When I was a good bit younger, I once followed several of my cousins into a lakeside cave. This ragged, rocky opening had only recently become accessible due to drought, so with all the invincibility of the young, we wriggled and shrugged our way in, entirely blind in the darkness. There came a moment when, having belly-slithered as far as I could fit, my shirt caught on the rocky ceiling and I stuck fast and, in that moment, it was as if I had become suddenly and crushingly aware of each and every ounce and pound and ton of stone and soil above me, of all the annals of geological history stacked up like so many dirty dinner plates and threatening to come crashing down. It was not a rational, logical awareness, but rather the sense of an impending weight from every side at once—a claustrophobia both physical and mental that would take days to shake.
Silent Shadows has much the same effect on its reader. From the opening scene, in which Aníbal Coloma is ripped from sleep to flee headlong through the pitch black night with the sounds of chase and struggle hard at his heels, to the conclusion, in which decades-old decisions catch up with Aníbal in a final moment of clarity, the author, Luis Sanz Irles, uses the power of language and the weight of history to capture and enclose his readers right along with his characters. Even in those passages where the action is at a less than frantic pitch, the feeling cannot be shaken that the walls of some invisible room are slowly, imperceptibly, and yet unyieldingly closing in, not unlike those of the cell from Poe’s “The Pit and Pendulum.”
Picking up Aníbal’s story in 1975, as Franco’s regime comes to an end in Spain, Silent Shadows carries the reader around Europe and back and forth through the years, examining what it means to act on zealous beliefs and the effects of those actions, whether immediate or long-delayed. And while the silent shadows of the title are most literally humans, the worst shadows are those in the mind: “Memories, memories… Memory, so insidious, had taken control of his every faculty, expanding to fill his small room, nearly displacing the air itself.”
Originally published in Spanish as Una callada sombra in 2012, Silent Shadows appears in English now thanks to Lisa Carter’s masterful translation. While no novel is easy to translate, the specific role Sanz Irles intended for language to play in the story meant this was an especially difficult one to make sense of in English. More on the translation process can be found in these two articles by the author and translator, respectively. Regardless of a reader’s interest in the fact or act of translation, Silent Shadows is thrilling trip through time, space, and language that won’t soon be forgotten.
By Ben Beach