The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

All Issues
DEC 11-JAN 12 Issue

The Diary of Martín Santomé: A Novel

A New Translation of La Tregua
by Mario Benedetti

Translated from the Spanish
by Harry Morales

This is the second English translation of the novel, La Tregua by Mario Benedetti that was first published by Editorial Nueva Imagen, S.A. in 1960. Originally translated by Benjamin Graham and published in 1969 by Harper & Row as The Truce, the novel is long out of print in English. The Rail will be serializing this Benedetti masterpiece over the winter and into the spring of 2012.

Mi mano derecha es una golondrina
Mi mano izquierda es un ciprés
Mi cabeza por delante es un señor vivo
Y por detrás es un señor muerto.

—Vicente Huidobro

Monday, February 11th

In only six months and twenty-eight days I’ll be in a position to retire. I’ve been doing this daily calculation of the time remaining for at least the past five years. Do I really need leisure so much? I tell myself no, that it’s not leisure that I need, but the right to work at what I love. For example? The garden, perhaps. It’s good as a restful activity on Sundays, for counteracting sedentary life, and also as a secret defense against my future and guaranteed arthritis. But I fear I couldn’t bear it every day. The guitar, perhaps. I think I would like it. But it must be lonely to start studying music at forty-nine. Write? Perhaps I wouldn’t be too bad at it, at least people usually enjoy my letters. And so what? I can imagine a short bibliographical note about “the worthy values of this author who is nearing fifty” and the mere possibility of it is repulsive. That I should still feel naïve and immature (with only the defects of youth and almost none of its virtues, that is) doesn’t mean that I have the right to display that naiveté and immaturity. I once had an old maid cousin who, when she made a dessert, would show it to everyone with a sad and childish smile. She had worn that smile since the time during which she had strived to impress her motorcyclist-boyfriend who afterwards killed himself on one of our many very dangerous “Death Curves.” She dressed appropriately, suitable to her fifty-three years; in that and everything else she was discrete, and poised, but that smile lay claim, on the other hand, to a twenty year-old’s lips, magnificent skin, and shapely legs. It was merely a pathetic gesture, a gesture that could never appear ridiculous, because in that face there was also kindness. So many words just to say I don’t want to seem pathetic.

Friday, February 15th

In order to do passable work in the office, I have to force myself not to think that my retirement is relatively near. On the contrary, my fingers twitch and the round letters that should be used for the main headings, turn out broken and inelegant. Round letters are one of my best distinctions as a public servant. I should confess, furthermore, that I am moved by the design of certain letters like the capital letter “M” or the small letter “b,” in which I have allowed myself several innovations. What I hate the least is the routine, mechanical part of my job: going back to review an entry that I’ve written thousands of times, arriving at a sales balance, and finding that everything is in order and that there are no differences to look for. That kind of work doesn’t tire me because it allows me to think about other things and also even (why not admit it to myself?) to dream. It’s as if I were divided into two different entities; contradictory, independent: one who knows his work by heart, expertly handles its variations and surprises, and is always sure of what he is doing, and another: a feverish dreamer, frustratingly passionate, a sad man, who nevertheless had, has, and will have a happy calling; an absent-minded man who doesn’t care about where his pen writes or what is written by that blue ink which will end up black in eight months.

In my job, the routine isn’t what is unbearable; it’s the new problem, the unexpected request of that ghostly Board of Directors who hide behind acts, provisions and Christmas bonuses; the urgency with which one requests a report, an analytical statement, or a financial forecast. Then yes, because it’s about more than routine, my two halves should work for the same thing. I can no longer think about what I want, and fatigue settles onto my back and neck, like porous plaster. What do I care about the probable gains of the Pernos de Pistón account in the second half of the fiscal year before last? What do I care about the most practical way of lowering overhead expenses?

Today was a happy day; just routine.

Monday, February 18th

None of my children are like me. In the first place, they all have more energy than I do, always appear to be more decisive, and are not accustomed to having doubts. Esteban is the most unsociable. I still don’t know who his resentment is directed at, but he truly appears resentful. I think he respects me, but you never know. Jaime is probably my favorite, although I can almost never understand him. I think he’s sensible and intelligent, but I don’t think he is fundamentally honest. It’s apparent that there is a barrier between us. Sometimes I think he hates me and at other times I think he admires me. At least Blanca and I have something in common: she, too, is a sad person with a calling for happiness. But in regards to everything else, she is much too jealous about her inexchangeable life to share her most difficult problems with me. She’s the one who spends the most time at home and perhaps she feels enslaved by our untidiness, our diet, and our dirty laundry. Her relationship with her brothers is often on the brink of hysteria, but she knows how to control herself, and furthermore, she knows how to control them. Perhaps deep down they love each other very much, although this kind of love between siblings carries with it the quota of mutual exasperation which makes this custom possible. No, they’re not like me. Not even physically. Esteban and Blanca have Isabel’s eyes. Jaime inherited Isabel’s mouth and forehead. What would Isabel think if she could see them today, preoccupied, active, and grown up? And I have a better question: what would I think if I could see Isabel today? Death is a tedious experience; for everyone else, especially for everyone else. I should feel proud about becoming a widower with three children and having come out ahead. But I don’t feel proud, I feel tired. Pride is for when one is twenty or thirty years old. Doing well with my children was a duty, my only escape from coming face to face with society and the unyielding look that is reserved for heartless fathers. There was no other option, and so I did well. But everything was always too overly demanding to allow me to feel happy.

