And Not Towards Peace: Afterword to Antonio Di Benedetto’s The Silentiary
by Esther Allen
Di Benedetto’s sentences do not seek to create admiration for their author’s verbal dexterity; The Silentiary openly mocks the futility of that game: “Odious odysseys of words, oh dioses!” Di Benedetto’s style actively courts underestimation, inviting the reader to overlook what he’s doing, or dismiss it as minor, secondary. His music does not try to interrupt the noises of the world.
In the year 1790, Don Diego de Zama, a high-ranking official of the Spanish Empire, marooned in Asunción, Paraguay—he hopes temporarily—tries to expand his awareness to take in the full enormity of the territory around him. “Here was I,” he muses, “in the midst of a vast Continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs. America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.” In Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, America is the immense New World region ruled from afar for centuries by the Spanish Crown, and Don Diego, a man born in the Empire’s overseas territories, is an americano, an American. Though his career in the Empire’s bureaucracy has been impressive, his status as an American makes him, irrevocably, the social inferior of the Spaniards around him.
Already, before it begins, the next novel Di Benedetto published, eight years later, abolishes, with a single modifier, Zama’s anguished sense of that strange and desolate paradise that belongs to him alone. Set apart from and preceding it, like an epigraph, a brief sentence situates The Silentiary in the postwar years following 1950, and in a city in “América Latina.” Which is no longer America itself.
In a celebrated lecture delivered in Buenos Aires in 1936, when Antonio Di Benedetto was barely a teenager, the Mexican philosopher Alfonso Reyes confronted this nomenclatural conundrum. Its title is “Notas sobre la inteligencia americana” (“Notes on the American Mind”) but in the opening line Reyes clarifies: “My observations are limited to what is called Latin America.” Having established this, the lecture goes on to eschew the adjective, referring simply to America and Americans, whose unique misfortune it is, says Reyes, “to have been born and have their roots in a soil that was not the current focal point of civilization, but instead a kind of subsidiary branch of the world.”
The nameless narrator of The Silentiary finds himself mutilated by this same specification, “limited to what is called Latin America.” Like Don Diego de Zama, he chafes at local circumstances; neither the city he lives in, where he was born and grew up, nor its vast adjacent territories excite him. Traveling on his honeymoon, all he finds is more of the same. Only the fantastical European journeys of his friend Besarión, perhaps a foreigner himself, can offer the consolation of an elsewhere, to complement his readings in European literature.
At the same time, another elsewhere has arrived on his doorstep and is imposing itself, invading his home. When a repair shop next door sets up a stereo system on the sidewalk, the equipment is characterized as American, and the music it broadcasts is also American. Its Americanness is alien, harsh, and grating, as is the “parsimonious English arithmetic” of the foreign words the loudspeaker repairmen repeat at high volume during their sound checks, which are, in the original Spanish, “one, two, three, four, five…”
Parallel intimations of an aural invasion by an alien America likewise crop up here and there in the mid-20th century literature of the United States. John Updike’s 1958 novel The Poorhouse Fair is set in a U.S. where “every other movie star was a Cuban or mestizo or something, as if you had to be brown to look like anything.” The most remarkable evocation of such an invasion is “The Supremacy of Uruguay,” a 1933 humor piece by E.B. White, in which a Uruguayan, inspired by a visit to New York City’s Times Square, returns home to create an invincible sonic weapon: the chorus of a romantic ditty, hugely amplified and repeated ad infinitum, which quickly induces benign insanity in all who are subjected to it. The Uruguayan government mounts vast loudspeakers on swift, gleaming airplanes, and “there fell upon all the world, except Uruguay, a sound the equal of which had never been heard on land or sea.” Life goes on much as usual among the subjugated peoples of the earth, except that no one can say or think anything but “thanks… for the unforgettable nights I never can replace”: the weaponized song lyric. Somewhat to the Uruguayans’ disappointment, none of the world’s nations puts up any resistance or even notices, in their lunacy, that Uruguay has conquered them, and “Billions dwelt contentedly in a fool’s paradise.” It all comes to an end when a few American children grew up, recovered their senses, “and destroyed mankind without a trace.”
