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Victims of History

On Argentine novelist Antonio Di Benedetto

Noise signified progress in the early days of metropolitan Buenos Aires, around the fin-de-siècle. In 1887, European immigrants were flooding into this city of four hundred thousand people. By 1936, modernity roared, and Buenos Aires’s centrality to Latin America solidified: paved roads, tall buildings, and a frenzied port made the city louder than its now 1.2 million inhabitants had ever imagined. Noise acquired moral value. “Good” noise was “unavoidable”: rumbling wheels on pavement and engines burning, construction and even conversation. “Excessive” or “unnecessary” noise, on the other hand, came to be thought of as an urban ailment. Yelling, loudspeakers, car horns—restrictions on such practices were rapidly codified into law and thus associated with the uneducated and undesirable, those who were by definition outside legality: the racialized, poor, and queer. Decibel measurements and municipal ordinances made noise-production a terrain of struggle and reflected the ongoing upheaval within the city’s structure.

Panic over Buenos Aires’s whiteness and class status spread as inequality and difference “entered” the public eye (and ear). Argentina’s consumer society emerged amid the early twentieth century’s throes of modernization and was consolidated during Juan Domingo Perón’s first presidential tenure, from 1946 to 1955. Perón’s economic programs promoted industrialization through the manufacture of consumer goods, and these programs largely benefited the lower and working classes. As a result, elites loathed Perón, while his reverence for Mussolini and often-shady political operations—including curtailing free speech—meant that intellectuals accused him, with no small degree of condescension, of “coopting the working class.” In 1955, a military coup ousted Perón and proscribed Peronism, a ban that lasted nearly twenty years. Perón fled into exile, and General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu soon took power, slaughtering Peronist leaders and intervening in universities to enforce a ban on the major current of Argentine political thought and belief.

Amid Peronism’s furies, a group of young critics, led by Ismael and David Viñas, Susana Fiorito, and Adelaida Gigli, established the Marxist-inflected literary and political magazine Contorno. The publication’s subtitle—“a denouncialist magazine”—indicated a commitment to “patricidal” criticism, in critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal’s words. They were children of the Perón years and leading members of a generation that aspired to introduce existentialist Marxism to Argentina. Contorno lasted from 1953 to 1959 and represented a watershed moment in Argentine intellectual life. The magazine’s pieces were more essayistic and argumentative than was common at the time, and each issue covered broad swaths of Argentine literature and culture, from the novel itself to specific authors like Roberto Arlt and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, who were posited as literary paragons. After Perón’s ouster, Contorno became more outwardly interested in politics, and led the intellectual left’s rapprochement with Peronism.

“Excessive” or “unnecessary” noise, on the other hand, came to be thought of as an urban ailment.

The young Contorno writers’ adoption of Jean-Paul Sartre’s model of the “committed intellectual” was perhaps their most influential innovation. Refraining from more direct praxis like labor organizing, the committed intellectual would use their speech to proselytize and advocate, especially among the intellectual class. In the 1960s, however, a more radical paradigm, derived from the work of Antonio Gramsci, took hold. The “organic intellectual” was far more integrated into the revolutionary apparatus and displayed a lesser individualism in their devotion to the cause. Put shortly, organic intellectuals took up arms.

In 1976, Argentina’s most brutal military and civilian dictatorship seized power and embarked on a systematic program of eradication that drove intellectual life underground or into exile. Many of those who didn’t leave, by choice or otherwise, perished at the hands of a regime, which lasted until 1983. While most Contorno members were close to one leftist party or another, none joined the armed struggle against the junta.

Among those exiled after the 1976 coup was Antonio Di Benedetto, a prominent journalist who was undoubtedly savvy to the intellectual developments of his time. Though not affiliated with Contorno, he was born around the same time as their generation and, like them, was of decidedly middle-class origins. He lived in Mendoza, far from Buenos Aires, where most of the country’s prominent intellectuals resided. And while Di Benedetto was privately a socialist, his profession as a journalist meant that he never publicly expressed his ideals and was far from affiliating with a party. He treated his fiction as nothing more than a pastime and was most interested in screenwriting. Considering the negligible enthusiasm his fiction elicited upon publication, this wasn’t an insensible position.

