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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Silentiary

Antonio Di Benedetto

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To purchase The Silentiary

Title: The Silentiary
Author: Antonio Di Benedetto
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Silentiary - US
El silenciero - US
The Silentiary - UK
The Silentiary - Canada
Le Silenciaire - France
Stille - Deutschland
L'uomo del silenzio - Italia
El silenciero - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • Spanish title: El silenciero
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Esther Allen
  • With an Introduction by Juan José Saer

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealingly off-beat and original

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 4/2/2022 Nick Holdstock
Wall St. Journal . 21/1/2022 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "As befitting a book about the difficulty of resisting noise, his narration is delivered in short sections and contains frequent ellipsis. There is a profitable uncertainty to these formal silences, which can be seen as either the product of the man’s aural oppression or a willed act of resistance. (...) Allen’s taut, elegant translation does not raise its voice, let alone shout (.....) The closest this lean, brilliant novel gets to offering consolation is when the narrator reminds us that “from silence were we made, and to the dust of silence shall we return”." - Nick Holdstock, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The books have a spiritual kinship with Samuel Beckett’s postwar trilogy of monologue novels in their deadpan rendering of comic futility and monomania. The narrator’s voice is disturbed and disassociated, yet, somehow, strangely pithy and clarifying (.....) A vital difference from Beckett, however, is that di Benedetto’s fever dreams are lodged within the trappings of realism." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Silentiary is presented in two parts, the nameless narrator marrying at the end of the first part ("I take a wife") and the second part beginning with the observation that: "Nina and I were nomads for three years". Despite the change in his circumstances -- he has a wife, and eventually a child; he moves repeatedly in the second part of the novel, unlike the first -- much else about him remains constant; he is, essentially, set (if not really satisfied) in his ways and situation.
       Working in an office, as an assistant manager, -- employment that barely rates a mention -- he does have some literary aspirations. Throughout, he imagines writing a book: he has a concept of it ("my book about helplessness"), but it doesn't seem to extend to much beyond a working title of The Roof (which he doesn't even seem overly attached to); later he toys with the idea of writing a crime novel ("I could begin with a novel that demands less responsibility, to exercise my style, to activate my imagination. A crime novel ?"), but never gets anywhere with actually writing anything; he manages little more than conceiving the most basic outlines.
       The narrator is also marked by a great sensitivity to noise -- any kind of racket. The novel begins with him coming home to find a new irritant -- a bus idling noisily not too far away-- and this is soon followed by the opening of an auto-repair shop nearby. Even as he then later moves from residence to residence, looking for a house that suits his family's purposes, he repeatedly comes up against sources of noise that he is unwilling to put up with, from neighborhood businesses to neighbors' noisiness ("We left another boardinghouse because of the landlady's record player").
       In a way, The Silentiary is a quest and ambition novel, the story of a man looking for an environment free of the noises that disturb him, and having literary aspirations, but even as these both are significant parts of the story -- and much of the novel does deal with them -- they do not dominate the narrative as one might imagine (or fear) they would. Indeed, simple summary doesn't really get at what the novel is -- with the narrator's noise-issues and his literary ambitions and how he deals with these more a foundation to the character rather than sections and stages of a clear story-arc.
       The narrator's noise-issue are easy to relate to, of course, -- who hasn't been annoyed by a nearby noise one can do little or nothing about ? -- but he's no Proust, seeking refuge in a cork-lined room. He still goes about his life quite normally, with his noise-issues in part compartmentalized, and mostly an issue at home, where he seeks, if not complete peace and quiet, as little as possible beyond the normal-domestic. The domestic he seems to be able to tolerate well enough -- as also, for example, when he and his wife have a child, it isn't he who is bothered by its bawling:

Nina bears the great fatigue of the whole day in her body. At night, the child cries. It ruins her sleep, while I don't even hear it.
     I share some conclusions reached during an earlier meditation. "Nina, sounds that are made by the little one, because he's our little one, are beloved sounds. They don't hurt me."
       But other, outside noises reverberate to his very core:
     I don't know whether it's actually doing me harm. I do know that even if it isn't physically damaging me, it obsesses me, constricts me, weighs me down, as if thick, sticky nougat were spreading over my body.
       And yet, also, he admits: "Only one thing intimidates me: the silence ...".
       A nice touch too is the piano that they lug along from home to home, even though none of them play it (and the pedals falls off, too). The narrator's mother insists on keeping it: "She needed it with her as a monument to the family's memories".
       There's not much about his efforts at writing because he doesn't really seem to put much effort into it. He has excuses for the: "reiterated postponement of my book" -- which he "generally attributed to the instability of my housing situation" --, but he never really seems to even simply try to start writing.
       From early on, he claims the literary work he imagines writing is pretty much all there already, full-fledged in every respect except for the actual writing:
     I have almost all of it in my head. All that's left is to choose the point of departure. What do I say first ? Where do I begin ?
       It's a hurdle he struggles to overcome -- leading him also then to consider writing an entirely different kind of work, a crime novel. He spins out some ideas about this too -- including the revealing one where:
My novel will have a crime and various suspects, but I myself, the author, will remain unaware of who the criminal is. That way the book can be prolonged indefinitely, until the crime it once was about has been entirely forgotten.
       Mulling it over, he concludes:
     But I have no experience writing a crime novel either. If I decide to write one before proceeding to The Roof, I'll have to choose a subject, within reality, as a possible victim, and imagine myself as the killer. That way, studying the other, studying myself, I can gradually build up the book.
       Even without a real crime, The Silentiary is in some ways built up that way. It is as much a novel about process as anything else: living, experiencing -- and writing, even if the narrator isn't actually writing. (So also he observes in the novel's antepenultimate paragraph: "I feel as if my brain had been mauled, as if it had reached the final moment of a long and selfless effort of creation. As if I'd written a book".)
       It all makes for a compelling and oddly gripping personal/character-portrait, including in such things as the presentation of his relationships with women, neatly, simply sketched out in a few experiences, encounters, and observations, down to the point where he decides:
     I will marry Nina.
     That's the easiest thing. Yes, much easier than all the rest.
       There's also a co-worker and friend, Besarión, who disappears from the narrator's life, and then returns. (It is Besarión who diagnoses: "You hear metaphysical noises".)
       In his Introduction, Juan José Saer observes how: "Di Benedetto's style appears to have emerged from nothingness", and how his prose has: "neither precursors nor successors". Saer is right: Di Benedetto's style is unlike any other -- and that's part of the fascination (and success) of this text, where even as readers think the narrator-type and the situation(s) surely are very familiar Di Benedetto presents instead something very different. Indeed, for all its seeming simplicity, The Silentiary is a work of striking originality -- a rare thing in modern fiction.
       The Silentiary is a neat, odd piece of work -- deeply strange even as it seems, in many ways, so straightforward.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 January 2022

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The Silentiary: Reviews: Other books by Antonio Di Benedetto under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Antonio Di Benedetto lived 1922 to 1986.

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© 2022 the complete review

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