All is Silence

all is silence

Sharing a stage with Ron Rash at the Edinburgh International Book Festival will be Manuel Rivas, discussing his most recent novel, All is Silence, which was published earlier this year in a translation by Jonathan Dunne. The novel focuses on life in a small coastal village in Galicia where smuggling is commonplace. It begins in the 1960s when its three main characters – Fins, Brinco and Leda – are still children. They have an early encounter with the smugglers when they discover boxes full of whiskey bottles in an abandoned school. The local crime boss, Mariscal, is clear about what he expects:

“They have mouths, and speak not. Learn that and you’ve gained half a life.”

Twenty years later little has changed but the stakes are much higher – now it is drugs rather than alcohol and cigarettes which are being smuggled. Brinco and Leda are married and work for Mariscal but Fins has joined the police and is back to break up the smuggling operation.

Rivas uses the personal relationships to highlight the silence, the ‘keeping quiet’. Though in the background Spain has gone from dictatorship to democracy, in the village nothing has changed. The distance between Fins and Brinco is emphasised by the number of occasions where we see Fins watching him, hoping to find the evidence he needs. The silence between them is now one of enmity rather than friendship. Brinco has had a lifetime of keeping quiet, beginning with the silence that surrounded Mariscal’s affair with his mother. As the police get closer, violence also erupts between the criminals after a payment goes missing.

The second half of the novel has the plot of a thriller, including a series of betrayals leading to the final page, but not the style. Generally written in short chapters, it lacks the linking narrative of most genre writing, instead insisting that the reader make the connections. Even within chapters there are elisions within the vocabulary of the story imitating the silences that separate the characters. The final confrontation between Fins and Brinco reveals that there have been secrets that neither has known about.

All is Silence is not an easy read. The characters hide behind nicknames and their relationships often have to be deciphered by the reader. Little is said of the twenty year gap – again the reader must do the work and recreate that time from hints. This only reflects the novel’s theme, however, a novel full of silences. It reads like a conversation filled with pauses where much is left unsaid. It begins with the line:

“The mouth is not for talking, it’s for keeping quiet.”

It’s no surprise it ends with Leda not telling.

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