The frustrated narrators of the Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto occupy a unique vantage in mid-20th-century fiction. Blending the futility of Kafka’s surveyors with the inner turmoil of Dostoyevsky’s underground men, Di Benedetto’s martyrs of deferment await a deliverance that never comes. Their lives—inert, almost parenthetical—offer up the psychological extremity of stasis. Madness, obsession, and terminal lassitude hang in equipoise from his subtle systems of narrative suspension. Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel The Silentiary, recently reissued, is the second book in his “trilogy of expectation”—following Zama (1956)—a loosely related series marked by its mordant fascination with historical circumstance. In that earlier novel, an 18th-century lawyer rots in a provincial town while awaiting hopeful news from the capital. (It opens with a dead monkey caught in a river’s eddies, “ready to go and not going.”) The Silentiary trades this obscure backwater for what Di Benedetto, in an arch prefatory note, calls “a city in Latin America as of the late postwar era.” There, a nameless middle manager is driven insane by the sounds of the modern world: “I open the gate and meet the noise,” the novel begins. Di Benedetto’s lean, existential fictions have always dramatized the impossibility of living. Here, amid the cacophony of lathes, motorcycles, and construction sites, an enigmatic parable takes shape. Its beguiling ambiguity seems partly the point—the coherence of modern life, Di Benedetto suggests, is nearly indecipherable, or at least drowned out by so much noise.
Like his narrators, Di Benedetto knew what it was to wait. He was born in 1922 in Mendoza, a small town in western Argentina some 600 miles from the cultural center of Buenos Aires. Where writers like Cortázar and Borges embraced literary cosmopolitanism—“Our patrimony is the universe,” the latter asserted—Di Benedetto suffered the regionalist’s wounded pride. He remained in Mendoza for most of his life, working as a newspaperman and film critic. Something of this provincial sympathy suffuses his fictions, which often feature protagonists both desirous of and at odds with urban sophistication. His first book, the short story collection Mundo Animal (1953), betrays the influence of the great modernists, Kafka in particular. Zama brought Di Benedetto to the attention of Latin American critics, who perhaps wishfully made him out to be a homegrown champion of the ascendant nouveau roman. The rest of the trilogy would follow—so named after Zama’s dedication, “To the victims of expectation”—along with several story collections. But greater success proved elusive: He never experienced the popularity conferred upon the other writers of the “boom.” When a military coup overthrew Isabel Perón in 1976, Di Benedetto was labeled a subversive and imprisoned for 18 months. Released only after appeals from an international cadre of writers, he fled into Spanish exile and died in 1986.
His star has belatedly risen. Following its reissue in 2015, Zama was hailed as a classic of postwar Latin American literature. (Lucrecia Martel’s celebrated 2017 film based on the novel has only bolstered its reputation.) Into this Di Benedettian renaissance comes The Silentiary, appearing for the first time in English in a crisp translation by Esther Allen. Di Benedetto substantially revised the novel just before his imprisonment. The resultant work elevated the noirish source material, lending the problem of noise a greater philosophical heft. Eschewing the lyricism and stylistic play of his countrymen, Di Benedetto carved a novel of ideas from the century’s hardening mass of paranoia and delusion. In this way—cool, metaphysical, and aesthetically sober—Th Silentiary suggests a parallel path for the Latin American novel.
The Silentiary moves slowly, operating on a principle of escalating antagonism. Di Benedetto, who worked as a screenwriter, sets starkly filmic scenes in which the juddering impositions of life swim up to the novel’s proffered light. The narrator gets by with a neurotic’s improvisational ability, which is to say mostly unconvincingly. (“I seem to be living out a kind of documentary film about anxiety,” he says—another nod to the movies.) He lives with his mother and isn’t liked at work. His only friend is a mystic intellectual named Basarión, who engages in clandestine activities he won’t divulge. His love life is largely unsatisfactory: He desires a woman named Leila but ends up marrying her friend Nina. News of the union and a subsequent child are relayed briefly and without emotion.
A frustrated creative endeavor supplies the novel’s first crisis. When an industrial shed is built next to the narrator’s home, it upends his plan to write a crime novel. The daily clamor—“Grinding machines, roaring ovens, shuddering motors, gigantic rivets, the loading and unloading of metal plates, the inexhaustibly patient saws used for slicing up blocks of marble”—acts as a metaphor for some deeper humiliation. The narrator’s dignity is eroded by the material fact of modernity and its desire for unyielding forward progress. There may be a Luddite’s hostility animating this anti-modern posture, or else an imagined—and possibly reactionary—sense of cultural discontinuity. (Di Benedetto had politically conservative leanings.) Though he’s only in his 20s, one wouldn’t be surprised if the narrator spent afternoons haranguing clouds. He is somehow prematurely aged, a colonial holdout striding across the face of the midcentury. Like Zama’s lawyer, he is both of his time and somehow outside it, an amalgamation of the past’s confusion and the future’s terror. The present is a trap he chews through his own limbs to escape. His willingness to engage with life disperses before the wounding novelty of radios and public dances. “Noise has become the sign or symbol of all that is now,” he announces, mid-breakdown, “of all that is new, all that possesses weight and validity: the rupture.” But a rupture of what? It isn’t at all clear he’d be able to answer the question.
