[NYRB Classics; 2022]
Tr. from Spanish by Esther Allen
Although armadillos aren’t outright blind, their eyesight is quite poor, so they rely on their sense of smell and hearing. In the summer of 2019, when I was moving from New York City to Gainesville, Florida, a friend who had moved there from Chicago remarked how odd it was to see armadillos in the wild. In three years, I’ve seen one living armadillo. The rest have been roadkill. Such is the fate of mammals that try to cross highways at night guided by ear and snout. That one live armadillo appeared during my first night in Gainesville. My dog barking, I woke at two in the morning, drew the curtains, and spotted a grey dinosaur as it scurried beneath the house, leaving behind divots and piles of dirt. Armadillos are skilled at digging and grunt as they root around in search of insects to eat. When afraid, they emit a high-pitched squeal that I could detect only when I put my ear to the window.
That armadillo was merely a harbinger of noise to come. The following night, I woke because music was playing at a high volume inside the small house I’d rented. It was a song that I knew and loved, a song I’d been listening to every day for my own pleasure, but in searching the house I discovered that it wasn’t coming from my phone or speakers. I looked out the front window and saw hundreds of people outside, all of them standing around cars. One was louder than the rest: a pickup truck with concert speakers mounted in the bed. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed the song that woke me. I could not know peace so long as it was someone else’s noise.
Antonio di Benedetto’s The Silentiary was first published in Spanish in 1964. The novel is as much about postwar Latin America as it is a philosophical exploration of the ways in which one manages their external reality relative to other members of their community. The action is driven by the narrator’s obsession with finding a silent place so he can live in peace and get a good night’s rest. He is first bothered by a bus idling outside his home, although his uncle insists that the noise won’t last because the nature of a bus is to come and go. The narrator insists that he’ll appeal to the law if the disruption persists. While the bus does eventually leave, it is soon replaced by the noise of a new auto body setting up shop nearby. The business will never go, at least not in the foreseeable future, and produces noise at all hours to ensure that cars and buses run rather than stall. Noise is therefore a condition of progress.
One of the text’s major questions is whether the problem is in the narrator or out in the world. The novel’s epitaph offers a clue, though not without a wink: “If it had occurred, the story here postulated could have taken place in a city in Latin America as of the late postwar era (the years 1950 and thereafter are plausible).” The narrator has one close friend, Besarión, a philosopher of sorts, who offers the most pointed critique of postwar development as it relates to noise.
The war ends, and the industrial economy is transformed: great quantities of the machinery of peace go on the market. Set to work, the machines soon break down: they must be repaired. To repair or replace their parts, businesses, repair shops open. They have to be located somewhere, and no one regulates them, no one dictates where . . . They take advantage of small empty lots between houses and blocks . . . What moves in is progress, but it’s not where it should be, because everything around it is residential, and people can’t sleep or eat or read in the chaos of sound.
Is noise a far-flung consequence of war aided and abetted by ineffective local politics and poor city-planning? Is silence reserved only for the wealthy who can afford to move away from undesired noise, or is noise a condition from which, once exposed, one cannot recover? Silentiary’s narrator does leave the city, but no matter how far he travels in search of silence, an errant noise is there to greet and disturb him. His desire for quiet is so consuming that the most significant events in his life—marriage and the birth of his child—pass silently in the novel’s background.
Although the narrator at first believes that the law might intervene on his behalf, he comes to find that they are no help at all. One of di Benedetto’s admirers, Roberto Bolaño, won the 1997 City of San Sebastian Narrative Prize with the short story “Sensini,” which appears in the collection Last Evenings on Earth (1997, 2006). The story details a fictional exchange of letters between two exiled writers in Spain—one from Chile and the other Argentina—the former meant to represent Bolaño and the latter di Benedetto. The narrator, Arturo Belano (one of Bolaño’s fictional avatars) finds, reads, and describes the novel “Ugarte,” which is meant to represent di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama (1956, 2016). In the story, Sensini’s son, Gregorio, who was named in homage to Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, has been disappeared by Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship in Argentina. Sensini is tortured by the search for his son, Gregor, a character that comes to stand for state violence in Latin America, particularly Chile and Argentina. Looking at an old photograph of Gregor, sent to him by Sensini, Bolaño’s narrator notes that the disappeared boy’s eyes shine at the end of a dim corridor to show the “shadowy masses of Latin America’s terror, shifting imperceptibly.” The photo produces a brush with the uncanny as Bolaño’s narrator glimpses, through Gregor, the disguises worn by terror, particularly as it spread through Chile and Argentina (with the help of the United States).
