The Gurkhas in Malaya
cut the tongues of mules
so they were silent beasts of burden
in enemy territories
after such cruelty what could they speak of anyway
(from “White Dwarfs” by Michael Ondaatje)

We know silence. We bend our heads for one minute’s silence at times of terrible commemoration. We turn away in mute horror from scenes or enactments of real atrocity. We tend not to speak into another’s tragedy or despair.

Such speechlessness is an apt response to atrocity. It is a human and humane reaction to the brutality of some and the pain of others. Describing the photographs of the inmates of concentration camps taken at the end of World War II, Inga Clendinnen says, “[t]here is a decent and natural tendency to drop our glance and to defer to those eyes, as there is to defer to any words that might come from those dry lips. We know as we look that our experience cannot encompass theirs” (25).

In any artistic portrayal of real atrocity there are many risks. There is the risk of trivialising human suffering in the name of art or, worse still, entertainment. There is the risk of presenting what Susan Sontag calls a “terrible distinctness” in the artistic portrayal of such “unnecessary, indecent information” (56). There is the risk of fuelling an abhorrent fascination with, or a chilling indifference towards, bodily suffering. There is the risk of resorting to implausible happy-ever-after outcomes quite at odds with the traumatic horrors of war or genocide. Lawrence Langer, writing about Holocaust literature, asks: “How should art – how can art – represent the inexpressibly inhuman suffering of the victims, without doing an injustice to that suffering? […] There is something disagreeable, almost dishonourable, in the conversion of the suffering of victims into works of art” (1).

Maybe he is right. Maybe there is something despicable about translating real violence into art. As Robert MacDonald says in his introduction to Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in 1970:

The position of the artist in dealing with material of this nature is particularly difficult. As the one man whose imagination should be capable of mastering such material, he is necessarily compelled to try to do so. Yet it is the nature of artistic experience that, if it cannot be directly absorbed as being immediately relevant to its audience, it will inevitably degenerate more or less into a purely aesthetic stimulus, exciting or depressing as this case may be… The danger inherent in this view is that it is all too easy to begin to appreciate the play of colour, light and form in the mushroom cloud, as it hangs over the stricken city, because the enormities that are taking place below it are no longer possible to grasp. (ix)

Yet in looking away are we not abdicating the responsibility to address such acts of atrocity? In shutting our eyes to terror or in relegating such events to the stone cold basement of history or the insubstantial domain of memory are we not in league with those who perpetrated such crimes in the belief that their acts will be left unaddressed? Perhaps this is the biggest lie of all, when we allow such travesties as war, genocide or slavery to fall off our cultural radar altogether.

J. M. Coetzee, André Brink and Martin Booth join other contemporary writers in refusing to close their eyes to such violence. Writing on the barbarity of slavery, the genocide in Namibia and the horrors of World War I Coetzee in Foe (1987), Brink in The Other Side of Silence (2003) and Booth in Islands of Silence (2003) acknowledge that the appropriation of pain through literature can itself be a further act of violation. Rather than looking away, however, they use a range of postmodern techniques to negotiate these challenges to literary representation. One such technique is, ironically, silence – a profound and self-conscious silence in the form of a mute character adopted by each of these writers to embody the horror of a real life event.