In lieu of buckling down and writing, he moves his mother and young wife from boarding house to boarding house, ever in search of elusive silence. Given how much of the city is described, it remains curiously featureless, adrift in its own inscrutable inertia. Is it large? Small? Bustling or semi-bucolic? Nothing is fixed; the only landmarks are pockets of noise. This ambiguity arises not from an imprecision of language but from the icy detachment of the narrator’s mind. As a guide, he tells us little. One street is much like another: something to stake out, hallucinate, or escape. Slowly his stagnation produces intense melancholy, a not unfamiliar process in the Di Benedettian mythos. Bereft of possibilities, he takes to his bed with a neurasthenic’s enthusiasm.
The novel is also a fable of failed ordinance. The narrator appeals routinely to authority, but a comic futility attends his efforts; no wrongs are ever properly redressed. The policemen are winking, knowing figures, semi-demonic in the manner of K.’s assistants in The Castle. “We have to be tolerant,” one officer says of a noisy party. “They’re having fun.” Meanwhile, the narrator reads mandates to himself as if they were sacred texts, seeking some clarifying revelation: “In order to minimize resonance outside the building, dance floor, or courtyard where the sound is produced, the loudspeakers must be tilted towards the ground at an angle of x degrees.” He believes he might bring about silence through regulation, not seeing that lust, money, and pleasure—the noisy stuff of life—evade these restrictions as a matter of course, indeed depend on such excesses for their ultimate effect.
He turns to the dour ballast of Schopenhauer for stability. (The German pessimist’s appearance in the novel was one of Di Benedetto’s later revisions.) “Eminent spirits—Kant, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean-Paul—have always shown an extreme dislike to disturbance in any form,” the narrator reads. “Above all have they been averse to that violent interruption that comes from noise. Ordinary people are not much put out by anything of the sort.” A kind of mental schism betrays itself here, as the narrator aligns himself with genius. His own denial—“I can’t claim to be an eminent spirit”—is far-fetched, the unread footnote to his own exalted pronouncements. He counts himself “among the ranks of those who can be interrupted or disturbed,” a brotherhood of intellectual sensitivity. He fantasizes the terms of his renown, not as the schizophrenic archetype of the persecuted Christ but rather as the equal of the Weltgeist.
This apprehension compels him to send articles about intrusive sound to a journalist friend, Reato. Seeing an angle, Reato publishes them under his own name in the local paper. We are treated to pages of newspaper clippings sketching a global profile of racket: the slower development of children who live near demolition sites; the elegant silence of a French film’s conclusion; a treatise on decibels and human behavior; the futuristic possibility of personal “noise-deflectors”; the crisis of deafness in those who listen to rock and roll. Di Benedetto allows his narrator the ultimate crank fantasy: writing letters to the editor that are not only read but printed and admired. Reato’s articles become unexpectedly popular, and he is given a fast track to a political future. But the narrator’s sudden influence does nothing to change his predicament. Di Benedetto, a career newspaperman himself, finally concedes the impotence of the press. A glinting vein of humor shows itself here before disappearing once more beneath the ground.
The narrator’s search for silence inflicts the extremity of that condition on those closest to him. The quiet, careful lives of the novel’s women are particularly painful to read; his wife, for instance, frets over the sounds their infant makes, ever aware of the delicacy of her husband’s sleep. When he attempts to explain that such noises don’t bother him—“sounds that are made by the little one, because he’s our little one, are beloved sounds”—she only covers her head with the bedspread. He hardly notices the orbit of these insulated lives, the little freeholds of quiet by which he’s surrounded. When the novel climaxes with a feat of semi-accidental arson, one is very nearly pleased to hear of the upbraiding he receives from his long-suffering wife.
Despite its brevity and the soberness of its prose, the novel acquires a mysterious, profligate abundance, a kind of superfluity of possible meanings. As a parable, it is perhaps overburdened: There hovers over each scene a malaise of unknowing. J.M. Coetzee has called the narrator’s search “a hopeless quest for the primordial silence preceding the divine logos that brought the world into being.” The narrator himself would agree: “Silence preceded the Creation,” he intones. “Silence was the uncreated, and we, the created, emerged from silence.” But this seems to me a frothy head of philosophizing set atop something that is thicker and murkier and finally impenetrable. Di Benedetto’s strange, austere book of foiled escapes and delicate cruelties glows with a lunar abstraction. Near the novel’s end, a classic existentialist assertion is reformulated: “Other people are sonority itself.” In this case, hell is an echo.