Although Antonio di Benedetto did not have a son, the author himself was, in 1976, more than ten years after publishing The Silentiary, marked as a dissident by Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentinian military dictatorship, imprisoned, and tortured. After one year, di Benedetto was released and fled to Spain. He did, as is the fate of the writer Sensini in Bolaño’s story, die only a few years after later returning to his native Argentina.
Bolaño’s narrator notes that “Ugarte,” or Zama, was first dismissed by some Spanish critics as, “Kafka in the colonies.” Indeed, di Benedetto’s fiction has often been compared to both Dostoyevsky and Kafka, and the unnamed narrator in The Silentiary has distinct echoes of Kafka (who was influenced himself by Dostoyevsky), particularly Josef K in The Trial and his futile attempts to find an answer, or solution, through the law. Silentiary’s narrator develops a plan to mitigate the many noises that disturb him, but no one in his neighborhood will support him. Regardless, he takes a petition with one signature, his own, to City Hall who later sends the wrong department of people to investigate the problem. Rather than put the narrator in contact with someone who can help, the city employees try to persuade him to drop his complaint altogether. His desire for silence marks him as an “enemy of progress”—one who stalls or stagnates. Any possible solution to the narrator’s problem is guarded by ineffective bureaucrats and neighbors afraid of being retaliated against.
If sound and noise (imposed sound) are byproducts of progress, then one who supports progress must become habituated to disturbance. Every weekend, in Gainesville, the small lot at the end of my street turned into a gathering spot for hundreds of people to park their cars and play music. Earplugs weren’t much help; bass shook the house and my bed vibrated. I wondered why we find it so pleasurable to project sound as far as possible. I’m guilty of doing the same; in my younger years, I outfitted a car with two 12” subwoofers and hoped that everyone could hear me.
In Gainesville, the reason that so many people get together in residential areas and parking lots is because they’re denied other gathering spaces. In fact, local law enforcement has often pushed people away from less dense, rural areas into specific sections of the city that are closer to the police station. Premium real estate is reserved for the undergraduate population, most of whom will never know that there is an east side of Gainesville. And why should they when the government pretends not to know either? Every plan to add something as simple and vital as a grocery store is struck down. The city is owned and run not only by the university, but real estate developers that sit on the board of directors and award contracts to whomever wants to raze the historic neighborhoods near campus, where many families have been living since the reconstruction era. Those residents are forced further east and replaced by condominiums for undergraduates that both physically and financially displace residents of Gainesville.
While writing this review, I had the opportunity to see Apichatpong Weersethakul’s 2021 film Memoria at a small theater in downtown Gainesville. The film begins with ten minutes of silence. The theater was not well insulated. I heard the chatter of people outside and the bass from subwoofers as cars cruised slow down the busy streets. In Memoria, which is set in Colombia, a ghastly, pale, and aloof Tilda Swinton hears a distinct noise that no one else can hear. In trying to identify both the source and precise shape of that sound, she embarks on a journey that, like Silentiary’s narrator, brings her from the city to the countryside. Leaving the theater, I was struck by a blast of noise: Downtown was swarmed with cars playing music and partygoers headed out for the evening. Three years had passed since I first saw the armadillo. I knew that I would soon leave Gainesville. I’m no better than anyone else who arrives, lodges their complaints, does their best (which is never enough) to effect some small change, and leaves. I no longer rented the small house near the parking lot, and that parking lot no longer hosted parties. It wasn’t because anyone had intervened. The owner of a nearby bar had passed his business down to his son. Many who hung out in the parking lot purchased their alcohol at that bar and then walked back to their cars in the lot across the street. The new owner said he could not in good conscience keep the business open as the noise produced, and trash left behind, did too much damage to the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the title story from Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth, the main character, B—another one of Bolaño’s fictional avatars—recalls that he almost died twice while traveling from Mexico to Chile to join the left-wing movement fighting against Augusto Pinochet. In the story, there is a definitive split between the main character, B, and his father, because “B remembers going to his father’s house when he returned from Chile in 1974 . . . What was it like? [his father] asked, and B recounted his adventures. An episode from the chronicle of Latin America’s doomed revolutions. I almost got killed . . . Twice, at least.” In response, his father laughs. According to the narrator, B’s father moved his family to Mexico from Chile before Pinochet came to power, and, though the father lives in exile, he never directly experienced life under military rule. The father spends the entire story looking to create trouble while B, having almost died twice in Chile, tries to avoid trouble and fails to understand or connect with his father. Like the narrator of The Silentiary, B is aware of disturbances that no one else seems to notice. His awareness points towards two possibilities: He’s either paranoid or attuned to terror’s barely perceptible forms of change.