Tuesday, February 19th

At four o’clock in the afternoon I suddenly felt unbearably empty. I had to hang up my satin smock and tell the Personnel Department that I should go to the Banco República to solve that money order problem. That’s a lie. What I could no longer bear was the wall in front of my desk; the horrible wall completely covered by that enormous calendar with February dedicated to Goya. What is Goya doing on the wall of this old company that imports automobile spare parts? I don’t know what would have happened if I would have continued looking at that calendar like an imbecile. Perhaps I would have screamed or initiated one of my habitual series of allergic sneezes I simply would have submerged myself into the neat pages of the cash-book. This is because I have already learned that my stages of pre-outburst don’t always lead up to an actual outburst. Sometimes they end in splendid humiliation, an irremediable acceptance of the circumstances and its diverse and offensive pressures. Nevertheless, I like to convince myself that I shouldn’t allow myself any outbursts, that I should radically restrain them under penalty of losing my poise. Then, I leave like I left today, in an enraged search for fresh air, for the horizon, and who knows what else. Well, sometimes I don’t reach the horizon, so I find contentment in sitting at the window of some café observing a few pretty legs go past.

I am convinced that the city is different during office work hours. I recognize the Montevideo of men by their schedule, those who arrive at eight-thirty and leave at noon, and those who return at two-thirty and leave without fail at seven. Their twitching and sweating faces and their quick stumbling footsteps make us all old acquaintances. But there is the other city, of fresh, well-bred girls, recently bathed, who come out at mid-afternoon—perfumed, scornful, optimistic and witty; of momma’s boys who wake up at noon and who by six in the evening haven’t yet soiled the impeccably white collars of their imported silk shirts; of the old men who ride the bus to the customs house and return without ever getting off, thereby reducing their moderate spree to the comforting sole look with which they traverse the Old City of their memories; of the young mothers who never come out at night and who, with a guilty look on their faces, go to the 3:30 movie matinee; of the baby sitters who insult their female bosses while the flies eat up the children; of the many retired and bored people who think they are finally going to win their way to heaven by feeding crumbs to the pigeons in the plaza. Those are the ones who are unfamiliar to me, at least for now. They are settled much too comfortably in life while I become nervous and weak in the presence of an enormous calendar with its February dedicated to Goya.

Thursday, February 21st

Coming from the office this afternoon, I was stopped in the street by a drunk. He didn’t protest against the government, didn’t say he and I were brothers, and didn’t touch upon any of the innumerable topics of universal drunkenness. He was a strange drunk, with a special light in his eyes. He grabbed me by an arm and practically leaning on me, said: “Do you know what’s wrong with you? You’re going nowhere.” Another man who was passing by at that moment looked at me with a happy dose of understanding and even winked at me in solidarity. But it’s already been four hours and I’m still uneasy, as if I were really going nowhere and I’ve only just now realized it.

Friday, February 22nd

When I retire, I don’t think I’ll continue to write this diary. By then, there is no doubt that many less things will happen to me and then it will be unbearable for me to feel so bored, and furthermore, to leave a record of it. When I retire, perhaps it would be best to give myself up to leisure, a kind of drowsy compensation, in order for my nerves, muscles and willpower to slowly relax and become accustomed to dying well. But no. There are moments when I have and maintain the luxurious hope that retirement will be something full, rich; the last opportunity to find myself. And that would really be worth writing down.

Saturday, February 23rd

Today I lunched alone downtown. As I was walking along  Mercedes, I came across a man dressed in brown. At first he feigned a wave. I should have looked at him suspiciously, because the man stopped and with some indecision, extended his hand. His face wasn’t an unfamiliar face. It was like a caricature of someone who I, in the past, would have seen often. I shook his hand, mumbling my apologies, and somehow managed to admit my confusion. “Martín Santomé?” he said, displaying a ruined set of teeth in his smile. Sure, I’m Martín Santomé, I thought, as I was becoming more and more confused. “Don’t you remember Brandzen Street?” Well, not very well, I thought. It’s been about thirty years and I’m not famous for my memory. Naturally, as a bachelor I lived on Brandzen Street, but even if I were given a thrashing I couldn’t say what the front of the house looked like, how many balconies it had, or who lived next door. “And the café on Defensa Street?” Now the fog cleared a bit and for a moment I saw the belly and wide belt of the Galician, Alvarez. “Of course, of course,” I exclaimed, enlightened. “Well, I’m Mario Vignale,” he said. Mario Vignale? I don’t remember, I swear I don’t remember, I continued thinking. But I didn’t have the courage to tell him. After all, the man seemed so enthusiastic about the encounter.... So I told him I remembered him, to please forgive me, that I was terrible with faces; so much so that last week I had bumped into a cousin and had not recognized him (a lie). Naturally, we had to have coffee, and so my Saturday siesta was spoiled. For two hours and fifteen minutes he persisted in reconstructing details to convince me he had been a part of my life. “I even remember those sensational artichoke tortillas your mother used to make. I always came by at eleven-thirty to see if she would invite me to eat.” And then he let out a big laugh. “Always?” I asked him, still suspicious. Then he was suddenly embarrassed and said: “Well, I went three or four times.” Now then, which part was true? I asked silently. “And your mother, is she all right?” “She died fifteen years ago,” I replied. “Damn, and your father?” “He died two years ago, in Tacuarembó,” I replied. “He was staying at my Aunt Leonor’s house.” “He must have been old.” Of course he was old, I thought. My God, how dull. Only then did he ask the most logical question: “Hey, did you finally marry Isabel?” “Yes, and I have three children,” I replied, being brief. He has five. What luck. “And how is Isabel? Still attractive?” “She died,” I said, assuming the most inscrutable facial expression in my repertory. The words sounded like a gunshot and he – thank goodness – became confused. He rushed to finish his third coffee and immediately looked at his watch. There is a sort of automatic reflex to talk about death and then immediately look at one’s watch.

Sunday, February 24th

It’s hopeless. My encounter with Vignale left me obsessed with the memory of Isabel. It’s no longer about discovering her image through the familiar anecdotes, the photographs, or by some gesture made by Esteban or Blanca. I know all of her characteristics, but I don’t want to know them second hand, but rather remember them directly, see them before me in every detail, just like I see my face in the mirror now. And I don’t find it. I know she had green eyes, but I can’t feel her gaze on me.

