“The Silentiary” by Antonio Di Benedetto
Translated by Esther Allen
If it had happened, this hypothetical story could have taken place in a Latin American city, as of the late post-war era (the years 1950 and thereafter are plausible).
The front gate gives directly onto the dingy tiled patio. I open the gate and meet the noise.
I look around for it, as if to determine its shape and the extent of its vitality. It’s coming from beyond the bedrooms, from an empty lot I’ve never seen, behind a spacious house that faces a different street.
“It’s been like this all morning,” my mother warns me from the kitchen threshold.
“What is it?” I try to establish, disconcerted.
“They brought a bus, turned on the engine, and left it running…”
I haven’t made a move to come in so she gives me advance notice. “Your uncle’s here. He’ll have lunch with us. He’s reading the news.”
The sun is pouring its bounty out across the newspaper that has taken over the dining room table. Naming that bounty is part of the lunchtime ritual, as necessary as saying grace.
But today we can’t proceed as usual. The unending noise forces us to think of it, rather than anything else.
“How do you know it’s a bus?”
“I asked your uncle to go over and have a look.”
Her brother expends a small movement of the head in support of this statement.
The explanation for the errand is implicit: ever since the noise started she’s been flustered and disturbed, worried on her son’s account.
“It can’t last. A bus comes and goes,” my uncle opines.
The pressure of the noise inside my head drives me to question this.
“’Comes and goes’ is an expression. A bus comes and goes when it’s moving down the street. This bus is different, isn’t it? It’s been grafted onto our house. Don’t you hear it? Of course, you won’t have to endure it much longer: you don’t live here…”
The spoon suspended in mid-air, its soup overflowing, is my startled uncle’s only response. It dwarfs my vehemence, leaving me wordless and mortified.
A silence falls over the three of us. While it lasts, I enumerate the reasons he might give for moderation. I’m venting my aggression and anger on him and in so doing am blaming the wrong person and being clumsily unfair. I’m failing to take into account the possibility that the noise will simply end all at once and not come back. I’m stubbornly clinging to the supposition that this problem has taken possession of the future and will never give us a respite; I’m failing to remember that the normal activity of a bus is to circulate here and there, always outside, and that to run the engine when the bus isn’t moving is uneconomical and must correspond to some sort of short-term test, no more.
To make amends for the blow, which also grazed my mother, I say, “All right, it will pass. Or we’ll have recourse to the law, to make it pass.”
Immediately I regret the words. It’s as if I’ve now committed myself to embark upon an obscure battle for which I don’t feel well prepared, a welter of complaints, I don’t know to whom, verifications, proofs, allegations, sanctions for others, the hostility of the still unnamed guilty parties for me.
The noise is interrupted by the second part of the workday I must put in at the office.
Back home, the front sidewalk marks the borderline of my fears. Beyond it, the definitive conditions for a fight may have been established.
Inside there’s only my mother and benign domestic sounds.
I don’t ask how much longer it lasted. My mother makes no verbal allusion to it but her face and eyes are fatigued and the way she serves me dinner betrays her haste to get to bed.
At dawn, when the day is a glaze of watery milk on the windowpanes, something like my heart grows agitated within me as my mind, jerked into a state of alert, discerns a noise attached to the rear wall of my room.
The impression of a motor lasts only a few minutes.
After that, one by one, come the sequence of operations that put the weighty vehicle into motion, then into reverse, then forward again, then reverse again, and then finally enable it to thread its way through the exit.
At that point it merges into the diffuse acoustic that accompanies the break of day in cities and vanishes in the distance.
I’m relieved. “A bus comes and goes.”
I wonder if it also startled my mother awake and know it did when she comes in — too early to pretend otherwise — with a good morning smile and the painstaking breakfast she prepares for her bachelor son.
I won’t call what’s happening to us routine: a routine creates habits and numbs the senses. This bus, every morning and every night, punctures our life with shocks.
Men’s voices rise over the motor and the maneuvering. Sometimes they convey the kind of words that are humiliating when we know a woman we respect is hearing them.
Though my mother and I say nothing to each other, these abrupt intrusions are making our lives wretched.
