The Sunday Times


For the Sake of Silence by Michael Cawood Green


Review: Leon de Kok                                           15 June 2008



In a world so cut up with the mincing cleverness of words, words like vast multitudes of locusts devouring every last inch of space and silence, in this deafening and confusing mêlée, we may have forgotten entirely the power and beauty of silence.


Perfect quiet. No words. No running after meaning. No making of points. No arguments. Just the whole silence of being, in all its poise and uncluttered complexity, before noise begins.


We tend, especially in this country, to equate the power of speech with social mobility and access to wealth. But there is another, ancient conception of ‘wealth’ in which speech plays a very different role.


For the Trappist monks in Michael Cawood Green’s historical fiction, For the Sake of Silence, prosperity is a spiritual quantity, not of this world, and words, which are of this world, detract from it because words can only gesture, brokenly, at perfection.


As the Afro-American critic Henry Louis Gates jnr shows in his famous book, The Signifying Monkey, ‘signifyin(g)’ through language is never too far from the double-talk and trickery of the type used by the Monkey figure Esu-Elegbara in Nigerian Yoruba mythology. Slippin’ and slidin’ in language. We know all too well about that …


But, as Father Joseph Cupertino, the narrator of this extensive, multi-country saga of Trappist life and its arrival in South Africa writes at a moment of illumination, ‘the silence of the Trappist is born of perfect confidence, the perfect confidence of Christ when he remains mute before Pilate’.


It’s something that, in our current whirlwind of cyber-talk, image consumption and growing choice of media plug-ins, no to mention political and interpersonal rivalry, we find hard even to imagine: utter silence, and such perfect confidence that we would desist entirely from having to assert a single word about that from which our undivided conviction arises. Inconceivable.


Such conviction, such silence, are truly not of this world, except for monks of various orders and convictions, among them the Catholic Trappists.


‘Words,’ writes Fr Cupertino in Green’s book, ‘are generated by the lack of certainty, of the desire to explain, to convince’. For the Trappists, the rule is simple: Whoso keepeth his tongue, keepeth his soul.


In South Africa? In this land of multiple tongues, twisted histories, endless arguments and competing claims?


The lure of speech in this land, the impatience with letting things and others be, the frontier condition – always starting from scratch, speaking things into being, as though nothing has come before - lies at the heart of Green’s story.


From the moment a delegation of Trappists, led by the central figure in For the Sake of Silence, Francis Pfanner, came to South Africa in 1880s to establish the Marianhill Trappist monastery, the Trappist rule of no speech ran head-first into precisely this lure of speech. The lure of the beckoning, ‘virgin’ land.


And what a lure it is! To tell the native souls of this sweet land your great European spiritual achievements, your excellent God, your practical solutions. To remake the blank canvas. What power!


And so that great South African curse, the temptation to tell others what they should believe and do, to become missionaries – never part of the original Trappist brief – forcibly took hold of Pfanner and many of his Trappist monks in South Africa.


In the course of this epic missionary story, Pfanner achieved phenomenal success in establishing a chain of Trappist establishments further and further afield from the Marianhilll monastery near Pinetown, but in doing so he got increasingly sucked into   a long, slow-brewing storm with his seniors in Europe and many of his of underlings in South Africa.


This controversy, moulded in the baroque intrigues and filigreed detail of European Catholic politics, takes up a great deal of Green’s mightily comprehensive story.


Pfanner’s ‘success’ in South Africa, his chain of missions stretching all the way into the Drakensberg, comes at a terrible price, and publisher Umuzi capitalises on the sensational aspects of the story in its publicity material, arguing that the Pfanner’s achievement requires his ‘surrender to the world of words, through which faith, contemplation and grace become intermingled with demonic possession, madness, even murder’.


These elements do in fact feature quite interestingly in the story, but one should not be fooled into thinking this is a cracking murder story, or even a more serious chronicle of mysterious murder, such as Tim Couzen’s similar historical reconstruction, Murder at Morija.


Green’s is a very long general chronicle - close to 600, dense pages. Its true economy lies in its scholarliness, its quite remarkable, steady determination to tell the entire story, down to every last detail, main as well as ancillary, about the whole of the Trappist adventure in South Africa.


It is a book that aspires to an admirable breadth of scope, and it is supported by meticulous and indefatigable research. More than ten years in the making, this is a work that commands admiration.


But you will need an old-worldly patience to read For the Sake of Silence at the Cistercian pace and measure into which its sweeping, encyclopaedic style seeks to induct you. This is part of its purpose, style embodying content. It is a mode of transport to a different kind of being entirely.


The details are voluminous and vastly spread out, and while the ‘axis of history and fiction’ at which Green writes creates a fictionally arresting voice in the figure of the narrator, the historical demands of the text pull it away from the kind of fast-shuttle economy normally associated with fiction. It will not yield to quick reading. It is not a thriller or a novel of ideas with a rapid turnover from one phase to the next, such as Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost or Everyman, for example.


The creative, or fictional, element in the work, Cupertino’s re-imagined inner life as a narrator, is excellently sustained and given a deep seriousness that is appropriate to his grave, meditative calling in life. For me, the book’s biggest strength lies in the philosophical contemplations and moments of deep paradox in Cupertino’s awareness of his own story as Pfanner’s right-hand through many years in South Africa.


Green commands a facility for uncovering meaning in his characters at what he describes as ‘visceral levels’: moments when the body buckles in the twist of its own encounters with ever-more resonant layers of realisation and irony.


In addition, Green’s diction, the speaking consciousness of Cupertino as he narrates, is superbly suggestive and often, in a minor key, redolent of the style of the great novelist Henry James in its intricacy and depth, its weighted and balanced phrases, parentheses, subordinate clauses, rhythmic composition and clinching rhetorical flourishes. There is a fullness, a roundedness of Victorian prose here that is immaculately well-rendered and often enjoyable to read.


One example will suffice. This is Cupertino’s response when a South African bishop suggests that the Trappists should become ‘missionaries’: ‘In one slip of the tongue our contemplative life is collapsed into that of the active apostolate. In one word our vows and observances are simply erased and in their place is raised the voice, the mighty voice of the Bishop himself, ventriloquising through his imaginary “missionaries”, irrigating metaphorically the dry land he so literally left us to make productive with our silence.’


The whole of this major story rests on the irony of the narrator breaking his vow – his commitment to non-speech – in order to speak the story of silence in the Trappist enterprise in South Africa. And at its heart, this is where Green’s book so excellently finds the special South African purchase on the Trappist story – the contortions of speech in a land that so resounds with mute contradiction.


As a book that speaks to the muteness of history, one that ruptures the silence of time past, and further, as a book that talks so very eloquently about those who would not speak at all, it is a unique literary event in South Africa.