Another perspective on that same trip back to Chile surfaces in Bolaño’s “Detectives,” from the collection The Return (2010). The character Arturo Belano (yet another one of Bolaño’s fictional stand-ins) is jailed but recognized by a detective who allows him to slip out of prison. “Detectives” begins with that same detective in conversation with another, the two of them discussing which weapons are most representative of Chile and Argentina. One detective concludes that Chileans don’t like guns and are silent by nature because the Pacific Ocean absorbs useless noises. The other detective counters that Argentinians have the Atlantic Ocean but are still “pretty noisy.”
It’s hard not to make connections between Bolaño and di Benedetto, especially considering that di Benedetto was raised in Mendoza, which is much closer to Santiago, Chile and the Pacific Ocean than it is Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean. If we read the unspecified setting of The Silentiary as landlocked Mendoza, then there is no ocean nearby to absorb useless noises. In his story Sensini, Bolaño’s narrator turns to photographs to visually identify traces of terror. Sensini is tortured by his son’s disappearance because he won’t ever be able to confirm that his son is either dead or alive. There is no evidence. Through his unnamed narrator, di Benedetto shows that identifying the traces of something meant to remain secret can drive someone out of their mind. In a world that privileges visual and physical evidence, how can the existence of noise or disappearance be proven?
Could it be that noise travels further in Gainesville because there is so little to absorb it? Nothing swallows sound. Noise floats up and around the strange gaps in development. Haphazard, piecemeal development, weak zoning laws, and malleable politicians have helped create a city that makes little sense. Many in Gainesville hope that it will become the next Austin, Texas. Nowadays, every city either hopes or fears that it will become the next Austin. Gainesville’s poor planning and confused sprawl is better compared to Houston in miniature. As Besarión says to the narrator of The Silentiary, “There are no restrictions, no limitations. There should be! Over here, with no blaring noises in the air, let’s have the residential zone, where you can listen to the birds song: over there, let’s have the sports stadium and entertainment complexes, the places where people dance and have parties amplified by music.” That same friend of mine from Chicago who had remarked on the strangeness of seeing an armadillo didn’t know that a self-serve car wash around the corner from their house would also turn into a gathering spot every weekend, and that the sound of music and sensation of bass would also keep them from sleeping. Like di Benedetto’s narrator, my friend and I have both become obsessed with finding a quiet that can no longer exist.
It is Besarión who best understands the adverse impacts of noise on mental and physical health. His landlord tries to force him out by diverting water into his and his mother’s apartment. Besarión takes action and directs the water elsewhere. Having experienced the methods by which those in power use force for displacement, breaking the law without having to answer to the law, he cautions Silentiary’s narrator that an assault by noise is no different than an assault by physical force. Prolonged, unwanted noise penetrates the physical body and wreaks havoc on the digestive system. Noise can wound and knock one over. And while the law does little, or nothing, to enforce “noise when it is imposed,” they have no problem weaponizing noise for their own benefit. Think of the 2020 protests in America, when police made use of Long-Range Acoustic Devices.
It’s no wonder that di Benedetto’s narrator suspects that his only option is to fight force with force. He turns towards the object that impelled his journey: the motorcar, particularly the Ford Model T. Besarión’s diagnosis of noise as a byproduct of the second world war fits with Ford’s timeline in Argentina. Early in the twentieth century, Ford established a large assembly factory in Buenos Aires. Operations were shuttered at the beginning of the second world war, and Ford resorted to selling spare parts to local repair shops that could service their customers which, in turn, accelerated Argentina’s developing car part industry. Silentiary’s narrator learns that the consequences for applying force, especially force diagnosed as against progress, are much more serious and significant for him, a citizen living under the law, than they are to lawmakers and their friends or collaborators, especially those who help advance a narrative of progress.
At the sentence level, di Benedetto is both slippery and sharp. He writes with an incredible precision and economy, yet his narrator’s words subtly point in another direction. The language is exact but enigmatic and coded. About three-quarters of the way through the novel, the narrator meets the first man willing to assist in the fight against noise. “He drafted,” the narrator says, “with my help—a noise-nuisance ordinance that didn’t elicit much of a reaction from the city council, but that did attract readers who felt themselves to be understood and communicated their gratitude to him in various ways.” The man is then elected to office. The noise-nuisance ordinance passes so that, “the city finally had its lyrical ordinance.” But the ordinance is only that—lyrical, an accumulation of words that can’t compete against noise. There’s a playfulness as well as seriousness here. Much of the novel is concerned with the law’s ineffectiveness, especially amongst people who sense or understand a certain problem that remains unaddressed. Again and again, the narrator of The Silentiary seems to ask what good is the law if it exists only in name, neither to be abided by or enforced.
Patrick Duane is a teacher and writer living in Richmond, Virginia. He completed his MFA in Fiction at the University of Florida and is now a PhD student in the Media, Art and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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