His most famous opus, Zama, was originally published in 1956. Forgotten for decades, it has since been widely avowed as a masterpiece in Argentina and abroad. (The novel was translated into English by Esther Allen for NYRB Classics in 2016 and adapted into a film by Lucretia Martel in 2017.) In Zama, Di Benedetto evokes a colonial officer named Don Diego de Zama, stationed in some backwater in the 1790s. Zama awaits a transfer from the king, hoping to be moved downriver to a capital city like Buenos Aires, where life is exciting, and his wife—to whom he frequently writes but who doesn’t seem to respond—lives. Nothing happens at his current post except for Zama’s misbehavior: he’s spotted leering at a group of naked girls, courts a married woman, and brutalizes an enslaved girl. But in Zama’s exorbitant final act, he sets off to pursue a bandit named Vicuña Porto, who we later learn was among his men from the start. Zama notifies his captain of this fact, and the expedition unravels into a farce, with Porto himself needing Zama’s help to secure the support of his own followers.

Throughout the novel, Zama furiously latches onto a series of libidinal toys, including his boss’s wife, in an attempt to distract himself from what he really wants: to get back to Buenos Aires, his family, and his now-sidelined career. Hope and expectation underwrite every one of his actions. There’s no changing him: even as Zama is about to lose his hands and perhaps die at Porto’s, he writes a final letter to his wife, which he casts into a river. Di Benedetto’s novel considers with remarkable frankness the psychological consequences of a life oriented around impossible desires and crushed by an intractable power dynamic, in this case, that between a king and his servants.

Zama was the first entry in Di Benedetto’s unofficial “Trilogy of Expectation,” so named for the dedication at its front: “To the victims of expectation.” Allen recently translated the second installment, The Silentiary, originally published as El silenciero in 1964. The narrator this time is a man in his twenties driven to insanity and complete isolation by an ever-changing, unceasing array of noise flooding his ears. The trilogy’s third volume, Los suicidas, was published in 1969, and is also forthcoming from Allen and NYRB. In that volume, a journalist investigates a series of suicides as he approaches his thirty-third birthday, the age at which his own father killed himself, slowly coming to consider suicide himself.

In affirming Di Benedetto’s novels as “a kind of trilogy,” Juan José Saer—whose 1999 piece prefaces the NYRB edition of The Silentiary—states with terse magnanimity that Di Benedetto’s “principal novels . . . constitute one of the culminating moments of twentieth-century narrative fiction in Spanish.” Ricardo Piglia has even claimed that all three novels feature mutations of a similar narrator, who is tortured by the contrivances of a world that won’t let him be, if not complicit in his own oppression. Emancipation, reconciliation: these dreams are as illusory as the books and essays that Di Benedetto’s characters write (or aspire to write) and the letters that Zama sends to his wife. There are few literary antecedents for such apparently self-imposed misery, Saer argues, suggesting Dostoevsky’s “heroes” are the clearest and perhaps only precursors. For Saer, Di Benedetto’s characters are unique in their refusal to capitulate to misanthropy and resentment. They just keep waiting and waiting.

The selective idiocy and narrow vision of Di Benedetto’s protagonists, who are unable to live yet unwilling to die, capture some of the contradictions of life in Latin America after World War II. When The Silentiary was published in the 1960s, Argentine radical politics were turning militantly violent as youth associations, political parties, and unions picked up arms to varying degrees to protest a state they saw as fundamentally unjust and a tool of Yankee imperialism.

