Time of Silence, by Luis Martín-Santos

I just happened upon this book in a charity shop in the first week of July, so I bought it and read it for Spanish Literature Month. I thought I might vaguely have heard of it before somewhere.

Despite the occasional savage review, I do usually start books optimistically; – and normally this continues for a few pages at least, before the poverty of thought and style start to bore me. Perhaps because I’ve struggled with so many books recently (including other ones for SLM) and really can only any longer find myself persevering with works of the very highest standard, I began Time of Silence with a fair degree of disinclination and prejudice; and nothing in the first part dissuaded me from this. Something about experiments on mice and cancer; scientific jargon; short sentences – little to impress.

At some point though, which in retrospect I imagined was much further on, at the point when our hero Pedro and his assistant Amador descend into the shantytown in the Madrid suburbs, but which may in truth have been much earlier, my mind changed and I began to think that this novel, written by a man unknown in the country (at least, he has no English Wikipedia page) was the best novel I’d read this year (which isn’t saying too much, since I haven’t read too much) and moreover one of the better ones of the last century.

Perhaps it was sentences like this description of Madrid on p.11:

The city is so stunted, so lacking in historical substance, treated in such an offhand way by arbitrary rulers, capriciously built in a desert, inhabited by so few families rooted in its past, far from the sea or any river, ostentatious in the display of its shabby poverty, favored by a splendid sky which almost makes one forget its defects, ingenuously self-satisfied like a fifteen–year-old girl, created merely for the prestige of a dynasty, … bereft of authentic nobility … incapable of speaking its own language with the correct intonation … having no authentic Jewry … rich in dull theologians and poor in splendid mystics … [and so on for a page or two]

From then on, I found the writing marvellous, and it began to fulfil for me the one value of any worth in literature: that is, every time I remembered it, I wanted to pick it up again and continue reading. Martín-Santos certainly has a way of approaching narrative I find at almost every moment pleasing, though I’d have to pay a good deal more attention to being a critic than a reader to decide precisely what this is.

Since this meant to be a learned review, however, aspiring to claim more than just “it was great”, let me make a few easy comparisons: I thought at first it was like Joyce’s Ulysses, it had shifting view-points and stream-of-consciousness bits and seemed to be taking course over a single day and there was a nighttown scene where our hero visited a brothel; but then I began to think it was a bit more like Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, for it was more wide-ranging than Joyce, there were intimations of a plot developing, people were involved in sin, satire abounded and the sentences wandered where they liked; but then I settled on it being more like Bely’s Petersberg, because there were many capricious changes of style, and a sort of thriller plot was developing. Yes, it is like all these things; and it also reminded me of Juan Goytisolo too, those rants of his against Spain and the Spanish, though here it is more controlled, more considered and intelligible.

Read it then, if you can find a copy.

(This was Martín-Santos’ only novel. He was soon after killed in a car-crash.)

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4 thoughts on “Time of Silence, by Luis Martín-Santos

  1. You remind me that I have had Bely on my shelf for years and am yet to get to him. I hope this isn’t a subconscious avoidance strategy. Maybe I’ll try to read him on holiday.

    Martin-Santos sounds well worth a look. A couple of other books are mentioned on Wikipedia. I’ll keep an eye out.

  2. Bely is well worth reading. Hard-going at times, but I found it suddenly picked up about half way through. I have 3 other books by him which I really should get round to some time.

    The chances of just happening on a book by Martin-Santos I’d say were quite slim – but then I did, so I guess it’s possible.

  3. I loved this novel when I first read it–it made my year end “best of” list, in fact–but I hope to reread it someday (possibly in tandem with Cela’s The Hive). There’s actually what may be a sequel of sorts, Time of Destruction, but it was left unfinished on account of Martín-Santos’ death. What a great novel you picked to review, though.

  4. Yes it’s a pity my review doesn’t remotely do it justice. The next novel is more or less as good too, though different. I should do a post on books I gave up on as well. – i was close to reading some more Cela, I have another 2 books of his.

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