The cerebral and harrowing world of Antonio di Benedetto ‹ Literary Center

In the unity of style and subject which governs them, the principal novels of Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama, The Silencerand Suicides, constitute a sort of trilogy and, let it be said once and for all, constitute one of the culminating moments of narrative fiction in Spanish of the 20th century. Di Benedetto is one of the few writers in Argentine literature to have developed an entirely personal style, based on frugality and precision. For all its conciseness and apparent poverty, however, this style is highly nuanced, by turns colloquial or philosophical, descriptive or lyrical. Its power is amazing.

Equally surprising is the technicality of Di Benedetto – an expression which he would not have liked and which does not quite convince me – that his discretion, a rare personal trait in our time, always leaves in the background. The events of each story are organized by its internal tensions, and Di Benedetto masterfully distills these events, assigning each its precise place in the whole. Caprice plays no role in the construction of his novels. With a sure and skilful hand, his subtle art discards all superfluous rhetoric to focus on the essential.

Of this singular art, The Silencer is one of the vertices. First published in 1964, the novel takes up the soliloquy launched in Zama in 1956 and continued later in Les Suicides (1966) Read together, the three works form a tacit system that aims to represent the world, of which noise, in Le Silentiaire, is only a metonymic variant, yet another “instrument of not-allowing-being.” From the comic abandonment of Don Diego de Zama to the methodical inventory of the causes and circumstances that can legitimize suicide, man, in Di Benedetto, is trapped by the destructive noise of the world .

And the silencer, an admirable neologism that shows both Di Benedetto’s conceptual precision and his fine ear for the elusive evocations of the word, a nameless character locked up in his persecuting universe, who only manages to make his torture eternal when he resolves to neutralize its causes, stands out even among the many memorable figures that emerge in the unmistakable landscape of Di Benedetto’s fiction.

Those who would like to derive the novel from the epic, no doubt with good historical reason, must now abandon their cause in defeat: this unusual trilogy has nothing to do with the moralization of the epic, its melodramatic scraps of gold and silver. Di Benedetto’s characters struggle (in silence, one might say), riveted to the impossibility of living, like living insects pinned to a naturalist’s map by the sharp and wounding point of an obsession: a hope unreasonableness, suicide, or noises that “act on your being.

The ingenuity that Adorno finds in the epic, the immersion in concrete reality, the pure action freed from the paralyzing venom of reflective consciousness, exist only as legend among the characters of Di Benedetto: the “departure”. de Zama or de Besarión, or the writing which finally promises to grant plenitude and thereby emancipation from the servitude imposed by the outside world to the narrator of the Silentiaire, who admits: “During the day, I thought that even in my dreams I lacked any talent or ambition for heroism”.

The consciousness of this nameless narrator, both omnipresent and discreet, schematizes a succession of events until it reaches a point where perception and delirium, common sense and paranoid rationalization, become – without emphasis or explanation, that it whether psychological or otherwise – a piercing image of the painful complexity of the world.

The immense debt that Argentine culture owes Antonio Di Benedetto is not yet settled.

The question of whether the anomaly lies in our consciousness or in the things themselves turns out to be insignificant, without any use in solving the problem. World and consciousness, united in a secret but constant struggle, crumble together to their doom. One can of course believe that it is the unpredictable breath of madness which blows here on the hot coals of obsession, but the last silent protest seems also legitimate and sincere: “‘Martyrdom for having aspired to live my own life, and not someone else’s life, not the life that is imposed on me”, my justification cries out in me.

The life that imposes itself, that is to say: the inhuman weight of the outside world. For the silent (the “silence-maker” or hacedor de silencio, as I heard Di Benedetto himself say, satisfied with a nuance that the title acquired in one of his translations), the multiplicity of noise derives from its many sources, yes – and also from its many possible meanings.

Noise introduces accident into the world, asymmetry, suffering. For the narrator, what precedes the creation of the world is darkness and silence, towards which everything tends. “Our noisy years”, as Shakespeare would say, are only an adverse parenthesis, a painful interruption of stasis, a particular case in the intolerable cycle of rebirths in the prison of appearances of which, according to Buddhist doctrine, only bodhi, “awakening” can release the saint into the definitive non-consciousness of extinction.

