The Rest Is Silence
by Carla Guelfenbein
translated by Katherine Silver
I don't tend to read bestsellers. It isn't snobbery I promise, it just doesn't tend to end that well. But this title from Portobello Books might have been the literary equivalent of having your cake and eating it; translated fiction (big tick), the first to be translated into English from a Chilean author who was the bestselling in Spain five years ago and has outsold both Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer (really big tick). So how has Guelfenbein managed to do that? By writing thrillers or resorting to the occult? Well the cover doesn't suggest as much and in this book at least it seems that a combination of slowly revealed family secrets and the emotional release that comes with them was enough to propel this book to the top of the charts.
The novel has three narrators (each of their respective chapters carries an identifying icon although it's almost always immediately obvious who has taken over the story) Tommy, a twelve year old boy, Juan his surgeon father, and Juan's second wife Alma. This modern family set-up has come about after the sudden death of Juan's first wife Soledad. Tommy has always believed that this was due to a sudden illness but at a family gathering he overhears a conversation whilst hidden under the table.
All I can see down here are lots of legs, moving around. Every kind of leg: camel legs, rabbit legs, flamenco legs, monkey legs, legs of other animals who have names I haven't learnt yet. There are three women sitting at my table with knees as thick as elephants' legs, and a man wearing golf shoes, and a giraffe who quickly takes off her golden sandals. Even though they're all talking over each other and it'll be hard to get anything worthwhile, I turn on my MP3 player and voice recorder and start recording.It is there he hears that his mother was briefly committed before taking her own life, a revelation that sends him off spinning, searching for answers to all sorts of new questions about his mother. That carefully constructed fiction was put in place by his father Juan who seems to have literally erased that portion of his life in order to move forward, removing photos from albums and eventually beginning a new relationship with Alma. He is the kind of man who likes to have control over his life and we can see several examples of this along with the line he has drawn under his past. Tommy was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and Juan has been able to use his skills and knowledge to help that condition but exerts the control that he must never be allowed to over-exert himself (this is a measure of control over both Tommy and Alma of course). His days are ordered but he becomes ruffled by the condition of another boy with a similar condition to Tommy's but a far less hopeful prognosis. His major control is to keep so much hidden from Alma who can't help but fear for her own future when it is built on such an uncertain foundation.
What lay under Juan's facade of calm and respectability? Just like the white spaces where there had once been photographs of his wife, there must be other aspects of his life that would remain invisible to me: hidden desires, fears obsessions. Perhaps I too would one day become a blank space in a photo album.
Alma's uncertainties are heightened with the return of an old flame and with all three characters essentially off on quests of their own this is a novel with very separate strands, where your interest is always in danger of unravelling. Tommy's discovery of possible Jewish ancestry seems to be too large a topic to be dealt with satisfactorily, especially along with all of the other discoveries, and it is a shame that we don't get to see more, if not all, of the novel from his viewpoint (and anyone who knows how I usually feel about child narrators will be surprised to hear me say that!) The text is occasionally illustrated by drawings of his, which are actually rather brilliant at conveying the confusion and pain of discovery, drawing on myths like that of the Minotaur, where the image of the maze and the thread that will lead the hero out to safety becomes one way of picturing Tommy's journey (and indeed that of his parents). It is his charm and way of seeing the world that provides most of the light within that labyrinth. 'It's the things that are invisible that hurt most of all.'
Juan's control never really allows him to catch fire as a character and Alma's struggles with her amoral mother tend to litter the text with some of its clunkier moments ("Sometimes you're exactly like your mother, imagining that if we only do what our infallible hearts tell us to do, everything will turn out just fine.", or 'Fortunately, I always managed to to shake off any painful illusions and abandon myself to the erotic promise of momentary pleasure.', or 'It's that I wanted so badly to distance myself from my mother's chaos that I deliberately set about making an institution of our love, without realizing that by doing so, I was destroying love's inherent spontaneity.'), so as a whole I wasn't as wild about this book as the legions who bought it in Spain. But the slow trickle of information does help it to build its tension and there's no doubt that it wields a hefty emotional thump at the denouement.