The History of Silence
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how a book that should have been called The History of Silence never came to be written. Although common, failure is not easy to explain.” I prepared for a self-aware, post-modern, and concept-heavy work. While Zarraluki never abandons his exploration of silence, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The narrator and Irene dive into the philosophies of silence, into religious ideas, into odd experiments with it, but this is a novel about relationships, about complicated, emotional, thoughtful, sexual people. Zarraluki creates whole, original characters in the brush of a couple sentences, builds their relationships with the others, and then plays out all the shades of those human interactions. It’s in the midst of that, of what people say and don’t say to each other, in the way things are said and the silence behind words, that the history of silence is uncovered.
When the pair are focused on their work of silence, they experiment and run tests—they try to not speak to each other for a week; Irene collects photos of loud events and posts them all over the apartment, till it drives their housekeeper to panic at the intensity of them. They push the boundaries of silence as they and their friends push the boundaries of relationships. The History of Silence begins in the intimacy of a single couple, moves to the intimacy that couple shares with their group of friends, and from there to the individual lines between each and every one in the group. It isn’t elaborate, it isn’t a complicated step-by-step move around the group, but a work of finesse.
Zarraluki crafts these unique people and relationships by making them just a little odd, without dodging off into the quirky, playful ground. When we meet François and Silvia, the closest friends of Irene and the unnamed narrator, we find: “Another of their habits (a result of their first) was never to arrive together. They preferred to bump into one another, in an eternal re-enactment of their first meeting in that bygone Paris café.” From there, I understand something of them, and start to glimpse the outline of what I don’t know. Even more, from all these perceptive insights into those the narrator cares about, I see that for all he hardly speaks to them, how intimate he is with each of them. His observations are trustworthy, it seems, but there are still lines to be read between, and his flaws, his desire to ignore what he does not want to see, threaten the group, and our trust in him.
This is a book of one great strength: Zarraluki’s breaths of life into his characters, and their relationships, the way one relationship brings one side of a person to dominance while another brings out a different side. This isn’t appreciative of just the way that relationships change and change people, but of the specific vitality of an individual. Of their friend Olga, our narrator says: “She never spoke to more than one person at a time. She used to say that small talk drove her crazy, and she was only interested in people’s secrets.” Part of what makes this group of friends so enjoyable to spend time with is how well they all know each other, and the way they use that to care, even in slight ways, as when Irene displays an unneeded gift because “Silvia got depressed when she bought people the wrong presents.”
Likeable characters can be overrated, but so can unlikeable ones. I imagine that if after finishing History of Silence, a dozen readers were asked to rank characters most likeable to least, those lists would be varied. Those readers likely wouldn’t have the same list at the end of the novel as halfway through. At the same time as we’re getting to know them, Zarraluki puts them through the strains of life. There are events out of their control that change them, as their reactions to those events also do, and they all necessarily react differently, which comes with its own consequences. Any time one member of the group enters a new phase of his personality, it triggers others: in and through relationships, individuals grow into someone slightly altered, and the hope is that those relationships can live in the change.
For the most part, the narrator does not pay specific attention to these changes; there are not moments of pure telling. It is aesthetically graceful, while also one of the silences of the book. Thought it isn’t what dominates the narrator’s and wife’s research, the silences between people are the silences that dominate History of Silence, for health and for pain. They exist in passing moments, in quiet, emotional moments: “Motionless (the inevitable stupid grin on my lips), I thought that one day I might learn to banish my obsessions, or make them real, or at least conceal them from others.” It’s that “inevitably stupid grin” that makes him so necessarily silent, a breath held between two people, before anything else can happen.
Eventually, the silences between the friends, between partners, becomes a betrayal, and the breaking of that silence is something that threatens to destroy the lives they have built. The unsaid preserves relationships and it harms them; Zarraluki’s book unfolds both of those routes, and which one a silence will be, preservational or harmful, is uncertain till it breaks. Along the way it can be one or the other; it can even switch from time to time until the end. The History of Silence does this one thing, this rich manifestation of these people’s lives so well, so beautifully, and in so few pages. It feels as if every aspect of relationships are explored, including one that so many books falter at: sex, sexuality. The History of Silence is one of the most sensual, intimate books I’ve read. The sex is physical, can be simple and rough, it is passionate, but it is also caring, messy, and kind. Let that be a synecdoche for everything else that Zarraluki does with his characters.