I first ran across White’s curious little tale in Havana, while leafing through copies of the illustrated Cuban weekly Revista Bohemia in the archives of the national library. The issue of June 11, 1965—a year after The Silentiary was published—includes “La Supremacía de Uruguay” alongside vehement denunciations of the Yankee invasion of the Dominican Republic the previous month, in which thousands of Dominicans lost their lives. Some years later the U.S. troops that invaded Panama in 1989, leaving about 650 Panamanians dead in their wake, seemed to be enacting a mashup of E.B. White’s tale and The Silentiary’s idea of “war noise” when they tried to flush Manuel Noriega out of his presidential palace by parking Humvees with loudspeakers mounted on top all around, blasting it nonstop day and night with pounding rock and roll at top volume.
The post-war era (the years 1950 and thereafter) was a period of heightened interest in silence, and in noise. In 1952, John Cage’s 4’33” was first performed in Woodstock, New York. Cage would later call this composition in three movements—of 33 seconds, 2 minutes 40 seconds, and 1 minute 20 seconds—his most important work. According to its score, “any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists” can perform it. The performance consists in not playing the instrument(s). The piece draws on silence and on the omnipresence of noise. (The John Cage trust has recently made it available as an iPhone app, which features a recording of the “ambient sounds at play in John Cage’s last New York apartment.”) The unplayed piano the narrator of The Silentiary lugs from boarding house to boarding house might be an allusion to Cage’s piece, or the product of a parallel line of reflection. Except that 4’33” can be understood as a celebration of omnipresent noise, precisely the condition of existence that makes Di Benedetto’s narrator’s life unbearable.
At moments, The Silentiary’s narrator wants to blame noise on the time period he lives in, the particular circumstances of postwar urban life, with its stereos, loudspeakers, transistor radios, and TV sets, its defective zoning laws that allow auto-body shops in residential neighborhoods. (The urban planning solution the narrator proposes is similar to one formulated by the architect Louis Kahn for Philadelphia in the 1950s.) But he also resists this presentist analysis, citing an essay by Schopenhauer on disruptive noise in general and whipcracking in particular. When he and his new wife retreat to the countryside, he’s inconsolable to be met with the deafening clang of the village blacksmith. There is no idyllic “before” that might be restored to solve his problem.
In a conversation that seems to flow from the pages of an Argentine novel published only two years earlier, John Cage and his friend and fellow composer Morton Feldman, during a series of programs called Radio Happenings broadcast on WBAI in 1966 and 1967, pondered the condition of “continually being intruded upon.” They agreed, to begin with, that it was not simply an issue of noisy new “hypnotic devices.”
Feldman: Years ago the radio was blaring, I think that there were just as many intrusions as there are today. But I didn’t hear them. Today I hear them. So there must be something there that seems to be competing with me… Or, let’s put it this way: that my own role has been weakened psychologically.
Cage: What was your role?
Feldman: The old-fashioned role of the artist, deep in thought.
Against Feldman’s anger and irritation, Cage contends that “This is a coin that has two sides.” He cites the French composer Erik Satie, who said, “what we need is a music which will not interrupt the noises of the environment…” “Say you think of your thoughts as the reality… what you wish to have as a reality, and the environment as an intrusion,” Cage asserts. “Then that Satie remark just turns it over and says the reality is the environment: what you want to do in it is an intrusion.”
This coin with two sides—the reality in oneself vs. the reality outside—evokes the terms of the combat established between the fourth-century Saint Anthony of Egypt and the devil, who by a series of visions tempted the saint to emerge from the sanctity of his own being, a struggle that inspired Breughel, Flaubert, and many others. In The Silentiary, the unusual name of the narrator’s friend, Besarión, is shared by a disciple of Saint Anthony’s, Saint Bessarion of Egypt, who led the life of a wanderer and was known for having said “I cannot live under a roof.”
