Paul Sturgis, the main character in Anita Brookner’s Strangers, longs for a serious conversation, an exchange with another person, almost anyone will do. Who has not longed for a genuine conversation? Who has not regretted how infrequently they occur? Here is how it happens in Leaving Las Vegas, both the novel by John O’Brien and the film directed by Mike Figgis,
“...Ben pulls back out into traffic for the short drive ahead. Instantly there is between them, however slight, that elusive chemistry which occurs only occasionally when two people meet. Always a welcome surprise, it is a sort of quick familiarity, implied permission to conduct relations at a level which is a bit deeper than the superficiality of introduction. Ben senses this and is beaming.”
Again the experience is captured perfectly in a work of fiction, this time by Haruki Murakami in a short story, Man-Eating Cats, first published in The New Yorker.
“Izumi was ten years younger than I was. We met at a business meeting. Something clicked between us the first time we laid eyes on each other. Not the kind of thing that happens all that often...We went to a small bar and had a few drinks. I can't recall exactly what we talked about but we found a million topics and could have talked forever. With a laser-like clarity, I could grasp everything she wanted to say. And things I couldn't explain well to anyone else came across to her with an exactness that took me by surprise. We were both married, with no major complaints about our married lives. We loved our spouses and respected them. Still, this was on the order of a minor miracle--running across someone to whom you can express your feelings so clearly, so completely. Most people go their entire lives without meeting a person like that. It would have been a mistake to label this "love." It was more like total empathy.”
Is it any wonder “minor miracles” like this are so rare? Instead, what I notice everywhere I look now are how utterly silent most relationships are. I notice it most vividly in some recent films. The married couple in Lantana, a film that moved me a greatly, have stopped talking to one another. They have drifted into a silent stupor, a lifeless inertia that goes on day after day. Only after they come face to face with a heartbreaking series of tragedies do they begin talking once again. I recognize that it sometimes takes such a jolt to bring two people back together.
Then there is the remarkable silence depicted in the film Talk To Me. A young woman lies motionless in a hospital bed. Her skin glistens, there is not a blemish anywhere, her chestnut hair has a lustrous sheen. She is asleep, in a permanent sleep, in a coma after being hit by a car. Benigno is by her side, he is telling her a story and then about his day, what he has been thinking and how they will decorate their apartment. She never says a word. She can’t. It doesn’t matter. Benigno continues talking. His talk is sweet, quietly animated. He is a nurse caring for Alicia in a hospital in Madrid. He has been doing this for years.
Can you talk with someone who is forever silent? How long can you continue to do that? What does it take to go on, day after day, talking to someone who is unresponsive? What else could it be but love? Benigno is in love with Alicia, although he hardly knows her. He is obsessed with Alicia. People began to wonder about him. But it never seems to bother Benigno for whom a response is not necessary.
Do we need to communicate to have a conversation? Is a silent conversation possible? Conversing isn’t necessary in Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto. There a Japanese businessman and an Italian opera singer fall in love without being able to speak to one another. The music and the experience of being together are sufficient.
I recall a question Lawrence Durrell posed in Justine, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”