André Brink’s The Other Side of Silence tells the story of Hanna X, one of hundreds of young German women who were transported to Namibia to serve as wives, mistresses or sex slaves for the German colonising army in the early twentieth century. Following a brutal sexual attack by a group of German army officers, Hanna X is left maimed and disfigured. She has also had her tongue cut out. She is eventually taken to Frauenstein, a hidden outpost far in the Namibian desert where the small community of physically and emotionally wounded women are left to fade into the shadowy zone of rumour, myth and conveniently forgotten history. Frauenstein symbolises the isolation of Hanna X herself, devoid even of a surname, lost in official records, hidden away in a remote corner of the “interminable silence of the desert” (12). Her story is thus locked and double locked in silence – the silence of tonguelessness, of remote incarceration and of “official intervention” (6). Within these reclusive walls Hanna learns that even the written word will fail to tell her story. The pages that she fills with an account of her attackers are left unread – the woman in charge at Frauenstein simply assuming that these notes validate the incorrect story that saw innocent Namibians murdered for Hanna’s wounds. Eventually Hanna burns all her notes, at first shaking with rage, then with a terrible calmness: “she grows more weary and her movements slow down, a deeper, inexplicable satisfaction spreads through her. Yes, this is a necessary act. How could it be otherwise? What she has written did not deserve to be told. It was not the truth, couldn’t ever have been the truth, the whole, and nothing but. How could she have presumed so much? The truth cannot be told, that is why it is the truth” (90).

This failure of the orderly and presumably civilised structures of language to depict inhuman barbarity is further exacerbated by the fact that Hanna can only write in German, the language of her attackers. Her culture is their culture. As Brink says, “words have their own past and their own dark geography with them” (56), and words, once used as tools of oppression and hatred, are no longer considered trustworthy vehicles for truth. Certainly the silence of those who bear testimony to terror, and who have suffered at the hands of those who use language to implement those crimes, is an apt commentary on the redundancy of language to portray the excessive level of barbarity as seen in the extreme sexual violence inflicted upon Hanna X.

In lieu of speech, the only truth that Hanna can present to the wider community is that held within her battered and scarred body: “There is nothing more they can take from her,” Brink writes (85). When Hanna finally succeeds in finding Hauptmann Heinrich Bohlke, the man who ordered her mutilation, her revenge is not through verbal accusation or through the use of the gun that she brings with her. She simply reveals to him her naked, disfigured body. At this moment she becomes – she is – the embodiment of unsightly barbarity and suffering, unprotected by the distancing mechanisms of literary analysis, the aesthetics of the well-crafted novel or any insistence on meaning. She knows she will later be arrested and probably killed, but in presenting her damaged body – and later forcing the officer to walk naked through the streets of the town – she tells her story more eloquently and, Brink argues, more truthfully than any number of words.

According to Laura Tanner, “violence twists its victims into the status of uncontestable embodiment; instead of manipulating language to construct a representation, the violator offers a hermeneutics of destruction in which the basic unit is physical rather than semiotic, a piece of the human body rather than the word” (6). In presenting the mute body of the victim, Brink, as with the other authors studied here, forces the reader to confront the unadulterated truth of barbarity, the dehumanising viewpoint of the aggressor and, as Tanner predicts, the collapse of the human spirit as language subsides beneath the irrefutable weight of the body as the prime evidence of pain and trauma.

This dependence on the physicality of the victim is also central to Foe by J. M. Coetzee. This work is a rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe(1719). In this version, however, the character of Friday, representing the untold story of African slaves (Defoe’s description suggested that Crusoe’s fellow castaway was South American Indian), is mute. Like Hanna X he has had his tongue cut out.

According to the elderly Cruso, tending his terraced gardens on his remote and unnamed island, previous slaveowners committed this brutal act. The main storyteller, Susan Barton, does not disregard the possibility that Cruso himself may have cut out Friday’s tongue. Either way, she reasons, “it was truly an unnatural crime, like chancing upon a stranger and slaying him for no other cause than to keep him from telling the world who slew him” (84).

Whoever was responsible for Friday’s tonguelessness – whether it was Cruso, a previous slaveowner or the canon of western writing itself – his story remains the subject of guesswork throughout the novel. This presents a constant dilemma for Susan who desperately wants to know his history as part of the bigger project of having Foe, the author, write an account of their unadventurous lives on the island and so validate her own textual wholeness through the act of textualisation. Friday’s speechlessness boycotts this project. As Susan says, “To tell my story and be silent of Friday’s tongue is no better than offering a book for sale with pages in it quietly left empty. Yet the only tongue that can tell Friday’s secret is the tongue he has lost” (67).