This fiery upheaval left a mark on literature and criticism. The now-established Contorno generation offered even more explicitly political and combative interpretations of literary tradition in relation to the historical processes that produced them. Juan José Sebreli famously proposed a new reading of Julio Cortázar’s classic 1946 short story, “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), in which a haunting, unseen force displaces a bourgeois pair of siblings from their enormous home, room by room. Sebreli suggested that the story displayed the sense of unsettling occupation that the Argentine middle and upper classes experienced in 1943 during the upsurge of Peronism.

Di Benedetto, however, strongly resisted sociological or political readings of his art and went so far as to edit The Silentiary a decade after its original publication to emphasize its philosophical and psychological elements, as J.M. Coetzee noted in the New York Review of Books. The Silentiary is loosely set in the Latin America of the 1950s, but it is utterly uninterested in its narrator’s material environment and ragged, painful world. This nonspecific setting could have been an effort to elude comparisons to Cortázar’s text, though The Silentiary’s resemblance to “House Taken Over”—a disturbance unsettles the life of a comfortable, bourgeois Latin American man with literary aspirations—is hard to miss.

The Silentiary is an urban novel, but the city manifests almost exclusively through sound, which tortures the narrator with its crushing omnipresence. Di Benedetto’s protagonist couldn’t care less about reality, and the novel’s minimal style immerses us in his fixated consciousness and cracked mind. Consider its opening: “The front gate gives onto the dingy tiled patio. I open the gate and meet the noise. I look around for it, as if its shape and the extent of its vitality could be determined. It comes from beyond the bedrooms, from an empty lot I’ve never seen, behind a spacious house that faces a different street.” Once the cacophony has begun, all that exists for the narrator is the noise, and all he does is alternately chase its sources and flee from them. In the passage cited above, it’s almost as if the noise has become visual, tactile, and geographic. A world in and of itself.

Argentine radical politics were turning militantly violent as youth associations, political parties, and unions picked up arms to varying degrees.

These sounds are in one sense metaphysical disturbances of the narrator’s being—arhythmic, disharmonic, and all around unpleasant. They’re also quintessentially modern, urban sounds, a panoply of quotidian disturbances: bus engines, backfiring cars, television sets. The narrator’s closest friend, Besarión, suggests in a letter that the narrator is “somatotonic”—bodily focused and thus amenable to noise—while he’s “cerebrotonic,” a sensitive, brain-centered soul. His implication—that the narrator is not an intellectual or a brilliant man—offends the narrator. When he sardonically calls Besarión “cerebrotonic,” one intuits that he longs for such a disposition himself: indeed, our narrator esteems himself a writer, and hopes to produce a book. So what if he hasn’t actually started—he already knows everything about his novel, he tells us, and all that’s left to do is put it in writing. He repeatedly blames the noise for his inability to write, though he’s never done it before. Modernity’s machinery seems to be in the way of writing, as if history—Peronism itself, perhaps—were conspiring against the narrator’s ability to produce.

At a bar, he meets a successful journalist named Reato while getting blind drunk and picking a fight. For the next few months, he fantasizes about asking Reato for a chance to write an essay denouncing the outrages of sound. Reading Schopenhauer’s discussion of music, our narrator discovers the German philosopher’s complaints about noise in relation to modernity and offers them to the journalist, who promptly pens a series of very popular articles on the subject. (Schopenhauer, however, complained about the cracking of horsewhips—a lesser worry in the 1950s.) On the back of the celebrity this article series brings him, Reato eventually becomes a city councilor. He presents an ordinance regarding noise, but when it doesn’t pass, quickly forsakes his militancy.

What heightens the tragedy of forced urban conviviality recorded in The Silentiary—the loss of rural or at least pre-modern isolation and quiet—is the fact that our narrator is apparently the only one suffering, or at least the only one in enough agony to act. Polling his neighbors, he finds them either indifferent or unwilling to involve themselves in the matter. His mother is only mildly bothered by the noise, and his future wife, Nina, is even less so. The couple only begin cohabitating once the novel has progressed to a certain fervorous abstractness. When deciding to marry her, the narrator explains: “That’s the easiest thing. Yes, much easier than all the rest.” Resolving the matter so quickly demonstrates her ultimate unimportance to him, how the noise has atrophied his ability to connect with people around him. The isolation for which he longs returns in torturous form.