Monday, February 25th

I don’t see my children very often. Our schedules don’t always coincide and our plans and interests even less. They are polite to me, but because they are tremendously reserved, their politeness always appears to merely be the fulfillment of a duty. Esteban, for example, is always compromising in order to avoid discussing my opinions. Could it simply be the generation gap that separates us? Or could I do more to try to reach them? Generally, I view them as being more unbelieving than they are foolish, and more engrossed in thought than I was at their age.

This evening we had dinner together. It had probably been two months since we all had a meal together as a family. I jokingly asked what we were celebrating, but there was no reply. Blanca looked at me and smiled, as if to inform me she understood my good intentions and nothing more. I then began to listen to the scarce interruptions of the sacred silence. Jaime said the soup was tasteless. “The salt is four inches away from your right hand,” replied Blanca, and scathingly added: “Would you like me to pass it to you?” The soup was tasteless. It’s true, but what difference did it make? Esteban reported that starting in six months our rent would be raised by eighty pesos. Since we all contribute, the situation isn’t too serious. Jaime began to read the newspaper. I think it’s rude when people read the newspaper when they are dining with their family, and I told him so. Jaime stopped reading the newspaper, but it was as if he hadn’t, because he continued being sullen and angry. I related my encounter with Vignale, trying to make light of it in an attempt to introduce a little levity to our meal. But Jaime asked: “Which Vignale is it?” “Mario Vignale,” I replied. “Is he partly bald and has a moustache?” “The same,” I replied. “I know him,” said Jaime. “He’s a fine man, a friend of Ferreira’s. Well-known for accepting bribes.” Deep down I’m glad that Vignale is a worthless piece of filth, and therefore have no qualms about brushing him off. Then Blanca asked: “So, did he remember mom?” I thought Jaime was going to say something, that he had moved his lips, but he decided to remain quiet. “Lucky him,” Blanca added. “I don’t.” “I do,” said Esteban. How does he remember? Is it like me, with memories of memories, or directly, like someone who sees their own face in the mirror? Is it possible that Esteban, who was only four years old at the time, can possess her image, and that I, on the other hand, who has logged so many, many, many nights, am left with nothing? We would make love in the dark. Perhaps that’s the reason. I’m sure that’s the reason. I have a tangible memory of those nights, and it’s indeed direct. But what about the daytime? During the day we weren’t in the dark. I would arrive home tired, full of problems, perhaps even furious with the injustice of that week, that month.

Sometimes we went over our bills, but there was never enough to pay them. Perhaps we spent too much time looking at numbers, the additions, or the subtractions and didn’t have time to look at ourselves. Wherever she is, if she’s there, what memory could she have of me? After all, does memory matter? “Sometimes I feel sad, over nothing more than not knowing what I’m missing,” murmured Blanca, while she served the peaches in syrup. We each got three and a half.

Wednesday, February 27th

Today, seven new employees joined the office: four men and three women. They all had a splendid frightened look on their faces and every now and then directed a glance of respectful envy at the veteran workers. I was assigned two young men (one 18 years old and the other 22) and a young woman, 24 years of age. So now I’m truly a boss: I have no less than six employees working under me. And for the first time, a woman. I’ve never trusted women with numbers. Furthermore, there’s another drawback: during the days of their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly, they become complete imbeciles. These “rookies” who started today don’t look bad. The 18 year old is the one I like the least. He has a weak, delicate face, and a shifty look about him, and at the same time, fawning. The other one is eternally uncombed, but he has a pleasant disposition and (at least for now) a genuine interest in working. The young woman doesn’t seem too interested, but at least she understands what is explained to her; and furthermore, has a wide face and a large mouth, two features that generally impress me. Their names are Alfredo Santini, Rodolfo Sierra and Laura Avellaneda. I’ll assign the two men to the merchandise books, and the woman to the Production Assistant.

Thursday, February 28th

Tonight I spoke to a Blanca who was almost a stranger to me. We were alone after dinner. I was reading the newspaper and she was playing solitaire. All of a sudden she remained still, holding a card over her head with a sad and lost look on her face. I watched her for a few moments and then asked her what she was thinking about. With that she appeared to wake up, directed a distressed look at me, and without being able to contain herself, sunk her head into her hands, as if she didn’t want anyone to defile her weeping. Whenever a woman cries in front of me, I become defenseless, and moreover, clumsy. I become desperate and I don’t know how to remedy it. This time I followed a natural impulse as I stood up, walked over to her, and began to caress her head, all without saying a word. Little by little she calmed down and her weeping convulsions subsided. When she finally lowered her hands, I used the half unused portion of my handkerchief to dry her eyes and blow her nose. At that moment she didn’t look like a twenty-three year old woman, but like a little girl, momentarily unhappy because her doll had broken or no one would take her to the zoo. I asked her if she was unhappy and she said yes. I asked her why and she said she didn’t know. I wasn’t too surprised. Sometimes even I feel unhappy for no solid reason. In contrast to my own experience, I said: “Oh, there must be some reason. A person doesn’t cry for no reason.” And then she started to talk fast, urged on by a sudden desire to be honest: “I have the terrible feeling that time goes by and I do nothing, nothing happens, and nothing moves me to the core. I look at Esteban and then I looked at Jaime and I’m sure they’re also unhappy. Sometimes (don’t get angry, Dad) I also look at you and think that I wouldn’t want to reach fifty years of age and have your temperament, or your poise, simply because I find them commonplace and worn out. I find myself with a great abundance of energy, but I don’t know where to apply it, nor what to do with it. I think you resigned yourself to being gloomy, and I think that’s horrible because I know you’re not gloomy. Well, at least you weren’t before.” I replied (what else could I tell her) that she was right, that she should do everything possible to get away from us, from our orbit, and that I was happy to hear her shout her disagreement, which was like hearing one of my own shouts, from long ago. Then she smiled, said I was very good, and threw her arms around my neck, like before. She’s still a little girl.

