J M Coetzee writes, “Of the Trappist enterprise in nineteenth-century South Africa, with all its passionate personal rivalries and Byzantine internal politics, Michael Cawood Green has made a work of history cum fiction that will grip and sometimes amaze the reader.”
“I have learned at last to measure grace by silence. But only by doing the unspeakable.” So begins the penance most fitting for a monk of the Trappist Order, an Order dedicated to a life of silence. These are the first of the many, many words Father Joseph must use to tell of his fumbling attempts at preserving the Trappist’s withdrawal from the world while the mission fields become too strong a temptation for the group of monks with which he has travelled to South Africa. He watches in growing dismay as they create Mariannhill, a monastery that rapidly becomes one of the largest in the world primarily through its establishment of a chain of mission stations stretching across the colonial landscape.
For the Sake of Silence takes the form of its narrator’s flawed and ultimately futile confession. Apparently the oldest and most trusted friend of the founder of Mariannhill, Abbot Franz Pfanner, Father Joseph is driven ever closer to secret acts of betrayal as the monastery and its missions drift away from what he sees as the purity of the Rule of St Benedict. Trapped within his epileptic seizures and obsessed by the water and electromagnetic therapies with which he attempts to replace conventional medicine at Mariannhill, his experience of late nineteenth and early twentieth century South Africa is filtered through the eleventh century monastic ideals to which he clings ever more desperately as they begin to collapse around him.
Mariannhill is finally expelled from the Trappist Order and made a missionary Order in its own right, but only after a destructive internal power struggle and fraught contact with the settler and ‘Native’ communities beyond its walls. These culminate in a series of spectacular historical incidents, including a high-profile exorcism, the death by poisoning of thirteen children, the incarceration of Mariannhill’s first black priest in a mental institution, and a war of words over the translation of the Catechism into isiZulu that destroys the last remnants of cloistered silence in the monastery.
For the Sake of Silence will attract readers who enjoy a complex story created out of actual events, previously untold or actively suppressed, and more gripping than most fictional invention. Finding its place somewhere between the vibrant social history of Tim Couzens’s Murder at Morija and the playful literary power of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the novel sails close at times to “creative non-fiction,” but ultimately demonstrates the power fiction has to hold the ways in which we perceive the past – and the present – up to question. For the Sake of Silence is resonant with a time when many of the new freedoms to speak exist in an uneasy relationship with new forms of silencing.
Nearly ten years went in to the research and writing of For the Sake of Silence , but it is a book developed out of travel as much as time. The journeys necessary for its creation took in some of the more obscure corners of southern Africa and included the equally obscure corners of Germany, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Britain that feature in its pages.
“It’s great history and you find out so many things. It’s not just about the monks’ stories but it’s about the place and the setting … and there’s romance and there’s intrigue and there’s murder. So if you’re looking for the sort of read that will take you through the long evenings, I recommend For the Sake of Silence.”
Karabo Kgoleng, SAfm Literature for Sunday.
“It is with interest that I have read your book For the Sake of Silence. I must congratulate you for your thorough research and for your ‘instinctive’ understanding of the innate dynamics of Abbot Francis and his companions. Your poetic freedom rarely leaves the boundaries of the historic context for too far. … Once more thanks for a job well done.”
Fr. Damian Weber, Superior General of the Mariannhill Missionaries, Rome.
“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.”
Leon de Kok, Sunday Times
“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. … it is the kind of novel one wants to enjoy in superior quality in an armchair beside a fireplace in winter.”
Karina Magdalena Szczurek, LitNet.