Early Christian ascetics were a continuing source of inspiration for Di Benedetto. In one of the best-known of his short stories, a 19th-century gaucho named Aballay learns about the fourth-century stylites who lived on high pillars for the mortification of their bodies. In an act of penitence, Aballay resolves to emulate them and spend the rest of his life without ever dismounting from his horse. The possibility of sacrifice, mortification, and subsequent redemption comes up several times in The Silentiary, particularly with regard to Besarión, to whom the narrator attributes a “capacity to destroy himself for the greater good.” By the novel’s end, the narrator’s own capacity for sacrifice is at issue. Now incarcerated, the silentiary has a dream that alludes to the Biblical story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. The dream brings in a glimmer of redemption, the notion that the narrator’s action—specifically his refusal to defend himself, though innocent of the crime he’s charged with—might be understood as a heroically redemptive attempt to save his mother, wife, and son from the “instrument-of-not-allowing-to-be” that he has become. That is, his imprisonment could be a form of expiation, a way of saving himself and his family from the crimes he has committed—against them. This possibility was one that Di Benedetto later rejected.
There’s no indication that Di Benedetto thought of Zama, The Silentiary, and The Suicides—the novels he published in 1956, 1964, and 1969—as a trilogy. No one else, during his lifetime, seems to have suggested that the three be read that way. These were not his only novels; there were two others, his first, El pentágono (1955), and his last, Sombras, nada mas (1985), published the year before his death. But many readers viewed the three middle novels as his best. And certain parallels between them, perhaps even a continuity among them, were observed. All, to begin with, are “soliloquies,” as Juan José Saer points out in the introduction to The Silentiary he wrote thirteen years after Di Benedetto’s death, where, by the authority invested in him as one of Argentina’s greatest living writers, he pronounced the three novels a trilogy. The relationship thus established has endured the test of time. In 2011, the Barcelona house El Aleph brought the three out in a single volume titled Trilogia de la espera; Adriana Hidalgo, the house that has done the most to champion Di Benedetto’s work since his death, did the same in 2017, under a similar title, Trilogía: Las novelas de la espera (Trilogy: The Novels of Expectation), drawn from the epigraph of Zama: “To the victims of expectation.”
Saer’s bold assertion that these books constitute a trilogy has thrived because reading them as a trilogy enriches each one, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. While their narratives are widely separated in time, a forward temporal current runs through them, making the overall tripartite structure echo that of Zama, which is divided into three sections titled 1790, 1794 and 1799. The Silentiary is set a century and a half later, in the recent past of the early 1950s, fifteen years or so before it was written, while The Suicides completes the movement into the present, taking place during the late 1960s, contemporary to when it was written and published.
In all three novels, the narrator’s father is dead (an absence barely mentioned in Zama but crucial in The Suicides), while his mother and wife and/or lovers are alive and needy. Though no character explicitly reappears, the emphasis Zama places on Don Diego’s name, combined with the marked namelessness of the two subsequent narrators, suggests that the protagonists of all three may be the same being, a man in his thirties, acted upon, remade, by different environments, expectations, and historical circumstances. Yet the three characters are also dissimilar, particularly in their relationship to writing. Don Diego is a bureaucrat who has no use for literature. The silentiary is also a bureaucrat, a mid-level corporate manager, but he dreams, fruitlessly, of being a writer. And the narrator of The Suicides is a working writer like Di Benedetto, who earned his living as a journalist for most of his life. The namelessness of the two latter protagonists hints that they are not only contemporaries of their author, but also stand-ins for him.
That hypothesis is bolstered by Di Benedetto’s decision to situate The Silentiary and The Suicides in an also-nameless city that much resembles his native Mendoza, capital of a wine-growing region in the west of Argentina. The Silentiary alludes several times to Mendoza’s characteristic acequias, deep irrigation ditches originally dug by the Huarpe, an agricultural people who first settled the area in the 3rd century AD. The acequias were such a successful water management system that their use expanded after the Spanish conquest, even in urban areas, where very deep gutters continue, to this day, to imperil heedless pedestrians.