Friday, March 1st

The manager held a meeting with the five section directors. For forty-five minutes he talked to us about low staff production. He said that the Board of Directors made him realize this situation, and that in the future, he wasn’t going to allow his position to be gratuitously affected because of their laziness (boy, how he likes to emphasize “laziness”). So that from now on, etc., etc.

What could he mean by “low staff production?” At least I can say that my people work. And not only the new workers, but the veterans too. It’s true that Méndez reads detective novels which he clearly places in the middle drawer of his desk, all the while holding a pen in his right hand in preparation for the possible appearance of some manager. It’s true that Muñoz takes advantage of his trips to the Excess Profits Department by stealing twenty minutes worth of breaks from the company nursing a beer. It’s true that when Robledo goes to the bathroom (at ten-fifteen, exactly) he carries either the color newspaper supplement or the sports section hidden under his smock. But it’s also true that the work is always up to date, and that in the hours during which the transaction needs urgent attention and the drawer crammed with invoices circulates continuously, they all exert themselves and really work as a team. Each of them is an expert in their limited specialties and I can have complete confidence that things are being done correctly.

Actually, I know quite well where the manager’s complaint was directed. “Shipping” works lazily and moreover, does its job badly. Today we all knew that his complaint was about Suárez, so why ask all of us to attend the meeting? What right does Suárez have to share his exclusive blame with all of us? Could it be because the manager knows, like all of us, that Suárez sleeps with the president’s daughter? That Lidia Valverde isn’t bad looking.

Saturday, March 2nd

Last night, for the first time in thirty years, I dreamed about my hooded men again. When I was four years old, or perhaps younger, eating was a nightmare. It was then that my grandmother devised a truly original method to help me eat mashed potatoes without too much trouble. She would put on my uncle’s enormous raincoat, place the hood on her head, and put on a pair of dark glasses. Dressed in this terrifying fashion, she would come and bang on my window. Afterwards, the servant, my mother and some aunt of mine would arrive and in unison proclaim: “There’s Don Policarpo!” Don Policarpo was some sort of monster who punished children who didn’t eat their food. Despite being frozen in my own terror, I still had enough strength to move my jaws incredibly fast and finish the tasteless, plentiful mashed potatoes. This was convenient for everyone. Threatening me with Don Policarpo was equivalent to pressing an almost magical button. In the end it had become a great diversion. Whenever someone came to visit, they would be led into my room to observe the amusing details of my panic. Because, besides the fear, there were my nights, nights filled with silent hoods, strange kinds of Policarpos who always had their backs turned and were surrounded by a thick mist. They always appeared in single file, as if waiting for a turn to enter into my fear. They never uttered a word, but moved heavily in a kind of intermittent sway, dragging their identical black tunics; the end result of my uncle’s raincoat. It’s curious: I felt less horror during my dream than I did when I was awake. And, as the years went by, the fear turned into fascination. Hypnotized, I witnessed the cyclical scene with that amazed look one only has under the eyelids of sleep. At times, while having some other dream, I had a dark awareness that I would have preferred to dream about my Policarpos. And one night, they came for the last time. They lined up in single file, swayed back and forth, remained quiet, and as usual, faded away. For many years, I slept with an inevitable anxiety, with an almost sickly sensation of expectation. Sometimes I fell asleep having decided to find them, but would only find mist and, on rare occasions, feel the palpitations of my old fear. Only that. Afterwards, I began to lose even that hope and callously arrived at a point during which I began to tell strangers the easy plot of my dream. Eventually, I also forgot about that too. Until last night. Last night, when I was in the very center of a dream more common than sinful, all of the images were wiped away and the mist appeared, and in the middle of the mist, all of my Policarpos. I know that I felt both inexpressibly happy and horrified. Even now, if I exert myself a bit, I can reconstruct some of that emotion. The Policarpos, the formless, eternal, harmless Policarpos of my childhood, swayed back and forth continuously and then, all of a sudden, did something totally unexpected. For the first time they turned around, just for a moment, and they all had my grandmother’s face.

Tuesday, March 12th

It’s good to have an intelligent employee. Today, as a test for Avellaneda, I told her everything about the Comptroller all at once. While I spoke, she took notes. When I finished she said: “Look sir, I think I understood quite a bit, but I have doubts about a few points.” Doubts about a few points.... Méndez, who had earlier concerned himself with those doubts, needed no less than four years in which to dispel them. Afterwards, I put her to work at the desk to my right. Every now and then, I would sneak a look at her. She has pretty legs. Since she still doesn’t work spontaneously, she becomes tired. Furthermore, she’s nervous and restless. I think that my position (poor rookie) inhibits her a bit. When she says: “Mr. Santomé,” she always blinks. She isn’t beautiful, but her smile is passable. Something is better than nothing.

Wednesday, March 13th

When I arrived at home from downtown this afternoon, Jaime and Esteban were screaming at each other in the kitchen. I managed to overhear Esteban saying something about “your rotten friends.” When they heard my footsteps, they stopped screaming and tried to talk in a normal tone. But Jaime’s lips were pressed together and Esteban’s eyes were shining. “What’s going on?” I asked. Jaime shrugged his shoulders and Esteban said: “It’s none of your business.” What an urge I had to punch him in the mouth. That’s my son, with that harsh face that nothing or anyone will ever loosen up. It’s none of my business. I walked over to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of milk and the butter. I felt unworthy and ashamed. It didn’t seem possible that he could say to me: “It’s none of your business” and that I could remain so calm, without doing or saying anything to him. I poured myself a large glass of milk. It didn’t seem possible that he could scream at me in the same way that I should be screaming at him, but nevertheless, did not. It’s none of my business. Each drink of milk hurt my temples. All of a sudden I turned around and grabbed him by the arm. “Have more respect for your father, understand? More respect!” It was stupid to say this now that the moment had already passed. Esteban’s arm was tense and hard, as if it had suddenly turned into steel or perhaps lead. The back of my neck hurt when I lifted my head to look him in the eyes. It was the least I could do. No, he wasn’t scared of me as he flared his nostrils and easily shook his arm free from my grasp and said: “When are you going to grow up?” and left, slamming the door behind him. I don’t think I could have had a calm look on my face when I turned around to face Jaime and saw that he was still leaning against the wall. He smiled spontaneously and only said: “What bad blood, Dad, what bad blood!” It’s incredible, but at that precise moment I felt my anger starting to solidify. “But it’s also that your brother...,” I said, without conviction. “Forget it,” he replied. “At this stage there is no hope for any of us.”

