The silence

Bridget Riley, Nataraja, 1993


Commentary on Don DeLillo's Book

A few weeks ago, in the block where I live here in São Paulo, the company responsible for supplying electricity (which provides a low-quality service at a high price) cut off that good for almost ten hours on a torrid Sunday, with the purpose of changing some poles and transformers. The street was blocked off and occupied by four gigantic trucks, equipped with everything imaginable for the planned work, and also by a dozen and a half dedicated workers and technicians.

The labor was exhausting and the men toiled without ceasing. I was unable to use any electronic equipment – ​​to make matters worse, my cell phone's battery died after 14 pm. In short, for nearly six long hours, contact with the world outside the apartment was on hold.

I was reminded of this situation when I came across The silence, by Don De Lillo (1936), a short novel that can be read in a short time, whose theme is a mysterious technological blackout that occurs in…2022.

This American writer, who in his foreign books has explored the ambiguous relationships between technology and identity, is a man who can be considered a stranger to many inhabitants of the planet. Translated into several languages ​​– cases of at least the noise herd, Cosmopolis, the falling man -, the author told reporter Walter porto that he neither has a cell phone nor uses a computer, having granted the interview by landline, from his apartment in Bronxville, in the suburbs of New York. He hastens to add, however, that his wife makes use of all available technology: he just doesn't want to use it directly: “I'm a man who puts words on paper. That's what guided me and I haven't changed much (…) I just don't want to work directly on screen. I am not currently working on new fiction, but when my typewriter needs repair I use the old pen and paper. It helps me see words and phrases on pages, find visual matches. The visual element has always been important to me” (Porto, 2021, p. C1).

DeLillo taunts the reporter from the Sheet, asking him to imagine a technological catastrophe where the internet always seems to be on the verge of collapse. In The silence, the consequences of the “mysterious blackout” are experienced by five characters who are getting ready for dinner in New York on a day in 2022. One can read on the back of the book that on that day there are several consequences of this event that “brought down planes, erased cell phone screens and made civilization as we know it unfeasible.” De Lillo deepens the speculative character “of a very particular fiction, which throws the reader into a realism as accurate as it is distorted, in which the environments are not quite ambient, the dialogues are not quite dialogues, the meanings seem at times so clear and at other times so distant, almost impalpable. Faith, culture, desire, solitude: everything is filtered by 'phrases in the middle, single words, repetitions', which reverberate the perplexity faced with 'too many things coming from too narrow a source code'. Or, in the humanist translation of the impasse, 'an artificial intelligence that betrays who we are and how we think'”.

In this meeting, all the certainties and uncertainties between the participants are reversed: a couple who escaped an air disaster, a young physics professor, his former professor and her husband, a fan of sports betting.

The couple Tessa Berens and Jim Kripps are returning from Paris to Newark, one of the main airports in the New York metropolitan area. Tereza, “by her dark skin, of Caribbean, European and Asian origin, frequently published poems in literary magazines. She also served, online, as the editor of an advisory group that answered questions from subscribers on subjects ranging from hearing loss to bodily balance to senile dementia” (p. 13). Jim, on the other hand, was “a man who worked as a claims adjuster for an insurance company” (p. 41). Teresa writes during the flight and tells her husband that she “she just wants to get home and stare at an empty wall” (p. 19). They are expected to watch the Super Bowl, the game that defines the champion of the National Football League (NFL), the professional American football league in the United States, normally watched by more than 100 million people, constituting the event with the highest audience of US television.

Who awaits them is the couple Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, in addition to Martin Dekker. Diane is a retired physics professor who has taught young people for decades, while Max has lost and lost fortunes in sports betting. About her marriage, she says that it has been “thirty-seven years, not of unhappiness, but in a state of crushing routine, two people so glued to each other that one fine day one will forget the other's name” (p. 25). Martin, early thirties, "slightly hunched forward" (p. 24), Diane's former student and teacher, compulsively studies the 1912 manuscript on the theory special relativity, by Albert Einstein (p. 27).

Diane and Max's apartment is “equipped” for the final match, with plenty of food, snacks and drinks. But…in the interior of the plane about to land, strong blows are felt somewhere below the passengers. “The screen went blank. Pilot speaking French, then no one speaking English” (p. 22). In the other scenario, the images on the TV screen began to flicker. Add the images. “They watched and listened. But there was nothing to listen to. Max picked up the remote that was on the floor right in front of him and pressed the volume knob several times, but there was no audio. Then the screen went dark (…) He and Diane checked their cell phones. No signal. She crossed the room and went to the house phone, the landline, a sentimental relic. Mute. The laptop, nothing. She went to the computer in the next room and tapped in several places, but the screen remained gray” (p. 29-30).

Martin is suspicious of the Chinese, the “Beijing barbarians”, thinking that “they are laughing at us. They started a selective cybernetic apocalypse. They are watching [soccer], we are not” (p. 30).

Jim was injured, suffered a small cut on his forehead, when he landed and, with Tessa, went to the hospital, where he was treated. The lights there were blinking, a bureaucratic official commented to them: “We're out of e-mail (…) More or less unthinkable. What do we do? Who do we blame?” (p. 61). And she continued her speech, in the dark: “The more advanced, the more vulnerable. Our surveillance systems, our facial recognition devices, our image resolution. How do we know who we are? We know it's getting cold in here. What will happen when we have to leave? No electricity, no heating (…) if the subways and buses are not working, if the taxis are gone, the elevator in the building immobilized, and if this and if that…” (p. 61-62).

People notice that everything is dark, lampposts, shops, buildings, skyscrapers, all windows everywhere (p. 70). Martin understands that the brink of World War III has been reached (p. 79). He asks: “Is it a protection against the global silence that marks our hours, minutes and seconds? (p. 79). Max strikes back: “We're being zombified. We are being groomed” (p. 83). He leaves the house, walks around the neighborhood and has difficulty getting back home, having to “push through that crowd, people grimace of cold, a thousand faces a minute, people fighting, throwing punches, a little commotion here and there , curses rising in the air” (p. 93).

Young Martin, looking at the fingers of his own open hands, predicts: “the world is everything, the individual nothing” (p. 106). But before that, considering that the Third World War had already started, with the general blackout, he quotes a passage said by Einstein, which appears as an epigraph of DeLillo's book: “I do not know with what weapons will be fought in the Third World War, but in the Fourth World War will be with sticks and stones.”

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution..



Don DeLillo. The silence (trans. Paulo Henrique Britto). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2021, 110 pages.

Walter Port. Shards of civilization. “Illustrated”, Folha de S. Paul, 12, p. C09-C2021.

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