|For the Sake of Silence by Michael Cawood Green|
|Monday, 06 October 2008 02:59|
The new novel recently published by Michael Cawood Green, entitled For the Sake of Silence, has considerably enriched the literary-historical landscape of Durban. The signal achievement of this book is the breathe of life it imparts to the former monastery of Mariannhill, by relating the compelling narrative of how the institution was established by a community of silent, contemplative Trappist monks in late 1882.
For most residents of Durban, Mariannhill occupies a somewhat enigmatic space in the cultural milieu of the city, and few people know anything of the background behind the beautiful collection of buildings located near the highway on the way out of town. By means of exhaustive research, Michael Green has created a broad portrait of the Trappist endeavour, littered with rich details of the monks’ lives and the various motives that inspired them.
In the account he provides, the crucial factor in the fortunes of the monastery is its missionary character, which makes it unique among all the other Trappist houses ever established. Green examines the nature of this Christian effort to convert the African population of Natal to the faith of the colonisers, but it is the unintended consequences of this endeavour that forms the heart of the story.
The Trappist Order was originally founded as an enclosed community of contemplative monks, separated from the rest of the world and devoted simply to the search for personal redemption of individual monks. The very success of Mariannhill as a missionary concern ultimately brought it into conflict with the superiors of the Order and finally resulted in the expulsion of Mariannhill from within the Trappist organization in 1909.
The series of events that lead up to this climax not only makes for an absorbing tale, but also demonstrates the fundamental principle that it is impossible to seek transformation in others without bringing about change for oneself. For the Sake of Silence conclusively shows how the impact of colonialism was not restricted to the indigenous population, but brought about significant alterations in some of the most venerable European institutions as well.
Michael Green has followed the historical events surrounding Mariannhill closely, and most of the characters in the novel are based on actual personalities involved with the monastery. The book, however, purposefully blurs the distinction between fiction and historical objectivity and has been described by the author as a work of ‘faction’. Although the impression is created that this version probably reflects what occurred at the monastery, there is never any certainty of where the boundaries of fiction lie.
This ambiguity presents an interesting tension as it rises and falls within the narrative of the book, though history enthusiasts might occasionally feel frustrated when particularly juicy plot developments are resolved in the realm of imagination. This ploy is partly what makes For the Sake of Silence an ambitious undertaking, as well as the minute detail it gives of Trappist life, missionary work and monastic conflict. The book runs to more than 540 pages and can feel like quite heavy going at times, but it fills an important niche in Durban’s creative and historical context.