Friday, March 15th

Mario Vignale came to see me at the office today. He invited me to his house next week. He says that he found old photographs of all of us, but the fool didn’t bring the photographs with him. Naturally, the photographs represent the price of my acceptance of his invitation. I accepted, of course. Who isn’t attracted to the very past?

Saturday, March 16th

This morning the new man, Santini, tried to confess to me. I don’t know what it is about my face that always invites the trust of others. They look at me, smile, and some of them even pull that long face that precedes sobbing; after which they proceed to open their hearts. And, frankly, there are some hearts I’m not attracted to. The comfortable shamelessness and tone of mystery with which some men speak confidentially about themselves is incredible. “Because, you know sir, I’m an orphan,” he said from the outset in order to fasten me in pity. “Pleased to meet you, and I’m a widower,” I replied with a ritual gesture, intended to destroy his brazenness. But my widowhood moves him less than his own orphan-hood.

“I have a little sister, you know?” He was, standing next to my desk and tapped his skinny, fragile fingers on the cover of my journal while he spoke. “Can’t you leave that hand still?” I screamed. He stopped, but not before smiling sweetly. I noticed he wore a gold bracelet with a little medallion attached. “My little sister is seventeen, you know?” The “you know?” is a kind of tic. “You don’t say? And is she good looking?” This reply was my desperate defense before the dikes of this latest imitation of his scruples would burst and I would find myself completely overwhelmed by his private life. “You don’t take me seriously,” he said, pressing his lips together tightly and walked to his desk very offended. He doesn’t work very fast. It took him two hours to close out the month of February.

Sunday, March 17th

If I ever commit suicide, it will be on a Sunday. It’s the most discouraging and boring day of the week. I would prefer to stay in bed late, at least until nine or ten, but at six-thirty I wake up on my own and I can’t go back to sleep. Sometimes I think about what I’m going to do when my entire life will be a Sunday. Who knows, I’ll probably become accustomed to waking up at ten. Since the kids went away for the weekend, each in a different direction, I went downtown to have lunch. I ate alone and didn’t even feel like initiating the easy and ritualistic exchange of opinions about the hot weather and tourists with the waiter. Meanwhile, sitting two tables away was another person eating alone. He was frowning as he broke off pieces of his bread roll. I looked at him two or three times, and on one occasion our eyes made contact. It appeared to me there was hatred in his eyes. What did he see in my eyes? There must be a general rule that says lonely people don’t sympathize. Or could it simply be that we’re unfriendly?

I returned home, took a nap and woke up feeling sluggish, in a bad mood. I drank several cups of maté and was  annoyed they tasted bitter. Then I got dressed and went back downtown again. This time I went into a café and sat at a table next to the window. In the span of an hour and fifteen minutes, exactly thirty-five attractive women passed by. To help pass the time, I made up a list on a paper napkin of what I liked the best about each of them. This is the result: two had faces I liked; four, the hair; six, the bust line; eight, the legs; and fifteen, the buttocks. It was a broad victory for the buttocks.

Monday, March 18th

Last night Esteban arrived home at twelve, Jaime at twelve-thirty, and Blanca at one o’clock. I heard all of them come in, picking up every minute sound, every footstep, every mumbled curse word. I think Jaime was a little drunk, because I heard him bumping into furniture and he kept the bathroom faucet running for about a half an hour. Nevertheless, it was Esteban who was cursing, and he never drinks. When Blanca arrived, Esteban said something to her from his room and she responded by telling him to mind his own business. Then there was silence, three hours of silence. On the weekends I’m plagued by insomnia. And I wonder, will I ever be able to sleep when I retire?

Blanca was the only one I spoke to this morning and I told her I didn’t like her coming home late. She isn’t disrespectful, so she didn’t deserve to be scolded. But in any case, it’s a mother and father’s duty. I should be both at the same time, but I think I’m neither. I felt I went too far when I heard myself ask in a monitoring tone of voice: “What were you doing last night? Where did you go?” Then, while she spread butter on her toast, she replied: “Why do you feel obligated to be the bad guy? There are two things we can both be sure of: that we love each other and that I’m not doing anything improper.” I felt defeated, but nevertheless added, if for no other reason than to save face: “It all depends on what you consider improper.”

Tuesday, March 19th

Avellaneda and I worked together all afternoon in search of discrepancies, the most boring function in the world. A discrepancy of seven hundredths. Actually, it was a combination of two different discrepancies: one of eighteen hundredths and another of twenty-five hundredths. Poor Avellaneda still hadn’t caught on very well. She becomes just as tired doing this type of strictly mechanical work as she does when she has to do work which forces her to think and do research in order to arrive at solutions on her own. Personally, I’m so accustomed to this kind of research that I often prefer it to any other type of work. Today, for example, while she called out the numbers and I checked them off on my adding tape, I practiced by counting the moles on her left forearm. They fall into two categories: five small and three large, one of which is quite big. When she finished calling out the number for November, just to see how she would react, I said: “Have that mole removed. It’s usually nothing, but in one case out of a hundred  it could be dangerous.” She blushed and didn’t know where to put her arm. Then she said: “Thank you sir,” and quite uncomfortably continued to read the numbers out loud. When we got to January, I started to read the numbers out loud and she checked them off. Then, I suddenly became aware that something strange was happening and I looked up in the middle of reading a number. She was looking at my hand. Looking for moles? Perhaps. I smiled and once again she became quite embarrassed. Poor Avellaneda. She doesn’t realize that I’m a gentleman and that I would never, ever, make overtures toward an employee in my department.

