When John Cage stepped into an anechoic chamber in the early 1950s, the composer expected to finally find silence; instead, he had to confront the acoustics of his own body. In the theoretically soundless room, at a Harvard lab, Cage did hear two sounds: the higher tone came from the operating of his nervous system, the lower tone from the circulating of his blood.
This experience—searching for a moment without sound, while failing to account for the sounds that might emerge from within—led Cage to the revelation that any absolute absence of aural stimuli was unattainable. This realization partly inspired 4′33″, his well-known work in which a performer sits down at a piano but refrains from playing, in order to let a supposedly silent space speak for itself. In looking to hear silence, that is, we will simply start to hear new sounds.
Using musical tools—a sonata-like set of three movements of ambient sound in a performance setting—to reveal the impossibility of complete silence might strike listeners as an unorthodox approach. Nevertheless, Cage’s choice was an effective one: at the 1952 premiere of 4′33″, one could hear David Tudor not only opening and closing the piano lid but also shuffling through the blank score—two sounds that served to draw attention to the many others in an ostensibly quiet concert hall. Can novels similarly restructure our understanding of silence?
By exploring what happens when the power of speech is either renounced or revoked, two recent novels from opposite ends of Latin America consider this very question of how to express silence.
María Sonia Cristoff’s Include Me Out (first published in Argentina in 2014 and now translated by Katherine Silver) tracks a young woman’s deliberate immersion in silence, a journey that resembles Cage’s visit to the almost perfectly soundproof room. Meanwhile, Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations (first published in Mexico in 2016 and recently translated into English by Charlotte Whittle) depicts a cancer patient’s unexpected shift to a silent state. That central character’s experience of silence resonates with the surprise of the first audiences of 4′33″, and with the inescapability of the body that Cage encountered in the anechoic chamber.
Just as Cage made concertgoers acutely aware of everyone else in the audience—by muting the music that would usually muffle their presence—Cristoff’s and Comensal’s novels suppress speech in order to sound out how doing so changes relationships. Silence is twinned to forms of solitude in both books, and in each case a character’s silence only becomes meaningful when other characters respond to it. Saying nothing, we understand, is less about withdrawing than finding alternative forms of engagement.
In other words, silence in these novels allows social interactions and structures to reverberate rather than dissipate. (Gender, to take just one example, informs the impact of speechlessness, as male and female protagonists face different expectations and prompt disparate reactions.) By listening to the sounds of silence—to the spaces where it resonates and how those same spaces shape it—Comensal and Cristoff capture silence’s inescapably social components.
Two recent novels from opposite ends of Latin America consider the question of how to express silence.
In Include Me Out, Mara—who used to be a simultaneous interpreter, working at diplomatic events around the world—decides to conduct a yearlong experiment: instead of carrying the words of others across linguistic divides, she will refrain from speaking as much as she can. Abandoning the cosmopolitan circuits of her previous life, she moves to a small town in an Argentine province and becomes a guard in a nearby city’s museum.
Although the museum is seemingly undergoing an inevitable decline and dedicated to curating a selective vision of the country’s violent past, it is also the perfect site for Mara’s exploration of the effects of silence. She can concentrate on the self-discipline demanded by her sojourn in soundlessness, since her job requires her to move only a little more than the objects she watches over.
For Mara, saying as little as possible is less an exercise in asceticism than an attempt to make up for lost time. Silence, she explains, was the only unforgivable sin in interpreting—a profession that, above all else, had to keep conversations going. And yet, Mara seeks not isolation but a different form of connection. She still hopes “to practice the art of keeping quiet while interacting with the world.” As she performs a muted sociability—one that makes extensive use of noncommittal sounds and even silence—she not only strikes up a somewhat one-sided friendship with a coworker, but also gets to know a local deliveryman. The latter moves from acquaintance to accomplice when an obstacle to Mara’s experiment arises.
An unexpected promotion, which Mara understands as an unwelcome interruption and even an insult, challenges her silence and, thus, her sense of control. Half of her time will now be spent assisting a renowned taxidermist to restore two prized pieces: Gato and Mancha, a pair of embalmed yet rapidly deteriorating Criollo horses that had taken the Swiss-born Aimé Félix Tschiffely on a three-year journey from Buenos Aires to New York in the 1920s.
For the museum, these once-exquisite equine specimens are a point of pride, since the breed is understood as an increasingly rare example of autochthonous excellence. Both the taxidermist and the donor funding his work (who is also experimenting with cloning the breed) find the decaying state of the animals to be symptomatic of a broader national trend—one they hope to counteract with the horses’ reconstruction.
The brash taxidermist quickly gets under Mara’s skin, his constant demands making it more difficult than ever for her to keep the vow of silence. Seeking a subtle form of revenge, she resolves to take matters into her own hands and considers how she might sabotage the restoration on the day of its grand unveiling. Determining how to unmistakably implicate the taxidermist without casting any suspicion on herself requires Mara to use a key interpreting skill: listening intently to uncover the crucial kernel of information. And while she does successfully execute this pernicious plot—a silent way of speaking her mind—she ultimately ensnares someone else to ensure her innocence.
