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Time of Silence by Luis Martin-Santos

Time of Silence (1962)

by Luis Martin-Santos

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I read this book a few months ago and didn't ever get around to writing a review. It's a classic of postwar Spanish fiction, and I went into it with high hopes; they were fulfilled for the most part, although there was something that kept me from being wildly enthusiastic about this book as I read it. Martín-Santos is known for incorporating a lot of modern, Joycean narrative techniques--stream of consciousness, interior monologue, fragmented narration--into his book at a time when that wasn't necessarily what Spanish literature was all about. It is an experimental book, I think it's fair to say, although not to the point that it's impossible to make heads or tails out of what you're reading. The author mixes a very erudite language and constant references to other works of literature and art with a generous helping of irony and dark humor; it was a combination that I very much enjoyed.

Pedro is a scientist trying to find a cure for cancer in a laboratory during the Franco regime. In his spare time, he sits around and talks with the three generations of women who own the pension house he stays at. They've got their eyes on him as the future spouse of Dorita, the youngest member of the clan. In a perfect world they'd like him to settle down, quit working in the laboratory and start practicing medicine, which would make him something of a model husband/provider. Pedro also goes out drinking on the weekends with his buddy Matías; during these benders they hang out first with artists at literary cafes and later make their way to the brothel, where they drunkenly attempt to consummate their evening with a little sex. Because Pedro is unable to obtain the steady supply of mice he needs to keep his experiment going via legitimate channels, he buys them from Muecas (mueca means "grimace" in Spanish), a relative of his lab assistant Amador, who lives in a Madrid shantytown. Muecas, his wife and his two daughters live in rather tight quarters, although he's managed to cobble together a residence that makes him something of a shantytown bourgeois. All four, though, sleep in the same bed. Suddenly, about 100 pages in, Pedro is summoned to the Muecas residence and asked to try and save the daughter's life. Florita (the daughter) was impregnated (by her father) and an attempted abortion failed badly and now she's bleeding to death. Pedro is unable to save her, but his appearance at the Muecas residence has some rather drastic and far-reaching consequences in Pedro's life, mostly due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings regarding his actual role in the illegal medical procedure.

The book is divided up into nearly forty sections, and it often takes a bit of effort to figure out the perspective of each individual section. Three of them are interior monologues from the perspective of Pedro; others are from the perspective of, for example, Cartucho, the disgruntled admirer of Florita; still others take a more distant, third person perspective when recounting the Madrid cityscape through which Pedro passes. Different characters' back stories are intertwined, and you slowly come to understand how Muecas established himself in Madrid, how the family of three generations of women came to host Pedro, and how a particularly compelling painting by Goya comes to represent a certain class of Spanish intellectual that in turn encounters its maximal representation in José Ortega y Gasset, who gives a conference to a crowd of adoring women after Pedro analyzes the painting. As you progress farther into the book, the way the different sections interact becomes easier to understand. At first it's a little difficult to sort things out, but each section is strong enough in its own right to hold your attention. I especially enjoyed the first depiction of the laboratory, the story of the women in the pension house, and the arrival of Pedro and Amador to the shantytown.

Luis Martín-Santos was a psychiatrist as well as an author, and his background as a scientist in Franco's Spain and as a student of the human mind certainly contributed heavily to the content of this book. It certainly presents a rather pessimistic view of the possibility of glory and personal redemption via science. It also paints a rather dark picture of intellectual Spain in the 1950s, a country isolated from the scientific glory and progress of the United States. Pedro dreams of getting a scholarship to go do research in America, where he'd presumably be able to really accomplish things, rather than progressively killing more and more mice in a ridiculous and doomed attempt to find a cure for cancer and bring glory to the Spanish scientific establishment. ( )
3 vote msjohns615 | Dec 24, 2011 |
one of the best books of 20th century spanish literature ( )
  prima1 | Oct 15, 2007 |
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