Thursday, March 21st

Dinner at Vignale’s house. The house is dark, cramped, and cluttered. There are two armchairs in the living room that are of such an undefined international style that they look like two little armadillos. I let myself drop into one of them and felt a wave of heat travel up to my chest. While I sat in the armchair, a little discolored dog with the face of a spinster came to greet me. After looking at me without so much as a sniff, she opened her legs wide and proceeded to commit the classic offense right there on the carpet. The stain appeared precisely on the head of a fine looking peacock, the highlight of that rather frightening pattern. But there were so many stains on the carpet that one might think they actually formed part of the design.

Vignale has a large, noisy and insufferable family. It includes his wife, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and, horror of all horrors, his five children. His children could well be defined as little monsters. Physically, they look normal, very normal, rosy-cheeked and healthy. They are monsters because of how annoying they are. The oldest is thirteen (Vignale was middle-aged when he married) and the youngest is six. They are constantly running around, making noise, and arguing at the top of their lungs. One gets the feeling that they’re climbing onto one’s back or shoulders, and that they’re always about to stick one of their fingers into your ear or pull your hair. They never get that far, but the result is the same, and one is aware that in Vignale’s house, a person is at the mercy of that pack of little monsters. The adults in the family have found refuge in an enviable attitude of disregard for them, which doesn’t exclude stray slaps that suddenly cut through the air and land on the nose, temple, or eye of one of those little angels. The mother’s method, for example, could be defined like this: tolerate any kind of attitude or insolence by the one offspring who bothers all the others, including visitors, but punish every gesture or word by the offspring who bothers her personally. The high point of dinner occurred while we were having dessert. One of the kids wanted to leave evidence that the rice pudding hadn’t agreed with him. Said evidence consisted of vomiting his portion of the rice pudding onto his youngest brother’s pants. The gesture was celebrated with plenty of noise, but the weeping of the victimized little brother surpassed all of my expectations and is beyond description.

After dinner the kids disappeared and I didn’t know whether they were getting ready for bed or whether they were preparing a poison cocktail for early tomorrow morning. “What kids!” said Vignale’s mother-in-law. “It’s just that they’re so full of life. That’s what childhood is: pure life,” said the son-in-law as a suitable postscript. In response to some non-existent inquiry on my part, the sister-in-law replied: “We don’t have children.”  “And we’ve been married for seven years already,” said her husband with an apparently malicious guffaw. “Personally, I would like to,” the woman explained. “But this one takes pleasure in avoiding them.” It was Vignale who rescued all of us from a similar gynecological and contraceptive digression, to refer to what constituted the main attraction of the evening: the exhibition of the famous old photographs. Vignale kept them in a green homemade envelope made out of construction paper, on which he printed the words: “Photographs of Martín Santomé.” Evidently, it was an old envelope, but the writing on the front of it had been recent. In the first photograph there were four people standing in front of the house on Brandzen Street. It wasn’t necessary for Vignale to say anything: when I saw the photograph my memory seemed to shake itself out and acknowledge the receipt of that yellowish image that was once sepia. The four people in the photograph were my mother, a neighbor who later moved to Spain, my father, and myself. I looked incredibly clumsy and foolish. “This photograph, did you take it?” I asked Vignale. “You’re crazy,” Vignale replied. “I’ve never had enough courage to hold a camera or a revolver in my hand. Falero took this photograph. Do you remember Falero?” Vaguely, I thought. For example, that his father owned a bookstore from which he would steal pornographic magazines and later busy himself with sharing this fundamental aspect of French culture with us. “Look at this one,” said Vignale, anxiously. I was in that photograph, too, next to Blockhead. Blockhead (him I remember) was an idiot who always attached himself to us, laughed at all of our jokes, even those that weren’t funny, and wouldn’t stop following us around.

I couldn’t remember his name, but I was sure it was Blockhead. It was the same silly expression, the same flabby skin, and the same gummy hair. I let out a laugh, one of the best laughs I’ve had all year. “What are you laughing about?” asked Vignale. “About Blockhead. Look at that face,” I replied. Then Vignale lowered his eyes, looked bashfully at his wife, in-laws, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law, and then said in a hoarse voice: “I thought you didn’t remember that nickname. You know, I never liked being called that.” He took me completely by surprise. I didn’t know what to do or say. So Mario Vignale and Blockhead are one and the same? I looked at him, then looked at him again, and confirmed that he really was stupid, cloying and ignorant. But apparently, this was about some other stupidity, some other cloyness, some other ignorance. It wasn’t about the man called Blockhead in the photograph, how could it be? Now there is something irremediable about both Vignale and Blockhead. Then, I think I stuttered: “But, hey, nobody called you that to hurt your feelings. Remember that Prado used to be called ‘the Rabbit.’” “Don’t I wish they had called me ‘the Rabbit,’” said Blockhead Vignale, remorsefully. And we didn’t look at any more photographs.

Friday, March 22nd

I ran twenty yards to catch the bus and became exhausted. When I sat down I thought I was going to faint. While struggling to take off my jacket, unbutton the collar of my shirt and make myself comfortable in order to breathe easier, I brushed the arm of a woman who was sitting next to me two or three times. Her arm was lukewarm, but not terribly thin. When I brushed her arm I experienced the velvet feel of hair, but didn’t try to find out if it was mine, hers, or both of ours. I unfolded the newspaper and began to read. She, meanwhile, had been reading an Austrian tour brochure. Little by little I started to catch my breath, but still continued to have palpitations for an entire fifteen minutes. Her arm moved two or three times but it didn’t seem to want to move away completely from my own. It would go away and then return again. Sometimes the feel of her arm was limited to a slight sensation of proximity to the tips of the hairs on my arm. I took several surveys of the street and in the process, discreetly looked her over. She had an angular face, thin lips, long hair, wore little makeup, and had big hands; not very expressive. All of a sudden she dropped her brochure and I bent down to pick it up. Naturally, I glanced at her legs. They weren’t bad looking, with a little Band-Aid on one of her ankles. She didn’t thank me and prepared to get off as the bus approached the end of Sierra. She put the brochure away, adjusted her hair, closed her purse, and excused herself to move by me. “I’m getting off, too,” I said, acting on a whim. She started to walk quickly along Pablo de María, but I managed to catch up to her in four long strides. We walked along next to each other for a block and a half. I was still thinking about what I should say to break the ice, when she suddenly turned her head toward me and said: “Make up your mind if you’re going to talk to me or not.”