Antonio Di Benedetto (1922-1986), an Argentine journalist and novelist, remained relatively obscure during his lifetime but has since his death moved into the front ranks of 20th-century Argentine literature.
His three greatest novels—Zama (1956), El silenciero (1964) and Los suicidas (1969)— have come, retrospectively, to be considered a kind of trilogy and in 2011 were published in one volume under the title Trilogía de la espera (“The Trilogy of Expectation”).
The three books have no characters or plot threads in common. What they share is vaguer than that, certain thematic through-lines and a strange movement into contemporaneity: Zama is set in the late 18th century, a century and a half before it was written, El silenciero in the early 1950s, about fifteen years before it was written, and Los suicidas very emphatically in 1968, the year it was written.
I came to Zama—first published in English last year by New York Review Books Classics, in my translation—only after I’d read El silenciero and found myself somewhat baffled by its story of a man’s unceasing and increasingly unhinged quest for quiet. When I re-read it after translating Zama, El silenciero made more sense, as did the idea of the three novels as a trilogy.
Quite often when translating a book with a tricky title, I simply leave the title for last. This time, it felt impossible to begin the project without first solving that problem.
Silenciero is an obscure term, though not a neologism; it appears in the María Moliner dictionary and in that of the Real Academia Española as an alternate spelling for silenciario, meaning, in the definition given by Moliner, “one who remains silent” or “man charged with keeping silence in a given place, particularly a church.”
My early attempts to translate it invariably introduced a jarring register, out of keeping with the novel. “The Silencer” suggests a gangster’s weapon accessory. “The Silencekeeper” is a name associated with the on-line multiparty battle game called League of Legends. “The Maker of Silence” sounds both awkward and ominous in the wrong ways. “The Man who Remained Silent” does not describe a novel whose central character is consistently rather vociferous about the quiet that he seeks.
The novelist Benjamin Kunkel told me he once tried his hand at translating the first part of El silenciero when he was living in Buenos Aires and bothered by noise. I asked him what ideas he’d had about the title and he told me he’d toyed with “The Silentist,” “The Quiet,” “The Quietor,” and “The Quieting.” These were all good and viable options, though each also had its drawbacks.
That conversation sent me back to the dictionaries, for the umpteenth time. This time, finally, I noticed that the Real Academía’s definition for silenciario notes that the term comes from the late Latin silentiarius. That led me to Paulus Silentiarius, a little-known 6th-century Byzantine poet, so dubbed because he served in the court of Emperor Justinian as a “silentiary.” The OED clarified: “One who observes or recommends silence, esp. from religious motives” or “An official whose duty it is to command silence.”
To confirm my hunch that this was right, a 2015 translation of the work of Paul the Silentiary by Graham John Wheeler is titled Sex and the Civil Servant — which sums up a good bit of both Zama and El silenciero (there’s lots of sex in Los suicidas, too, but its narrator isn’t a civil servant, he’s a journalist, like Di Benedetto himself). Most importantly, The Silentiary conveys the strangeness, archaism and quasi-religiousness of the Spanish.
The passage that appears above is the first section of the novel. As I translated, it seemed to describe the situation many of us in the United States have been living through over the past couple of years. A disturbing political noise we at first hoped would pass has instead become unending, an increasingly disruptive source of wretchedness, not allowing us to pay attention to anything but itself, puncturing our lives with shocks.
In Di Benedetto’s case, the disruption in the very fabric of existence that his narrator begins to intuit in this passage can be read as a premonition of what would happen in Argentina about a decade after the novel was written. The very day in 1976 that the military junta took power and the Dirty War began, Antonio Di Benedetto was arrested and imprisoned. Recently declassified documents have revealed that shortly thereafter, the U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, gave the junta what it interpreted as a green light for human rights abuse. “If there are things that need to be done, you should do them quickly,” Kissinger wrote to the country’s foreign minister, Admiral Cesar Guzzetti. Antonio Di Benedetto, a cultural journalist of conservative bent, was, for reasons no one understands, viewed as one of the “things that need to be done.” He was imprisoned for eighteen months, tortured, and subjected to four mock executions. By a miracle he survived, unlike so many others, and went into exile in Spain immediately after his release.