Mara is no stranger to this style of subterfuge. When she worked as an interpreter—someone who says nothing despite talking all the time—she had assembled a manual that explained the range of rhetorical strategies employed in the speeches she translated and that even integrated examples from confidential conversations. One day, at a summit where a well-known philanthropist was scheduled to speak, Mara—rather than sitting in her booth and translating—read aloud from this manual for seven minutes, before security guards intervened and escorted her out of the building.
This act of making transparent what lurked behind baroque bureaucratic language is far less dramatic than the events in The Interpreter, the 2005 Sydney Pollack film about an assassination attempt at the UN, which is one of the only other works to notably feature this audible yet often invisible role. But Mara, like Nicole Kidman’s character, hopes to point out the hollowness of words wielded by the powerful.
Mara’s manual also lays out the maxims about silence that she treats like mantras, and it is the only book—aside from a 19th-century Spanish guide to gardening—that she brings with her to the small provincial town. The novel presents brief citations from these two texts as well as excerpts from a “Notebook.” Unlike other sections of Include Me Out, these passages contain some first-person interjections, as they discuss materials such as biographical dictionaries, a taxidermy website, and even horse breeders’ brochures.
Cristoff has said that these passages draw on some of the research she conducted while writing the novel. Incorporating them is, thus, a way of not keeping quiet about the work’s composition. Yet, since they are included in the text without being placed inside Mara’s story—much as the paradoxical title of the book suggests—they, too, articulate the novel’s exploration of the tension between staying silent and sensing the right moment to speak.
The absence of speech can actually attune us to something new.
In The Mutations, silence is countered by a mangy parrot with a predilection for profanity. This Amazona oratriz, an endangered species, is named after Benito Juárez, a 19th-century Mexican president. The bird becomes the companion of Ramón Martínez after a glossectomy intended to eliminate a terminal tumor leaves him unable to talk.
Whereas Mara eschews speech in order to assert control, this once-gregarious lawyer in Mexico City must confront the loss of it, as he slowly retreats from a public persona that revolved around his ability to speak on behalf of others. Because of Benito’s limited vocabulary, he is less of an interpreter and more of an amplifier. While the parrot is capable of capturing Ramón’s frustrations through expletive-laced outbursts, he is unable to convey the lawyer’s other messages.
Comensal’s novel portrays the end of a life suddenly marked by quiet desperation. Without health insurance, Ramón cannot sustain his middle-class comforts in the face of ever-increasing medical costs. A loan from his brother only causes him more stifled distress. Those around him attempt to provide some relief: a longtime housekeeper not only buys her employer the parrot, but also makes do with decreased wages; Ramón’s wife takes over at the law office to make sure at least some money comes in.
His children, on the other hand, cope with their father’s cancer by continuing old habits. Ramón’s son only briefly wonders if his onanistic excesses are somehow related to his father’s suffering, while his daughter depends on Twinkies for sustenance as she researches medical terms online. But none of them detects many changes in Ramón’s behavior; his new muteness provokes no new mutability.
The only figure to pry past Ramón’s facade is a pot-smoking Lacanian psychoanalyst who specializes in treating cancer patients. Unlike Ramón’s family, she has experience with silence and possesses the vocabulary to reflect on its various valences, thanks to sessions with her own analyst. But since the talking cure will not work with Ramón, they chat via computer in her office. There, he confesses that the loss of speech has led to the surprising sensation that he is somehow separate from the body that is failing him, as its cells succumb to cancer.
As his quietus—his death—draws closer, only the peso continues to give Ramón a sense of power. Looking at a handful of bills, he thinks that with them he “would be able to speak again; with them, he would grandiloquently dictate his final wish.” To procure the money, Ramón had the housekeeper pawn off his gold watch. With some of the funds, he purchases a larger cage for Benito.
Together, he and the parrot engage in exchanges during which Ramón’s wordlessness provokes senseless speech from Benito—and the bird’s bobbing head signals enthusiastic agreement with the patient’s unvoiced thoughts. Although neither one truly communicates anything to the other, they share intermittent silences that accentuate the curious parallels between an imitator with nothing new to learn and a litigator with nothing left to say.
In one part of Bird Cage, a 1972 work consisting of 12 prerecorded tapes that a performer could decide how to play, John Cage conducts a circular conversation with a parrot. During this talk, both parrot and man repeatedly inquire about the other’s name. Although the bird does respond appropriately in one instance (by saying “Harvey”), it later asks for Cage’s name, a question that Cage had already answered. Like Benito, Harvey speaks but cannot really be said to say anything, creating some comedy within a piece that, like 4′33″, is explicitly interested in questions of form.
For Comensal, silence is ultimately a secondary feature, used to craft comedic moments (like those Cage introduces with his parrot) within conventional structures. But for Cristoff, silence is a central subject, one that her novel engages with not just thematically but formally. Like Cage, she answers the call of silence by recognizing that the absence of speech can actually attune us to something new.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
Featured image: Cuarentena #4, Mexico City (2020). Photograph by David Bowie mx / Flickr