And if Friday cannot speak, who has the right to speak on his behalf?

Cruso, representing the old face of colonialism, fails to learn or tell the story of Friday through the sheer disinterest of the increasingly redundant “master race”. Indeed, Cruso has himself been cast adrift from his own culture’s founding narratives – he has kept no journal, he has no desire to go back to his home country (he dies on the journey back to England) and he has lost “any distinction between truth and fiction” (Attridge 76).

As for Foe, his considerations go little further than the pragmatic reality of a reading public eager for excitement, intrigue and maybe a little shock value. Without the full facts or a simulacrum of the facts (and for him either will do), he does not believe he has a viable story to tell. As he explains to Susan “‘The island lacks light and shade. It is too much the same throughout. It is like a loaf of bread. It will keep us alive, certainly, if we are starved of reading; but who will prefer it when there are tastier confections and pastries to be had?’” (117).

For Susan, Friday’s story cannot be told thanks to her more liberal understanding of the issues of representation. She knows she does not have the right to speak on Friday’s behalf, even while admitting such “empty pages” run counter to the nature of successful writing. Yet Susan is still desperate to have her and Friday’s story completed. This desire is not driven by a sincere search for truth. Rather it is her hope for a comforting sense of normality. When she dreams of Friday’s recovered speech she anticipates not a new understanding into his past but simply a return to happier times when Friday “lived immersed in the prattle of words as unthinking as a fish in water” (60). This reassuring world of words is desired simply because it placates her nervousness over the proximity of another’s voicelessness and whatever dark crimes this silence may be sheltering. The fact that such prattle lacks any real communication does not diminish its importance for her in the slightest.

Susan’s arguments suggest that those who remain voiceless – the colonised, the conquered and the abused – remain worryingly incomplete because their names do not appear in “the book”, that canon created by the dominant culture at the very expense of those voices left in silence. Yet such dependence on voice and writtenness increases the risk of fabrication or exaggeration. Susan constantly toys with the possibility of using words to alter, manipulate and expand upon reality. She considers adding a few cannibals to her story to arouse Foe’s interest – a nod to Daniel Defoe’s highly exaggerated fictional version of the real experiences of Alexander Selkirk who survived for five years on an island in the Chilean Sea.

Even though Friday doggedly resists translation into Susan Barton’s colonising narrative, we are aware that he is still vulnerable to the art – or artfulness – of narration. Susan herself admits that Friday’s silence is not without its benefits to the dominant (writing and speaking) culture. In her dealings with Friday, she says, there are “times that benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will” (60). And as she later tells Foe, “I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal […] what he is to the world is what I make of him. Therefore the silence of a Friday is a helpless silence” (121-2). Foe’s later response reiterates the narrator’s admission that the untold stories of a group or tribe robbed of its voice is vulnerable to false or misguided interpretations: “[w]e deplore the barbarism of whoever maimed [Friday] yet have we, his later masters, not reason to be secretly grateful? For as long as he is dumb we can tell ourselves his desires are dark to us, and continue to use him as we wish” (148).

In analysing the accounts of disenfranchised peoples, Richard Todd describes the process of “recovery” by which novelists give voice to the “dispossessed”, while noting that the reader must remember that the author is nevertheless “inventing that voice” (198). Coetzee rejects such a process – he alerts the reader to the dispossessed without extending the process of invention to a transgressive assumption of voice. The telling of another’s story, he insists, is in itself an act of plunder. In refusing to describe Friday’s story, Coetzee relinquishes his role as sole authority for meaning and identity, distancing himself from the norms of narration in order to avoid himself the “unnatural crime” of analysing cultural domination through the literature of the dominant culture.

The paradox, of course, lies in his very attempt to bring Friday into our imagination. While Coetzee does not give a voice to Friday or to the whole experience of black slavery, he draws our attention to his voicelessness and the inadequacy of the canon of western literature to speak on behalf of the subjugated Other. As Susan says, “many stories can be told of Friday’s tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found means of giving a voice to Friday” (118).

