On Castillo … by Noel Tanti

The Habit of Silence

Silence is a foreign language. We all speak it but it’s so hard to explain.

Imagine sitting next to a loved one, on a bench on top of the world, overlooking fields and trees and sporadic buildings, with a faint glimpse of the sea far, far away, and not saying a single word. Not because you don’t have anything to talk about but because you don’t have to.

Now imagine the self-same scenario, but remove the loved one and replace him or her with someone else, someone whose silence is filled with reticence, reluctance, secrecy. That quiet eloquence immediately dissolves into a murky puddle of ambiguity, confounding you as to what constitutes an appropriate response: fight or flight? Speak up or respond in kind?

Amanda, the main character in Castillo, Clare Azzopardi’s debut novel for adults, finds herself faced with such a conundrum. Having been abandoned by her mother as a little girl, she was then left under the care of her father, whose taciturnity about matters concerning his wife further compounded the confusion. Now, married and with a young daughter, Amanda goes on a quest to find out what she can about her deceased aunt, novelist Cathy Penza, her mother’s twin sister. 

Many of the characters in Castillomake it a habit of living in silence. There are long dialogues in the novel which tell us exactly nothing, a barrage of tos and fros that lead exactly nowhere. This is extremely frustrating for Amanda because she is confronted at every turn with an impenetrable wall of silence. She looks for people who do not want to be found, people who do not want to speak to her, and this prompts her to look for meaning (and answers) in spaces that lie outside of speech.

Such as in abandoned houses, a trope that is much loved by Ms Azzopardi. Furniture and personal belongings, left as they were, are a powerful testament to the personality of the individual who used to inhabit that particualr space. The silence of an abandoned room, the silence of an abandoned object, are eloquent in a manner which some of the people that Amanda encounters are not.

However, even this is problematic. For instance, Amanda’s first visit to Cathy’s house happens vicariously. Someone close to her describes what she found when she went to have a look after Cathy’s demise but we know that this narrator is very unreliable. Every new piece of information which Amanda unearths seems to cast a very long shadow over the stories that she already knows, obfuscating reality and truth, having one possibly excluding the other.

This uncertainty is personified in Cathy herself, a Laura Palmer figure who haunts the pages of the book so poignantly and so pervasively, essentially because we never get to meet her. She is many things to many people, something that is underscored by her numerous monikers and by her different personas: an envied sister, a beloved aunt, a lover whose name one dares not speak, a bestselling novelist. In fact, it is through the latter role that we get to hear a close approximation of her voice: an authorial one whose ephemerality accentuates the silences which permeate the book.

In a sense, what Amanda is looking for is a narrative, stories that imbue the void with meaning, with purpose. Blacking out portions of her past robbed her of agency – she became not unlike the photographs peppering the first few pages of Castillo, a spectral presence to be gazed at.

Klarissa, Amanda’s young daughter, stands in for a new generation who, hopefully, will be free from reticence, reluctance, secrecy. She’s on the cusp of talking, uttering a few words here and there, imposing her own stamp on reality, whether it’s expressive or descriptive. Amanda is determined not to let her daughter be bogged down in the same kind of silence that has affected her so much. Several people remark on how beautiful Klarissa’s name is, stressing each and every syllable. In this case, the pauses between syllables construct meaning, an identity, they don’t deplete it. So it seems that it’s not only Amanda who’s reacting to this void but the other characters as well.

Where is Clare Azzopardi in all of this? Her voice is in fact the quietest, a faint whisper that one strains to hear amidst the overwhelming silence. However her hand is seen throughout, on every page, in every paragraph and in every meticulously crafted sentence. Ms Azzopardi’s absolute mastery of the language and of the technique of story-telling, allow her to recede into the background and to trust the characters to tell their story. This is no vain praise. Re-read Ms Azzopardi’s previous work, Kulħadd ħalla isem warajh, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Castillo is even better.