The most powerful force acting upon these three novels to make them converge into a whole is not autobiography but history: their searing foresight into the future course of their author’s life and Argentine history. Which, in retrospect, they seem to expect. The ineluctable movement into the present they trace can also be read as a movement towards totalitarianism, which, with the support and consent of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, came to full power in Argentina following a military coup d’état on March 24, 1976. That same day, officers came to arrest Antonio Di Benedetto as he sat working at his desk at the Mendoza newspaper Los Andes; for the next sixteen months he was imprisoned and tortured. Di Benedetto was fortunate. He was released and went into exile. Thirty thousand others were disappeared during the Dirty War. (One of the methods used—drugging prisoners and dropping them into the ocean from airplanes or helicopters—has lately been celebrated on t-shirts proudly sported at political rallies in the United States.)
A line from the early pages of The Silentiary—“[T]he unending noise [that] compels us to think of it rather than anything else”—captures the cacophonous obliteration of normal social interaction, normal information exchange, that accompanies the descent into fascism. In its final pages, though, the novel’s narrator may finally have learned that silence, the imposition of silence, is also a weapon. It was an avowed weapon of the Argentine dictatorship, as journalist Uki Goñi, an expert on the crimes of the Dirty War, had occasion to observe:
One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk… and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.” …[T]he billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose… ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn.
Two years later, the same words, “Silence Is Health,” appeared on a banner hanging in a corridor of the Navy Mechanics School (or ESMA), after the dictatorship had transformed it into a clandestine center for torture and extermination. It was there to mock the prisoners, or warn them not to scream when they were seared with electric cattle prods.
Zama is both the longest and the most celebrated of the trilogy’s novels, and that was the case well before the release of the 2017 film based on it by the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, itself a masterpiece. The only work in the trilogy to receive an award at the time of its publication, though, was The Silentiary, which won the Gran Premio de Novela from Argentina’s Subsecretaria de Cultura de la Nación— an odd prize which, for all the grandiosity of its name, seems to have been awarded only on that one occasion.
The late Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia recalls in The Diaries of Emilio Renzi, his 2015 fictionalized memoir, that a work by Di Benedetto he calls El hacedor de silencio (The Maker of Silence)— a variant title Di Benedetto chose for a later edition of The Silentiary—was, in 1967, a finalist for a more prestigious award, the Premio Primera Plana-Sudamericana, judged by a panel of luminaries that included Leopoldo Marechal, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Gabriel García Márquez. In the end, Di Benedetto’s work was first runner-up, a fate that chimes in perfectly with The Silentiary’s leery view of the hierarchies of literary reputation—the picture in a magazine of “Poet No. 3,” or the “Second-Best Novelist” who “once sat at this very table.” Perhaps that’s why Piglia substituted it in. In fact, the Premio Primera Plana was for an unpublished novel, and it was Los Suicidas, just prior to its publication, that came in second, in 1968.
The conversation about Di Benedetto’s work that the memoir records between its protagonist and Gabriel García Márquez, on the night they first meet, has a ring of truth about it, and could easily have concerned either of the trilogy’s two latter novels. García Márquez confesses to having “gone back and forth a great deal” while judging the prize, and to ultimately giving second place to Di Benedetto’s novel because it was too brief, not a novel at all. Piglia’s character protests, pointing out that by the same logic “Pedro Páramo or, if you’ll allow me, No One Writes to the Colonel, wouldn’t have been considered in a novel competition either.” In the conversation that ensues, the two writers “distinguish between short forms, medium-length stories, and novels.”
The page count of the two latter novels is low; in the Adriana Hidalgo edition of the Trilogy, The Silentiary and The Suicides come in at about 125 pages each. Such brevity, and the plentiful blank space on those pages, is part of a quality of Di Benedetto’s writing, and his character, that Saer calls “discretion” or “aesthetic sobriety,” and Jimena Néspolo refers to as “pudor” (modesty or reticence). In English we might describe it as understatedness. Di Benedetto’s sentences do not seek to create admiration for their author’s verbal dexterity; The Silentiary openly mocks the futility of that game: “Odious odysseys of words, oh dioses!” Di Benedetto’s style actively courts underestimation, inviting the reader to overlook what he’s doing, or dismiss it as minor, secondary. His music does not try to interrupt the noises of the world.