Sunday, March 24th

After giving it some serious thought, Friday was quite a strange experience. We didn’t mention our names, exchange phone numbers, or discuss anything personal. But still, I could swear that sex is unimportant to this woman. Instead, she seemed exasperated about something, as if her surrender to me was some strange form of revenge she was taking against I don’t know what. I should confess that it was the first time I have ever seduced a woman with just my elbow, and also, the first time that, once in the motel room, I’ve ever seen a woman undress so quickly, and in broad daylight. What did her aggressive nonchalance with which she laid down on the bed prove? She was trying so hard to show that she was completely naked that I was starting to believe that it was the first time she had ever been naked in front of a man. But no, she wasn’t new at this. And with her serious face, her lips without lipstick, her expressionless hands, she still managed to enjoy herself. Later, at a moment she felt was opportune, she begged me to curse at her. It’s not my specialty, but I think I satisfied her.

Monday, March 25th

A city job for Esteban. It’s the result of his work in the political club. I don’t know if I should be happy about his appointment as a boss. After all, he’s an outsider  who has been passed over the others who are now his subordinates. I imagine they will make his life impossible. And understandably so.

Wednesday, March 27th

Today I stayed at the office until eleven p.m. A big favor on the manager’s behalf, sure. He called me at six-fifteen to tell me he needed that worthless material first thing in the morning. It was a job for three people, so Avellaneda, poor woman, offered to stay and help. But I felt sorry for her.

Three fellows in the Shipping Department also stayed late. Actually, they were the only ones who really needed to stay, but then of course, the manager certainly wasn’t going to force Ms. Valverde’s lover to stay late without embellishing the punishment by giving some innocent person extra work to do. This time I was the innocent person. Patience. I’m hoping that Valverde will get bored with that gigolo, Suárez.

Working late depresses me terribly. The entire office is quiet, deserted, with filthy desks covered with file folders and filing cabinets. There is an overall appearance of garbage, of waste. And in the middle of that silence and darkness, there are three fellows here and three fellows there, working unwillingly, dragging along the tiredness of their previous eight hours.

Robledo and Santini would dictate the figures to me while I recorded them using a typewriter. At eight p.m. my back started to hurt; near my left shoulder. At nine o’clock I didn’t mind the pain and kept typing the menacing figures. No one spoke when we had finished. The three fellows in the Shipping Department had already left. The three of us who remained eventually left for and went to the Plaza Independencia. While there, I treated each of them to a cup of coffee at the Sorocabana Café and afterwards we said good-bye. I think they were holding a grudge against me because I had selected them to work late.

Thursday, March 28th

I had a long talk with Esteban and expressed my doubts about the fairness of his appointment as a boss. For God’s sake, I didn’t expect him to quit; I know that quitting is no longer fashionable. I simply would have like to have heard him say he felt uncomfortable about his appointment. But he didn’t. “It’s irrelevant, Dad. You keep living in the past.” That’s what he said. “These days nobody gets offended if just anybody appears and passes them on their way up the ladder. And do you know why nobody gets offended? Because they would do the same thing if they had the opportunity. I’m sure they aren’t going to be angry with me, but rather, jealous.”

Then I told him.... Well, what does it matter what I told him?

Friday, March 29th

What a disgusting wind. It really cost me to travel via Ciudadela from Colonia to reach the Plaza. The wind lifted a girl’s skirt and a priest’s cassock. Jesus, what diverse spectacles! Sometimes I think about what would have happened to me if I had become a priest. Probably nothing. I have a stock phrase that I repeat four or five times a year: “There are two professions of which I am sure I do not have the least calling: the military and the priesthood.” But I think I repeat the phrase out of habit, without the least conviction.

I arrived home with my hair disheveled, my throat burning, and my eyes full of dirt. I showered, changed, and sat down at the window to drink maté. I felt safe and profoundly egotistical. Sitting there, I watched men, women, old people and children, all struggling against the wind, and now also against the rain. Still, I didn’t get the urge to open the door and offer them refuge in my house and a cup of hot maté. And it’s not that it didn’t occur to me to do it. The idea did cross my mind, but I felt profoundly ridiculous about it and began to think about the confused look on the people’s faces, even in the middle of the wind and rain.

What would I be like today if twenty or thirty years ago I had decided to become a priest? Yes, I already know, the wind would lift my cassock and expose the pants of a rustic and ordinary man. But, what about the rest? Would I have won or lost? I wouldn’t have children (I think I would have been an honest priest, a hundred percent pure), an office, a work schedule, or retirement. Yes, I would have God and I would have religion. But, is it that perhaps I don’t have them now? Frankly, I don’t know if I believe in God. Sometimes I think that, in case He does exist, He wouldn’t be upset by my doubts. In reality, the resources that he (or He?) Himself has given us (reasoning, sensibility, intuition) aren’t absolutely sufficient to guarantee us of His existence or non-existence. Thanks to a hunch, I can believe in God and guess right, or not believe in God and also guess right. And then? Perhaps God has the face of a croupier and I’m just a poor devil that plays red when black is the winner, and vice versa.

