The Silentiary
by Antonio Di Benedetto (1964; Silentiero)
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (2022)
NYRB Classics (2022)
166 pp

My first encounter with Antonio Di Benedetto was in 2016, when NYRB Classics published Esther Allen’s translation of Zama, Di Benedetto’s novel from 1956. I loved it; mysterious, complex, a masterpiece, Zama explores desire that festers in isolation. That happened to be the year I was a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and I was all for it showing up on our shortlist. At the time, I knew Zama was the first book in what has become, only relatively recently, known as the Expectation Trilogy, which continues with 1964’s The Silentiary and concludes with 1966’s The Suicides.

The Silentiary is not Zama — it takes place about 150 years later, in the 1950s in an unnamed Latin American city — but it’s next to impossible for me not to draw comparisons, so bare with me. The relative importance — in particular, its lack of importance — of the unnamed city, its distance from any kind of progressive civilization, is important to the unnamed protagonist of The Silentiary, just as the out-of-the-way assignment Zama endured was vital to that book. Like Zama, the central character of The Silentiary is an unhappy man who, due to a sense of superiority, feels he is unjustly missing out. He should be higher up he ladder than he is. This leads to obsession, the kind that makes him dangerous to those around him. Like Zama, here we get access to the man’s thoughts, since he is our first-person narrator.

Maybe we should feel sorry for him. It does seem that other reviewers have not latched on to how insufferable, how dangerous, this unnamed narrator is. So let me look at one of his central issues: he is accosted by the awful noises of the modern world. To be fair, the noise would be awful. I’m sure most of us have been nearly driven insane when we’re have to go about our day in a room next to loud machinery or have tried to sleep when a loud party is going on. This narrator wonders if death would be preferable, and so the novel is deliberate as it explores the unwanted intrusion of such things into our lives. Our narrator thinks at one point: “Noise has become the sign or symbol of all that is now, all that is new, all that possesses weight and validity: the rupture.”

But where the novel succeeds for me, and where it becomes most horrific, is where it shows what our unnamed narrator is willing to do under duress. And it’s not entirely clear it is just because of the noise. Like Zama before him, for example, this man would likely be horrible in any society — for example, their sense of entitlement, particularly when it comes to women, is not due to, say, the intrusion of noise — it’s just that their situation heats up their ugly proclivities. They’re going to do some terrible things to attempt to assert some balance.

One thing our narrator would like to do is write a book. In fact, he’s already working on one about helplessness that will be titled The Roof. But he realizes, after some time, that his skills might not be quite where they need to be to explore whatever it is he wishes to explore in The Roof:

Perhaps I shouldn’t make The Roof (or whatever it ends up being called) my apprenticeship, but save it for my more mature period.

I could being with a novel that demanded less responsibility, to exercise my style, activate my imagination. A crime novel?

The Silentiary becomes more unsettling as he starts to plot his crime novel:

I could kill — in the crime novel I write prior to The Roof — the club’s president.

But they’d only close their doors for forty-eight hours or so and cancel the first but not the second dance, which would be in celebration of their new president.

Perhaps if homicide would have some kind of intimidating efficacy if I told them in an anonymous letter that it was because of the noise they make. But that very letter would give me away; my name is known to the local police as that of a combatant against noise.

The Silentiary is a strong book on its own and a satisfying follow up to Zama as we continue on in the Expectation Trilogy.

On that note, the name given (again, long after the books were written, likely without Di Benedetto ever intending them to be a trilogy) comes from Di Benedetto’s dedication in Zama: “To the victims of expectation.” Zama, and now The Silentiary, make me wonder what of the victims of the victims of expectation? Will we get more of this uncomfortable exploration in The Suicides? Hopefully we’ll know soon! I was excited to see, on The Silentiary‘s copyright page the following: “The translation of this novel and The Suicides, the subsequent work by the same author, was supported by a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship.” I don’t know when we’ll get it, but it’s nice to know that Allen is already working on the next book. And I’m very exited for it, having now finished the exceptionally strange and unsettling The Silentiary. I’m ready for more!

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