The most powerful element of his prose is not its diction or rhythm but the vastness of what the skein of words across the page summons up to leave unsaid—a vastness that, in The Silentiary in particular, is underscored by the ellipses that riddle almost every page. (By contrast, there’s only one ellipsis in all of Zama, following a mention of the protagonist’s name: “Doctor Don Diego de Zama!…”) Most of The Silentiary’s many ellipses occur in dialogues, as what the characters have voiced gives way to what they leave unspoken. But the trios of small dots also make their way into the narrator’s authorial voice, the whole novel haunted by what it leaves out, what it does not attempt to capture in words.
In its current form, even the novel’s last sentence includes an ellipsis. The final line of the 1964 first edition of El silenciero, however, was simply “La noche sigue.” (“The night flows on.”) Period. In 1975, the year before the Dirty War began, Di Benedetto revised the second edition brought out by the Buenos Aires house Orión. The text that Adriana Hidalgo Editores reissued in 1999 and has kept in print since—the text on which this translation is based—reflects the changes he made then. He added the brief, epigraph-like initial line that sets the scene for the novel, and made several other significant additions as well. Most notably, as Jimena Néspolo puts it in Ejercicios de Pudor, her landmark 2004 book on Di Benedetto, he “extended the novel’s philosophical reflections.”
In a 1969 essay about The Silentiary and The Suicides, Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, author of the great dictator novel Yo, El Supremo (I, The Supreme), wrote of the two novels’ “stance of verbal austerity, of return to the apparent initial poverty of language,” which, he surmised, amounts to an “obliteration of the literary.” He was struck, in particular, by the suspended ending of The Silentiary, whose narrator reaches no conclusions but negates himself, “places himself in parentheses, relegates himself to the unnameable, which restores him to silence, as the only way of affirming the victory over noise…”
In 1975, Di Benedetto added five new sentences to the final passage where the protagonist, now in prison, has a dream. He did not know that he would soon be in prison himself, and that he would smuggle out the short stories he managed to write there—later published under the title Absurdos—by including them in his letters as descriptions of dreams. He did not know how soon history would rush into his novel’s silent ellipses, filling them with new meanings of its own and transforming its inconclusive ending into one of chilling prescience.
According to his friends, during his years in exile in Spain and after his eventual return to Buenos Aires, Di Benedetto rarely spoke of the terrible months he spent in the dungeons of fascist Argentina. Perhaps he was unwilling to be defined by that monstrous intrusion the world had made on him, or perhaps, like Besarión, he was superstitious: “When the things we fear move away from us, they’ll return if we name them. They’ll mistake the mention of their name for a call to come back.” The 1975 changes to the ending of The Silentiary can be read as a statement about the nightmare to come, all the stronger for having been made before it came.
The new lines summarily reject any possibility of “victory over noise,” any hope the original text might have held out for some redemptive or expiatory meaning to its narrator’s suffering. Instead, they relegate that suffering even further into the realm of the unsayable.
The sudden return of the shepherd comes as a surprise. He reproaches me. “Don’t pretend you’ve been given in sacrifice, or immolated!”
I’m about to reject his presumption (glimpsing, nevertheless, the truth that it reveals). I try to reproach him for his haughtiness, his indifference to my humility… But I stammer and can’t manage to get it out.
What the future held in store was still in the future when Di Benedetto added, to the novel’s final “The night flows on,” an ellipsis and a new final phrase “…y no es hacia la paz adonde fluye.” And not towards peace.
Join Esther Allen and Spanish author Andrés Barba on February 2nd, 2022, for a discussion of Antonio Di Benedetto’s The Silentiary. Hosted by Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, you can register for this virtual event here:
Esther Allen received the 2017 National Translation Award for her translation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama. Co-founder of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, she teaches at City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Baruch College. In 2006 the French government named her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Her essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review, Words Without Borders, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Granta, and other publications.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 18, 2022