The Other Side of Silence, by Andre Brink

Rough justice for a bad man in Africa
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The Independent Culture

This is a novelised version of one aspect of German colonial rule in what is now Namibia. Against a backdrop of genocidal policy towards the indigenous population, c1905, Andre Brink tells a smaller story of one real-life German woman, "Hanna X", transported from Bremen via a scheme to provide European wives and domestics for the white, military presence.

Hanna, mentioned once in the records, has no story other than the one that Brink here speculates into being. She proves too independent-minded to comply with the assumptions of coerced marriage and is raped and mutilated by a drunk German officer on a train carrying reject women to a desert strong-house known as "Frauenstein". Hanna provokes Hauptmann Bohlke by sinking her teeth into his penis during forced fellatio and, in response, he mutilates her female parts, cuts out her tongue, severs her nipples and slashes her face. Hanna is rescued by a party of Nama tribespeople who heal her and transmit to her the secrets of their medicine and creation myths, before themselves falling victim to the genocide.

Within four years, Hanna has teamed up with the beautiful Katja, whom she rescues from rape by committing her first murder. Having discovered the transfiguring power of hate, the women embark upon a Bonnie-and-Clyde killing spree of mythic proportions, travelling from fort to fort, despatching soldiers with the help of a rag-bag army of multi-ethnic abuse victims: rainmaker, prostitute, mad missionary's runaway wife, genitally-mutilated Herero giant, etc. The casualty rate is high and the Herero giant, with whom Hanna has had a little tender dalliance, dies a selfless death, as is the custom in colonial adventure stories.

Alone, the two women make it to Windhoek, where they track down Bohlke and strip him naked, his terrorising penis now a "mangled, blackened little stub", leaking secretions against a withered purple scrotum. Hanna drives him, shitting, through Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse, having first urged the pregnant Katja to save herself; Katja who has despatched her lover at the moment of sexual climax.

Brink, for all his fanciful excesses, tells a story that brings home the extraordinary violence of daily life in colonial societies. He's good on the plight of women in domestic service. The colonial trade in women, whether via metropolitan decree or criminal underworld, is currently being addressed by some exciting con- temporary historians. That fact leaves one with misgivings about Brink's embroidered version, marred as it is by portentous biblical language and constant harping on menstuation, female parts, sex and lesbian sex, so that even the poor old rainmaker wants rain "like the wetness of a woman who loves". And the joyless, thrice-a-night missionary is pure, knockabout OTT. But if this book makes the brutal past accessible, then perhaps it's a sort-of-good thing.

Barbara Trapido's 'Frankie & Stankie' (Bloomsbury) was long-listed for the Booker prize