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from the January 2015 issue

Pedro Zarraluki’s “The History of Silence”

Reviewed by Anne Posten

Pedro Zarraluki’s "The History of Silence" is concerned with negative space: with absences, with things that can be defined only by what they are not.

As its title suggests, Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence is concerned with negative space: with absences, with things that can be defined only by what they are not; by what didn’t happen and what wasn’t said. The book’s very first words are a statement of non-accomplishment: “This is the story of how a book that should have been called The History of Silence never came to be written.” Yet syntactically it is sly, delaying the negative “never” so that it surprises the reader: just in the space of this single initial sentence, Zarrakuki builds suspense and arouses the reader’s curiosity, only to reveal with a wink that what we’ve been carefully guided toward is not something, but nothing. It is an effective ploy, and an apt beginning, as it foreshadows the somewhat arch style of the book as a whole. In fact, the reader is well-advised not to expect too much from the slim volume, for at heart it is not a philosophical or metaphysical exploration, nor is it particularly formally or thematically unusual. It is, rather, quite a conventional novel—though an enjoyable and well-written one—about the most universal of subjects.

But since love—for that is indeed the subject of the book—is a fairly inexhaustible theme, this is no serious criticism. As a love story, the most interesting angle that The History of Silence offers is its exploration of one of the most troubling yet ultimately most satisfying (when accepted) facets of human relationships: our inability to know everything about one another, the impossibility of complete openness—or complete possession. The necessity, in other words, of some degree of silence between people. If any conclusion is reached in the book, it is that silence (in the form of secrecy, lack of communication, or just quietness) has the power to destroy a relationship, but that the fear of silence does as well.

The plot is simple enough to be told in a sentence: the unnamed narrator and his partner, Irene, having decided to work together on a book about the history of silence, become frustrated by the impossibility of the topic, grow obsessed with the silences between them, betray each other with another married couple (who are aware of and tacitly agree to each others’ infidelities, unlike the narrator and Irene), part ways, and reconcile, having learned their lessons and more about each other. Though this story is what drives the book, it is wisely embedded in a tapestry of other stories relating to the close circle of friends that surrounds Irene and the narrator. A large proportion of the book is taken up by major and minor interpersonal dramas which may or may not later come to bear on the main story, as well as potential “entries” for the never-to-be book: questions like “Can silence be methodical without seeming artificial?” references to silence found in literature, anecdotes told by friends, a long letter from a “stuffy history teacher” about a Byzantine courtesan who feigned deafness and muteness to learn her clients’ secrets and betray them to the empress.

Though as the book progresses it can begin to feel over-narrated—one can almost hear the last twenty pages as voiceover—the subtlety and swiftness with which the author draws the characters and their relationships at the beginning goes a long way toward making this ending feel earned. The details that Zarraluki chooses at the beginning of the book have a way of making the reader trust in and root for the main characters’ love even when little further evidence of this love is provided. When on the second page the narrator refers to a “private language,” for instance, it is both easy to relate to and specific enough to describe both characters and their relationship in a single stroke:

From that moment on, in our private language I’ve forgotten the spaghetti came to mean giving up on something out of a sense of overwhelming fatigue. And so, when Irene once managed to go four days without smoking, she said I’ve forgotten the spaghetti and lit a cigarette . . . And we both said it when we turned off the computer after spending an entire weekend trying to beat it at chess, and when we stopped eating only fruit on Thursdays, and whenever François came to give us French lessons in the evening and yet we decided to watch a film on TV instead.  

This seemingly enviable relationship based on shared preferences and intimate understanding is set amid an impossibly sexy bevy of friends, in a Barcelona depicted as outsiders love to imagine it: full of elegant and charismatic women who seem always to be draped languidly across sofas, free-flowing wine, good food, and plenty of time for siestas and gossiping with friends.

Romantic, picturesque, funny, troubled: it is hard not to think of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and if the suggestion of a plot parallel is a bit of a stretch, the comparison of tone and style is not. In literature, it is hard to find an analogue for Zarraluki’s writing, with its light gloss of irony, its frequent unsubtle foreshadowings—“It might never have happened, but many things happen for the same reason glasses get broken,” “What a shame that pleasure goes hand in hand with an overwhelming desire to spoil things,” “How could I have imagined what was going to happen then?”—and its occasional gnomic parentheticals. Critics have also made much of the author’s humor, and it is perhaps here that the comparison to Allen feels most fitting, in that Zarraluki’s humor, too, is dark, and his narrator both hyper self-aware and painfully deluded. Like Allen’s films, this book’s aims turn out to be more modest than originally suggested, and by the end the narrator has managed to destroy much of the good will won by his initial charm.

Though the tone of the book is at times hard to grasp, it is to the great credit of the translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, that they have rendered it with seamless consistency, causing the reader to react with curiosity rather than frustration. Though closer attention could have been paid to copyediting, publishing newcomer Hispabooks, whose admirable goal is to expose readers to “the best of today’s Spanish literature,” has put out a lovely book which is accessible without being predictable, engaging, and ultimately surprisingly sweet. All in all The History of Silence is a really pleasurable read, not in the sense of “light,” but in that it satisfies a desire for a complete, rounded story with characters vivid enough to quickly become our friends and problems real enough to shed some light on our own.

During the couple’s separation, the narrator’s biggest eureka moment occurs in a library when he suddenly realizes what Irene finds so valuable there:

. . . something more than simple information, something more than answers to the questions she might be able to ask, something that could doubtless not be uttered or written down and yet which existed within those walls, alive, palpable, mingled with the scent of my beloved, something so powerful that one could feed off it without worrying whether it was a harmless lie (another mirage of clear water) or a poison it would have been better never to have tried.  

As the crucial revelation of the book, and what leads to the story’s resolution, this sudden paean to literature is unexpected, perhaps even jarring, since it feels in no way inevitable, and on first blush not even integral to the narrative or themes of the book. But on closer inspection, the connection becomes clear: this is a return to the question of silence and its relationship to truth and deception that is the book’s major preoccupation, for the paragraph continues thus:

. . . I knew that I wanted to sink with Irene . . . into that murmur of voices hushed for eternity, into that forever ineffable silence so intense that it had the power to dissolve all absences . . . so beautiful and so terrible that at its core one ceased to be wretched and betrayals were true betrayals, love became sublime and death was transformed into something magnificent that rejected mediocre souls. And all thanks to the enormous simulacrum called literature, perhaps the only honest activity of a species accustomed to deception.

The outlet of literature, the narrator suggests, is essential to human relationships— a paradoxical space where silence and communication coexist, a space where the banal becomes sublime and the deception of fiction is honest in its illumination of larger truths. Here, perhaps, is where what is kept silent between people can be expressed, providing a release for both writer and readers.

But even after this revelation, the narrator has another lesson to learn. During an emotional reconciliation in Managua, where Irene has fled to start a life without him, he expresses his desire to hear all of her truths, no matter how hurtful, to forever abolish silence from their relationship. But she corrects him, playfully but wisely, on the difference between silence and concealment, saying “I don’t hide anything from you. All that happens is I refuse to tell you.” And his response is silence—the perfect answer. 

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