The modern expressions of urban life that aggrieve Di Benedetto’s narrator are fundamentally a historical development—like Dahlmann in Borges’s “The South,” he is a man from another time. Noise and cities have become inseparable, so the narrator obeys a familiar ultimatum: if you don’t like it, move to the country. After marrying Nina, he does abundant research to find somewhere isolated, free of tourism, quiet, and landlocked for their honeymoon. But modernity, alas, is everywhere. In one of The Silentiary’s most poetic passages, his escapist schemes collapse, and noise returns with a vengeance:

The little car’s motor shuts off and my ears can now fully adjust to the atmosphere.

Something is audible. A powerful something.

A majestic pounding of iron against iron. A propagation of sound waves like layers of metal being tortured in the air until they escape across the grasslands.

It’s the blacksmith . . . Forge and bellows, the anvil and its hammers . . . I’m inconsolable.

Di Benedetto didn’t particularly appreciate historicist readings, but his own remarkable life compels them. If he wasn’t exactly a “committed intellectual,” his fearless direction of the newspaper he semi-officially ran included confrontational pieces about various dictatorships. Violence progressively increased throughout the third Peronist term, which lasted from 1973 to 1976 and, following Perón’s 1974 death, was completed by his widow and Vice President, Isabel. Throughout, Di Benedetto’s paper continued to run transparent, uncensored journalism. On the night of March 24, 1976, when the military took power and began its brutal kidnapping and murder spree, Di Benedetto was taken from his home. He would spend the next eighteen months in various clandestine prisons, where he was regularly tortured. At least once, he was subjected to a mock execution. Unlike most prisoners taken during this time, he was ultimately released and fled to Spain, where he lived until 1984, when democracy returned to Argentina. But even after being freed, Di Benedetto was a shadow, sullen and frail. He died in 1986, bankrupt and scarred.

The kidnapping was a surprising move, since Di Benedetto was no activist, nor had he made his personal political views particularly public. Yet the dictatorship’s paranoid conservatism—the enemy is always within—saw anyone with a voice as a threat. On the other side of the conflict, leftist militant groups like the Peronist Youth, Montoneros, the People’s Revolutionary Army, and others increasingly demanded loyalty to the death as they evolved into full-fledged paramilitary institutions during the 1960s. Commitment took on a central importance, buoyed by the Contorno-adjacent intellectuals’ debates around the definition of an “organic intellectual,” the diffusion of Che Guevara’s writings, and a heightened awareness of global struggles for liberation. What, they asked, should an individual committed to the revolution be willing to sacrifice? Put differently: What degree of violence against the state and its institutions was legitimate, and what consequences could conceivably follow for young revolutionaries? Were death and murder acceptable prices to pay?

The Silentiary, despite Di Benedetto’s efforts to depoliticize its content, engages these questions and the historical moment in which it was produced. Besarión, the narrator’s friend, is seemingly part of a secret, well-funded, unnamed organization reminiscent of Montoneros, the main Argentine guerrilla organization. “La Orga,” as its members called it, was highly decentralized to avoid any individual disclosing too much under torture or duress; even the closest family of those in the organization knew nothing of their activities. Most members were eventually disappeared by the regime or killed in combat, and their families would either not know or hide their suspicions in fear, often for decades after the dictatorship’s end. Similarly, Besarión’s life is a complete mystery in the novel, and he refuses to tell the narrator of his activities either at the travel agency where he works or, upon resigning, with the secretive organization. He goes on long trips that seem to only grow longer and affect him severely; he becomes more haggard by the day. Soon after moving in with his mother, she dies. Besarión himself perishes shortly after; he is found, bafflingly, frozen to death in the street. Ambiguity surrounds even Besarión’s corpse, which the narrator cannot confidently identify—“I believe,” he says at the morgue, and though his identification stands judicially, Besarión’s sisters both initially disagree.

