Martín Tregua is an aspiring writer in Buenos Aires who believes that he has to enjoy life to the fullest to improve his literary craft. Although he is an aloof young man and a newcomer to the city, he is constantly surrounded by young people who enjoy the active night life of Buenos Aires as he does. His favorite pastime is to take long walks through the city, which exerts a passionate attraction over him that he cannot understand.
Martín lives in a boardinghouse, where he meets his best friends: Jiménez, a government bureaucrat, and Anselmi, a law student. Another resident is Doctor Dervil, a well-read intellectual who engages Martín in philosophical arguments on the purpose of life. Mercedes Miró is another close friend, a rich woman who gives Martín opportunities to meet interesting people from the Argentine upper classes.
Martín’s life changes on the day he sees a woman come into a flower shop as he is finishing a purchase. He dares not speak to her, although her striking beauty and her absentminded manner cause him to remember having seen her thirteen years earlier, shortly after his arrival in Buenos Aires as a law student. On that day he fell in love with her beauty and followed her home. Eventually he found out her name and other information: She was well-born but married a poor lawyer in rebellion against her family. Her husband became rich, however, through dubious financial arrangements with international investors.
Unable to concentrate on writing his novel but eager to keep busy, Martín joins Jiménez and Anselmi in publishing a newspaper for radical young people. Other young intellectuals join the group, which becomes quite heterogeneous, and their newspaper, El Navío (the ship), achieves great success. The newspaper opens doors in the intellectual world of Buenos Aires to Martín. This comes at a very good time because Mercedes Miró, with whom Martín is in love, asks that he stop seeing her. As a result, he loses contact with the social class to which she has access.
Martín’s fame is short-lived, however. Because of irreconcilable ideological differences, Martín’s group decides to stop publication of El Navío. Even his close friends find themselves too busy with their personal problems to spend time with him. Jiménez falls in love with Inés Boll, a young woman who takes a room in his boardinghouse in the hope of escaping the physical abuses of her husband. When Jiménez starts dating her, he disappears from Martín’s life.
After the newspaper’s demise, Martín’s existentialist crisis becomes more acute. He cannot stop thinking about the mysterious woman, who one night strikes him with her car. Martín is not hurt. His monotony comes to a sudden end the day that Jiménez is attacked by Inés’s husband. The fight leaves Jiménez blind. In terror, Martín leaves for Europe.
His trip takes him through several European countries. His final destination is Brussels, where his friend Ferrier is a physician. Ferrier is a well-read intellectual who, like Martín, enjoys the night life of bars and nightclubs, and he introduces Martín to a number of interesting people. In Brussels, Martín seems to recover from his depression; he starts to enjoy life again and finally finishes writing his novel. His knowledge of philosophy is enriched through his contact with political thinkers, vocal antifascists, and budding communists. Homesick for Buenos Aires, however, Martín returns to Argentina.
There Martín is depressed again for several months until he meets Gloria Bambil. Gloria is a reserved young librarian, but eventually she shows some interest in Martín. When he discovers that Gloria read his first novel, he convinces her to go out with him. They become very dependent on each other, despite Gloria’s insistence that she cannot love anyone. Martín confronts her with his love, swearing that he can sense that they are in love. Gloria gives up and becomes his lover. She finally opens her heart to Martín and tells him her personal background, including the fact that she was abused by her father.
The mysterious woman comes into Martín’s life again. One night, as Gloria and Martín are having dinner, Gloria sees the woman and comments on her beauty. Martín, who did not forget the woman, remembers having read that she recently lost one of her teenage sons in a riding accident. Several days later, he sees her in the same florist shop as twelve years before. As a tribute to her inexplicable influence on him, he decides to dedicate his story to her. That story is the plot of The Bay of Silence.
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