of Africa” to enfold them upon landing, they end up in Dunbrody, a miserable, dry place which they are expected “to make productive with their silence”. In the opinion of the Irish Bishop, “where other missionaries failed by preaching and teaching, Trappists could succeed by silent example”. In this landscape, however, silence refuses to yield the intended results and the monks, averse to missionary work, gradually feel themselves lured by the word and its power to spread God’s glory in a heathen land.
They embark on yet another journey, this time to Durban. From there, they travel inland to establish not only an impressive new monastery, Mariannhill, but also a chain of mission stations which in the end are responsible for Fr Franz’s and his community’s expulsion from the Trappist Order. Entangled in the political tensions of the region and their own internal conflicts, they recognise “how poorly the Rule of St Benedict translated itself into the southern hemisphere, where everything, as they say in Europe, is upside down”.
Through great attention to detail, Michael Cawood Green vividly evokes all the places mentioned in the narrative. With For the Sake of Silence Green takes care to recreate a past which appeals to our senses and intellect. He indulges the reader in many fascinating asides which find their way naturally into the main storyline and enrich the narrative with descriptions of, for example, the role of lotteries in nineteenth-century Europe, the types of paper available at the time, the Kneipp method of healing, farming methods in Africa, early photography and printing, and monastic architecture.
Throughout the novel, Green builds up tension with masterly foreshadowing. One cannot help but feel drawn towards both his narrator and the protagonist of his story, however controversial these two figures might be. Other characters are drawn with intricate skill. It is pleasantly surprising to find Mark Twain and Mohandas Gandhi make guest appearances at Mariannhill.
Green’s style flows naturally, and he uses unique and alluring images. It is fascinating to follow his narrator’s struggle to come to terms with the events he had witnessed and the secrets entrusted to him, as much as with the language he has to convey them in, and ultimately the many betrayals his account comes to represent. Paradoxically, dedicated to silence, he is the most eloquent of storytellers, even if he himself feels deceived by words.
For the Sake of Silence covers a lot of historical and geographical ground, absorbing one’s attention every step of the way. It has the same kind of atmospheric appeal – with intrigue, murder, possessions and exorcisms at its centre – that Umberto Eco became famous for with his The Name of the Rose (1980). Its length might be daunting to many, but it will certainly not disappoint anybody willing to take the chance.
Apart from picking out a few minor typing errors, Umuzi could have done this book and its readers one small favour (however financially risky) by printing it in hardcover with a ribbon to mark one’s place. It deserves nothing less, because it is the kind of novel one wants to enjoy in superior quality in an armchair beside a fireplace in winter.