The noise of the novel, meanwhile, is not only non-musical and undesirable, but inherently political, for its “perseverance makes me imagine it comes from a man chained to a machine,” the narrator thinks. In other words, the noise is not just modern but the direct consequence of labor, particularly industrial work which, when Di Benedetto wrote The Silentiary, was at its peak in Argentina. Nostalgia for an existence free of loudness, which is to say, an existence away from the economic transformations of recent decades, propels the narrator’s plight. Escape from the noise would mean an escape from modernity’s onslaughts—capitalism, imperialism, alienation.

As The Silentiary nears its end, and particularly after Besarión’s death, the narrator considers suicide and martyrdom. He is even briefly jailed. But “martyrs can’t defend themselves. No one listens.” Martyrs are always victims of history: individuals who surrender completely to the desires of the collective and are ultimately subject to the very forces they confronted, forces that are proven decisively to be beyond their control. Martyrdom is always in hindsight, and thus martyrs themselves are subsumed by their cause. Di Benedetto’s narrator rejects this logic, suggesting that martyrdom would mirror his own misery by rendering his speech untenable, constraining it to the ultimate sacrifice. In a deafening world, death is nothing but capitulation, the silence of surrender. Instead of relief, the novel ends in darkness, moving toward an irredeemable and ignoble suffering: “The night flows on . . . and not toward peace.” There is no meaning in death but also none in suffering, and to seek it is to deceive oneself.

Agency and its destruction is The Silentiary’s, indeed the entire Trilogy of Expectation’s, central drama: What can an individual do against the abstract and inescapable exhaustion of the present? Zama stubbornly lives on after being maimed and stranded, stripped of all dignity and possibility, on a beach. Los suicidas, the final part of the trilogy, also concludes with its narrator rejecting suicide after his lover, dying by suicide herself, begs him to live. He grudgingly relents: “I will have to give word, which will be a pain. I must dress, I’m naked. Completely naked. As I was born” (translation my own). In each of these novels, the existential encounters the specifically historical and leaves the knotted soul in place: immobile, stuck. As conditions in Argentina worsened, political violence heightened, and the body count ballooned, Di Benedetto’s novels avowed the consequences of history on individuals. Yet he refused both armed struggle, which demanded individuals give up their lives for an unpromised utopia, and the surrender of the Underground Man, buried by the world.

To accept death is to relinquish the power to demand a better life.

Somehow, this is hopeful work. The Silentiary, however grim and miserable, models an insistence on survival and a longing for wellbeing akin to that which compelled the revolutionaries to take up arms in pursuit of a new and better world. The struggle to which the era’s revolutionaries committed their lives wasn’t necessarily their own: many were comfortable scions of the middle class, college-educated radicals who believed they could speak for Latin America’s poor. Di Benedetto’s narrators are also middle-class college graduates, but their misery is wholly theirs, a product of their encounters with the world. Revolutionaries understood death as a possibility, and Di Benedetto’s narrators do as well. But they reject it for a life of militant lack.

Di Benedetto was a poet of individuals in conflict with the historical conditions into which they were born, infected with a will to live that they could only resent. Though the intellectual inspirations of Latin America’s armed struggle that blossomed around Di Benedetto, like those of the Contorno generation, envisioned it as a collective enterprise, armed struggle ultimately became a headfirst lunge against a history of inconceivable brutality. Noise, a platform for new modes of marginalization, is an allegory for those very clashes, their torturous and enveloping presence. But death is no response, chosen or otherwise, and there are no acceptable sacrifices, no conscionable losses. To accept death is to relinquish the power to demand a better life.

In the end, though, death was in no one’s hands but the fascists’. They seized power and destroyed the very same “victims of expectation” that Di Benedetto narrated so well. He, alas, became one of them.