This afternoon I finally jumped in to Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary (the original title, El silenciero means something like “the silencer,” I think). We have an unnamed narrator living in an unnamed Latin America in a not-entirely unspecified time (“as of the late postwar era”). Our narrator is an office worker who lives with his mother. He dreams of being a writer and is in love with a neighbor. He despises noise, which is too bad because an autoshop has just opened up right next to his bedroom wall.
There’s a Kafkaesque vibe to The Silentiary—everything’s a bit uncanny, a wavelength off. The narrator is a wavelength off, I suppose. The prose is sometimes crisp and economic, and then zips out into wonderfully estranging images, like this odd sentence just a few pages in:
At dawn, the daylight a glaze of watery milk on the widowpanes, as my mind, jerked into a state of alertness, discerns a noise attached to the rear wall of my room, something like my heart grows agitated within me.
Or this little moment, longer than a haiku but still in the same spirit:
Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.
I told him that noise stalks and harries me.
Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.
It took me a few dozen pages to attune to the humor of The Silentiary. It’s just as odd and dry as the dark humor in Di Benedetto’s 1965 novel Zama, but again, a wavelength off, a different flavor from the same palate. An episode of drinking that ends with our narrator carried home by his fellows is particularly entertaining. When I type out the description the bit seems hardly subtle. But it is.
More thoughts to come, but for now here’s NYRB’s blurb:
The Silentiary takes place in a nameless Latin American city during the early 1950s. A young man employed in middle management entertains an ambition to write a book of some sort. But first he must establish the necessary precondition, which the crowded and noisily industrialized city always denies him, however often he and his mother and wife move in search of it. He thinks of embarking on his writing career with something simple, a detective novel, and ponders the possibility of choosing a victim among the people he knows and planning a crime as if he himself were the killer. That way, he hopes, his book might finally begin to take shape.
The Silentiary, along with Zama and The Suicides, is one of the three thematically linked novels by Di Benedetto that have come to be known as the Trilogy of Expectation, after the dedication “To the victims of expectation” in Zama. Together they constitute, in Juan José Saer’s words, “one of the culminating moments of twentieth-century narrative fiction in Spanish.”