But, in its connotation of superficiality, noise also represents verbosity, and implies an irreflexive, almost programmatic social conduct, whether as a form of opposition, or as a hyper-affirmative postulation of oneself or even of a generational imperative. The expression “to enter the noise”, which the narrator defines as a slogan of the time, posits noise as the embodiment of all that is optimal, the positive essence of existence, and therefore the source of the final justification of the universe. A war of principles therefore exists between the narrator and the world, an organic, irreconcilable and extreme antagonism.

Finally, another of the many aspects of the multiplicity of noise, and perhaps the most destructive of all, is that of the ambiguity of its origins and character, and the real cause of its omnipresence. For it seems too difficult to know with certainty whether its enemy waves, lacerating but blind, penetrate us from the outside, or if they surreptitiously extend outwards from a dark place, one intimate source at a time. inner and distant, disturbing and disturbing us. the things of this world.

The paradox reaches its climax when, at some point in the struggle and sometimes perhaps at its very beginning, Di Benedetto’s characters seem to change sides and ally themselves with the world, collaborating in their own defeat. In Zama’s final scene, the sublime “I couldn’t die. Not yet”, expresses less the hope of prolonging life – the body reduced to bloody stumps, the conscience to a fainting and groggy dream – than the certainty of continuing to endure an endless parade of losses and humiliations. In this and in their particular sense of baseness, their own and that of others, the characters of Di Benedetto have a distant affiliation with certain heroes of Dostoyevsky. But their secret wounds, their isolation and their irony, and above all the somewhat masochistic irony they have of themselves, bring them closer to the characters of Svevo, Pessoa and Kafka.

Before concluding, it is impossible for me not to address a central subject of Argentine literature: the narrative prose of Antonio Di Benedetto. His prose is undoubtedly the most original of the century. No need to look for antecedents to his style, influences: he has none. Just like the Judeo-Christian cosmogony, that is to say the world in which we live, Di Benedetto’s style seems to have arisen from nothing. In this respect, it is superior to our world, which took six days of its creator’s time to complete. From his first sentence, Di Benedetto’s prose was fully developed, ready to play.

In Borges, we sometimes find echoes of Hazlitt, Marcel Schwob, Oscar Wilde or Macedonio Fernández; with Roberto Arlt, the Russian writers, Pirandello, the futurists. But if certain themes in Di Benedetto’s work have affinities with those of existentialism – the ghosts of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Camus drift from time to time to the back of the stage – the prose which distributes them discreetly on page n has neither precursors nor successors.

At a time when long “poetic” sentences and strident emphasis (ends of percussive chapters, erotic or existential dithyrambs) are in vogue, the aesthetic sobriety of Di Benedetto, far too entangled in the insidious quagmires of reality to allow itself to be distracted by these rhetorical artifices, which did not suit her temperament – was ignored for decades by successive and interchangeable makers of reputations because she followed a uniquely personal path of probity and lucidity.

If from the start a small group of readers, gradually increasing in number over the years, was able to recognize the obvious genius of his fiction, and if a few translations and reprints have emerged in recent decades, the immense debt that Argentine culture owes to Antonio Di Benedetto is not settled yet. The prizes he won, which he proudly inscribed on the flaps of his books, were ridiculously disproportionate to the texts they were supposed to reward.

One could almost say, when one considers the deeper meaning of these texts, that these prices only attest to an anachronism. Well intentioned as they were, these local recognitions – municipal, provincial or national; governmental or corporate – cast an equivocal light on a body of work that is both cerebral and heartbreaking. Through the subjects it addresses and the artistic wisdom of its composition, Di Benedetto’s writing is universal in scope.


From The Silencer by Antonio di Benedetto, published by New York Review of Books. Copyright © 1999 by Juan Jose Saer. Translation copyright © 2022 by Esther Allen.

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