We are beset by noise. As the nameless narrator of Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel, The Silentiary (Maker of Silence), would argue, it is the primary symptom of the disease called civilisation.

In the beginning, our beleaguered hero works in middle management in an ordinary office and lives with his mother, who tiptoes around her son’s neuroses as quietly as possible, officially in charge of creating a padded cell for his existence. Occasionally, someone insensitive comes along, one of the members of that infuriating but large tribe known as “normal people”.

A bus engine is idling interminably in the neighbourhood, and a visiting uncle callously dismisses this with “It can’t last. A bus comes and goes.” Indeed it does, but is invariably replaced by something else: a new construction site, a pesky neighbour’s radio, the sinking feeling that there will never be a quiet moment either inside or outside one’s head.

The paradox

Di Benedetto, whose books have only recently become available in English (translated by Esther Allen) from NYRB Classics, spent most of his life outside the metropolitan circles of Buenos Aires, as a journalist in Mendoza. In Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world, the writer Juan Jose Saer helped popularise three of his novels (Zama, The Silentiary and The Suicides) as a trilogy loosely linked by the devastating dedication in Zama: A las victimas de la espera (To the victims of expectation).

Zama was about a trying but failing to get home. The Silentiary is about a man trying to failing to start writing a book, ostensibly because he keeps getting interrupted by one damn noise after another. Di Benedetto’s existentialism is a distant cousin to Kafka’s in its depiction of an implacable, arbitrary world that drops a sensitive individual in the middle of a trial in which he is the defendant for an unknowable crime. Distant because in Di Benedetto’s work the allegory is animated by what Benjamin Kunkel calles “so many dingy particulars”.

The Italian writer Italo Svevo is a close cousin, in that the comic absurdity of both their characters’ delusions follow a logic that mimics sanity even while being completely insane. In Svevo’s classic novel Zeno’s Conscience, when Zeno’s father is told by him that a doctor has given him a certificate for sanity, the father sadly notes that the fact that he had to ask is what made him insane.

In The Silentiary, this paradox is more internal. The moment the narrator faintly conceives of his book’s characters and their drama, his first instinct is not to carpe diem and start writing but to “lean his head back and drift off. I’m happy and deserve this rest”. For a man plagued by constant noise, anticipation is as close to action as it gets, never letting go of the expectation that one will automatically lead to the other.

Just like Zeno tries to court he prettiest of three sisters but inexplicably (to him) ends up with the “ugliest” one, the narrator intends to court pretty Leila but ends up with her plain roommate Nina. In the eternal clash between those who know what they want and those who think they know, the latter always lose.

Nina wants the narrator and she gets him. She chastely seduces him and he succumbs once he senses that his “individuality” can lose itself in the “sweetness of the encounter”. Indeed, with such common delusions, do most relationships begin. For a brief period, silence prevails, but then the noise returns.

To begin with our man suffers the noise but soon he starts investigating their source. A long, intermittent hum from a nearby auto-repair shop bothers him the most, a noise that in his paranoia, he believes, has been installed permanently: “to stay there and grow old behind his back”. It turns out to be a not-very-mysterious lathe discovered after elaborate research, a ladder propped against the garage at night and a police complaint.

Cautionary tale

Di Benedetto’s craft is such that the disproportionality of our man’s reactions seem perfectly justified once the reader is inside his head. First, the narrator moves into the central room of his house to avoid the hum, but eventually moves house altogether, the first in a series of futile moves with mother, wife and determinedly un-used piano in tow. Needless to say, the precondition of silence (in order to start writing) eludes him. In all this, Nina does not get much of a voice except when she sarcastically notes that the only noise that doesn’t seem to bother him is that of their baby crying in the middle of the night!

And yet, the narrator is not entirely lacking in self-awareness. When he comes across Schopenhauer’s comment about how “a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed…ordinary people are not much put out by anything of the sort”, it produces in him a “melancholy state of mind”. He wisely notes that ordinary people might not be neurotic but that does not necessarily imply the converse: that all neurotic people are geniuses! The pathos lies in the gap between expectation and the reality as he poignantly puts it: “even in my dreams I lacked all talent or ambition”.

Di Benedetto’s prose (at least as judged by Esther Allen’s wonderful translation) is unadorned: short, pithy, matter-of-fact sentences that deepen the paradoxical sense that this is a rational account by a delusional mind. In explaining the mother’s dislike for the narrator’s only friend, Besarion, he speculates only that this could be “perhaps because he brings up questions to which she can find no answers”.

It is not clear if Besarion is a real person or a doppelganger who, unlike the narrator, is truly capable of ignoring the monstrous noise. Besarion is described as “someone who jumps into the fray”. Also unlike the narrator, he is a travelling salesman not chained to a desk. He eventually joins an Order and moves to Paris on a whim. And yet here’s the tragicomedy of it: even this go-getter is prevented from fixing a simple leak that floods his home, by his lack of doubt, strict code and inability to compromise. Doubt is undoubtedly paralysing, but so it seems is certainty.

The narrator is a man for whom the ideas embedded in his anxious thoughts assume a life of their own. He takes idioms such as “to be beside oneself” literally. Thinking of the phrase makes him fear that he has lost his original self and is now dominated by another Self: the one made up purely of ideas.

He is increasingly convinced, for instance, that the only way to write his proposed crime novel, is to perform his imagination of the crime. A thought experiment worthy of Borges, who wrote around the same time as Di Benedetto but is vastly better known than him. In Buddhist mindfulness, the thing to be avoided is the domination of “concepts”: the dangerous interpretations that we ascribe to passing thoughts, thereby solidifying them. The Silentiary is a brilliant cautionary tale of what happens when we fail to do this.

In what turns out to be the peak of the narrator’s literary career, he collaborates with a journalist to write parables of noise and silence. Easily the best of these parables is the one about the poet (a fellow martyr to noise) who lives between a blacksmith and a boilermaker: the poet pays them both to move away but the blacksmith moves into the boilermaker’s home and the boilermaker into the blacksmith’s, sticking to the letter but not the spirit of the agreement. And the noise, metaphysical or otherwise, never does stop, till of course one day it does.

The Silentiary

The Silentiary, Antonio Di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen, NYRB Classics.