Lucifer's language

There will be those who delight in the obvious joke about this book: that a work titled For the Sake of Silence (one in which, moreover, the narrator frequently meditates on the undesirability of words) extends to 550 pages. Yet such a glib response to the length of what will no doubt prove to be Michael Green’s magnum opus is inappropriate on at least two counts.

The first is that Green’s subject—the life and times of Franz Pfanner, Trappist monk and unlikely but highly successful missionary—is the stuff of epic and merits the thorough and detailed chronicle he offers.
Pfanner’s star burned brightly in Catholic Europe and Southern Africa during the second half of the 19th century, both reinvigorating and undermining the centuries-old monastic order of which he became one of the most famous, if also one of the most controversial, members.

The second is that Green is acutely aware of (and delights in) the delicious ironies created by telling Pfanner’s story through the self-conscious, self-flagellating and ultimately unreliable narration of Joseph Biegner. A shadowy figure about whom little is known except that he was considered Pfanner’s “right-hand man” for many years, Biegner is a character who—precisely because, as an actual historical personage, he remains so intangible—allows the author to move seamlessly between fact and conjecture, between the known and the imagined.

As Green candidly admits in his author’s note, the “record” of people and events linked to Pfanner’s remarkable life (“records” would be more appropriate: there are already multiple—and conflicting—documented versions) is “at almost every turn stranger and more interesting than my own invention”.

For the Sake of Silence covers Friar Franz’s early ecclesiastical career in Austria; his embrace of the stern Rule of St Benedict, which governs the life of “prayer and work” to which Trappist monks dedicate themselves; his establishment of Mariastern, a priory in Turkish-ruled Bosnia; his naïve commitment to Bishop James Ricards’s doomed enterprise of Dunbrody in the Eastern Cape; his energetic founding not only of the abbey at Mariannhill but of mission stations throughout “Zululand” and “Griqualand East”; and finally his resignation, amid some ignominy, from the Trappist Order.

This might sound dry to the unhistorically minded reader, but behind these achievements lies a tale full of intrigue, deceit, of supernatural visitation and all-too-human jealousy and pride. Throughout, Biegner’s ambiguous narrative withholds or defers information even as it claims to be a confession—for Green’s Friar Joseph is not without guilt in this history of heroic failures and tainted successes.

Indeed, it becomes evident that the novel (For the Sake of Silence is, ultimately, a work of fiction) is about Biegner as much as, if not more than, Pfanner. Even though Green’s research into the Trappist endeavour is impeccable—perhaps one should not be hyperbolical and simply say “thorough”, for reading this book inculcates a wariness about using words with a theological derivation for secular purposes—it is the fictionalised Friar Joseph who commands the greater part of the reader’s attention.

One of the key tenets of the Trappist way of life is, of course, silence; a disdain for words that extends to all forms of writing and correspondence. This is primarily because, as Friar Joseph tells us, “words are generated by the lack of certainty”; and a Trappist monk, though he dedicates his life to contemplation, does not question the foundation of his beliefs.

Joseph purports to celebrate the quiet mental obedience required by the Rule, but his fascination with words is born as much out of an intellectual as it is of a literary bent. He is prone towards both metaphysical and metanarrative speculation; when he derides his own tendency towards circumlocution and repetition, his “inability to tell a story directly to its end”, one knows also how this is linked to “the desire to explain, to convince” (to justify his own “unspeakable” acts) that, in his view, is the source of all language. “Lucifer,” he insists, is “the sovereign of language.”

Author and narrator coalesce in their writerly concerns. Biegner emphasises “what worlds of difference may lurk in the tiniest variations” of grammar, punctuation or diction. Here he has much in common with Green, whose carefully crafted sentences recreate so vividly—even, despite his clear reservations about the colonial “civilising mission”, lovingly—the history in the KwaZulu-Natal landscapes and buildings he has known since he was a child.

For the Sake of Silence by Michael Cawood Green is published by Umuzi

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