Saturday, March 30th

Robledo is still angry with me because he had to work late this past Wednesday. Poor guy. From what Muñoz told me this morning, Robledo’s girlfriend is frightfully jealous. On Wednesday he was supposed to meet her at eight, but because I had chosen him to work late, he couldn’t go. He called her and explained, but it was no use. She didn’t believe him and told him that she never wanted to see him again. Muñoz says that he consoles Robledo by telling him that it’s always better to know about these drawbacks before getting married, but Robledo is still terribly angry. Today, I called him over and told him that I didn’t know about the situation with his girlfriend. I asked him why he hadn’t told me about it before, and he looked at me with eyes that were flaming mad, and murmured: “You were quite aware of it. I’m sick of all your little jokes.” He sneezed, out of pure nervousness, and quickly added, with an ample gesture of disappointment: “That they, who are the pride of bad manners, can say those jokes about me, I can understand. But that you, who is every bit a serious man, would encourage them, honestly disappoints me a little. I’ve never told you, but I had a good opinion of you.” I was feeling a bit awkward about having to defend his good opinion of me, so without a trace of irony I told him: “Look, believe me if you want to, and if you don’t, patience. I didn’t know anything and that’s the end of it. Now get to work if you don’t want me to be disappointed, too.”

Sunday, March 31st

This afternoon, as I was coming out of the California movie theatre, I saw the woman from the bus, the “elbow woman,” from a distance. She was walking with a heavily built man, athletic and intelligent looking. When the man laughed, it was as if he was reflecting the unexpected variants of human imbecility. She, too, would laugh, throwing her head back and pressing herself against him affectionately. They passed in front of me and although she saw me in the middle of a burst of laughter, she didn’t interrupt it. I couldn’t be sure that she had recognized me. In the meantime, though, she said to the Center Forward: “Oh, darling,” and with a flirtatious and muscular move placed her head against his giraffe-covered tie. Afterwards, they turned on Ejido Street. And now a big question: What does this woman have to do with the one who got undressed in record time the other afternoon?

Monday, April 1st

Today I was sent to meet the “Jew who comes looking for work.” He comes around every two or three months and the manager doesn’t know how to get rid of him. He’s a tall man, freckled, about fifty years old, who speaks Spanish horribly and probably even writes it worse. In his same old speech, he always reminds us that his specialty is being able to correspond in three or four languages, write shorthand in German, and cost accounting. He always extracts a terribly deteriorated letter from his pocket in which the head of personnel from some institute in La Paz, Bolivia, certifies that Mr. Franz Heinrich Wolff performed his job to his complete satisfaction and left of his own free will. However, the expression on the man’s face is as distant as it can be from his own will or that of anyone else’s. We already know all of his tics, lines of reasoning, and his resigned attitude, by heart. Still, he always insists on being tested. But when we put him to work using a typewriter, the letter he types always turns out poorly and then he responds to the few questions asked of him with a peaceful silence. I can’t imagine what he lives on. He seems ignorant and miserable at the same time. He seems to be inexorably convinced of his failings and doesn’t consent to the minimum possibility of being successful. But he does consent to the obligation of being stubborn and without any major concern for the many shattering rejections he receives. I didn’t know whether the spectacle was pathetic, repugnant, or sublime, but I think I will never be able to forget the look on his face (serene? resentful?) with which he always receives the poor results of his test and the semi-reverence with which he says good-bye. Occasionally, I have seen him on the street; walking slowly or simply observing the river of people who walk by and who perhaps might inspire him to reflect. I don’t think he’ll ever smile. The look on his face could be that of a lunatic or a scholar or a con-artist or someone who has suffered a great deal. But the truth is that every time I see him he makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s as if I was partly to blame for his present condition, his misery and – worse of all – it’s as if he believed I really am to blame I know that he’s an idiot and I can’t get him a job in my office. And besides, he isn’t any good.

Well then? Perhaps I know of other ways to help a fellow man. But what are they? Counseling, for example? I don’t even want to think about the look on his face with which he would accept any counseling from me. So today, after I told him no for the tenth time, I felt a wave of pity come over me and felt inclined to extend my hand with a ten peso bill in it. He left me there with my hand extended, stared at me with a fixed look (a very complicated look, although I think the main ingredient of it was, in its turn, pity) and in that disagreeable accent of “r’s” that sound like “g’s” said to me: “You don’t understand.” Which is absolutely true. I don’t understand and that’s the end of it. I don’t want to think about any of this anymore.


Mario Benedetti

MARIO BENEDETTI was born on September 14, 1920 in Uruguay. He published his first book in 1945. Although a trained accountant, he went on to publish Peripecia y Novela (Literary Criticism) in 1948, and a year later, Esta Mañana, his first book of stories. In 1953, he published his first novel, Quien de Nosotros, but it was with the 1959 publication of Montevideanos: Cuentos (Stories) that the urban concept of his narrative style took shape. With the publication of La Tregua in 1960, Benedetti acquired international preeminence. While in Cuba, he founded the world famous Centro de Investigaciones Literarias at Casa de las Americas, which he directed from 1969 to 1971. Returning to Uruguay in 1971, he opposed increasing government repression through his writing and participation in the leftist coalition known as the Frente Amplio, which he helped organize. Following the coup of June 1973, his work was banned by the Uruguayan military. Between 1973 and the return of the civilian government in 1985, he lived in exile in Argentina, Peru, Cuba, and Spain. Writing for an international audience, he denounced the tragic events occurring in Uruguay at the time. From 1985 on, he lived in Montevideo, where he devoted his full time to writing. He passed away on May 17, 2009. Translator HARRY MORALES is also the author of the novel The Suit and Skirt Farm (Xlibris, 2002). He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico in 1962, and was raised in New York City. He has studied literary translation under Gregory Rabassa and translated stories by the novelist Mario Bendetti from various collections including Montevideanos: Cuentos, La Muerte y Otra Sorpresas: Cuentos, Esta Ma ñana: Cuentos, and Con y Sin Nostalgia: Cuentos among others. He has also translated the work of the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas as well as the works of Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rossi, Julia de Burgos, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez, and Ilan Stavans, among many other Latin American writers.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

All Issues