Again, where art flounders the physicality of the body steps in to fill this very appropriate lacuna. Ever present and cruelly maimed Friday stands, like Hanna X, as a constant if often uncomfortable reminder of the challenges to literary representation when confronting the very literal voicelessness of a subjected people.

In Martin Booth’s 2003 novel Islands of Silence World War I veteran Alec Marquand, is similarly defined by his fellow hospital patients and medical staff by his physical presence – an aging man confined to a wheelchair sitting demurely in the hospital gardens. His twenty-year silence is a response to the horror of his wartime experiences, including the repellant act of eating human flesh, and is echoed by the strangely mythical story of baby girl cocooned on an island far from the world of human voices as part of a cruel experiment to discover the “paradisiac language that was instinctive to mankind. That is, the language of God” (116). This experiment has all the key elements of a Shakespearean tragedy – autocratic power, deluded zealotry and the irrevocable chasm between speech and silence, the said and the unsaid. Yet these elements also define Alec’s present-day incarceration in silence. Resisting all attempts by the medical staff to tell his story, Alec holds within his silent body the truth of barbaric warfare and cannibalism – the antithesis of the supposed glory of battle.

Booth draws the analogy between the silent war victim, the witness of man’s worst travesties, and the mythological sineater who wandered the countryside absolving the sins of those who died without confession. This thankless creature was despised, feared, weighed down by the sins of humanity, and he carried on this task until the hag, Baba Yaga, lead him to his death.

In a monstrous degeneration of the religious idea of the chosen one, Alec believes that he is the one who will similarly hold the knowledge of human atrocity secure from the rest of his community. “Once I start to speak,” he says, “I know that it will be like uncorking a never-empty bottle containing all the evils ever devised by man and would not wish to subject [the nurse] to the torrent of despair and degradation to which I have been privy” (85).

Marquand’s silence epitomises the challenges faced by the writer of terror, the risks involved in articulating human suffering and the very human sense of aversion to those who carry the proof of man’s inhumanity to man. Divorced from speech Alec, like Friday and Hanna X, fails to deflect the violence of his society back on to his community. In this failure each of these characters is kept on the margins of social networks and normal human discourse so central to the form of the novel. They are ignored, avoided or ostracised. They are – to differing degrees – restrained from voicing their experiences even to the reader. They have witnessed the more barbaric side of human behaviour, and they hold this knowledge deep within their scarred or damaged bodies.

If, as Georg Lukács says, the novel is built on the “autonomous life of interiority” and an outcome “determined by human will” (66), such assumptions of interiority, autonomy, hope and human will are all severely tested by the reality of physical pain and trauma. There is no ending to terror. There is no redemption, no satisfactory conclusion. Yet in entrusting such violence to the unspeaking form of a mute character these authors avoid the risks inherent in graphic descriptions of the violated or the transgressive assumption of voice, while refusing to support the lie of complete non-disclosure.



Derek Attridge (2004). J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event(Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Martin Booth (2003). Islands of Silence (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing).

André Brink (2003). The Other Side of Silence (London: Vintage).

Inga Clendinnen (1998). Reading the Holocaust (Melbourne: Text).

J.M Coetzee (1987). Foe (London: Penguin).

Daniel Defoe (1972). The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner…/ Written by Himself (London: Folio Society).

Rosemary Jane Jolly (1996). Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press).

Jerzy Kosinski (1970). The Painted Bird (New York: Modern Library, Random House).

Lawrence L. Langer (1995). Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press).

George Lukacs (1977). The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philisophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Tr. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Kimberly Wedeven Segall (2005). ‘Pursuing Ghosts: The Traumatic Sublime in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace’ ( link

Susan Sontag (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin).

Laura Tanner (1994). Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

Richard Todd (1996). Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (London: Bloomsbury).