The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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MAR 2012 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

Wednesday, May 1st

The dullest May Day in world history. To make matters worse, it was a gray, rainy, and prematurely wintry day. There were no people, buses, or anything in the streets. And me in my room, in my single bed, in this dark, heavy silence of seven-thirty. I wish it were nine o’clock in the morning and I were at my desk and every now and then I would look to the left and would find that sad, concentrating, defenseless little person.

Thursday, May 2nd

I didn’t want to talk to Avellaneda. First, because I don’t want to scare her; and second, I really don’t know what to say to her. Before I do so, I have to know exactly what’s happening to me. It can’t be that at my age, this young woman, who isn’t very pretty, could suddenly appear and become the center of my attention. I feel like a nervous teenager, this much is true, but when I look at my flabby skin, these wrinkles under my eyes, these varicose veins on my ankles, when I cough like an old man in the morning—which is absolutely necessary in order for my bronchial tubes to begin their work day—then, I no longer feel like a nervous teenager, but simply ridiculous.

The entire machinery of my emotions came to a halt twenty years ago when Isabel died. First it was pain, then indifference, then much later, freedom, and then finally, tedium. Long, lonely, constant tedium. Oh, I remained sexually active during all these stages, but pick-ups was my technique. Today, an amorous passenger on the bus, tomorrow the accountant who audited us, and the next day, the cashier for Edgardo Lamas, S.A. Never twice with the same woman—a kind of unconscious resistance to commit myself, to pigeonholing the future in a normal and permanent relationship. But what is the point of all this? What was I protecting? Isabel’s image? I don’t think so. I haven’t felt like the victim of that tragic compromise, which I, on the other hand, have never agreed to. My freedom? Could be. My freedom is another name for my inertia. Sleep with one today, with another tomorrow; well, this is merely a figure of speech, once a week is enough. Only what nature asks of us and nothing more; just like eating, bathing, and defecating. It was different with Isabel because there was a kind of communion between us and, when we made love, it was as if every one of my bones fit into a soft opening of her body and every one of my impulses mathematically found its own respective echo. We were made for each other. It’s like when you become accustomed to dancing with the same partner. In the beginning, there is a match to every move, then later, the match corresponds to every thought. Only one of them thinks, but it’s both bodies which cut a figure.

Saturday, May 4th

Aníbal called. We’re going to meet tomorrow.

Avellaneda didn’t come to work today. Jaime asked me for money. He had never asked for money before so I asked him what he needed it for. “I can’t, nor want to tell you. Lend me the money if you want, otherwise, just keep it. It’s all the same to me,” Jaime said. “All the same?” I said. “Yes, it’s all the same,” Jaime said. “Because if I have to pay the degrading price of opening up my personal life, my heart, and spilling my guts, etc., to you, I prefer to find the money elsewhere, where I will only be charged the interest.” I gave him the money, of course. But, why so violent? A mere question isn’t a degrading price to pay. Worst of all, and this angers me the most, is that I usually ask those questions completely absentmindedly, because the last thing I want to do is meddle in the private lives of others, and much less, in the lives of my children. But Jaime, as much as Esteban, is always in a state of near-conflict where I’m concerned. They’re already tremendous idiots; so let them fend for themselves anyway they can.

Sunday, May 5th

Aníbal has changed. I always had the secret impression he was going to stay young until eternity. But it looks like eternity arrived because he doesn’t look young anymore. He’s decayed physically (he’s skinny, his bones are more noticeable, his clothes are big on him, his moustache is somewhat ragged), but it’s not only that. From the tone of his voice, which sounds much gloomier than I remember, to the movement of his hands which have lost their liveliness; from the look on his face, which at first appeared sluggish but then I later realized was merely disenchantment, to his topics of conversation, which used to sparkle and now are incredibly dull. Everything combines to form a single conclusion: Aníbal has lost his joy of living.

He hardly talked about himself, that is to say, he only talked about himself superficially. Apparently, he raised some money and wants to start his own business, but is still undecided about what kind. And yes, he continues to be interested in politics.

It’s not my forte. I realized this when he began to ask questions which were increasingly incisive, as if he were looking for explanations for things he can’t understand. I realized I didn’t have an actual formed opinion about those minor topics which one sometimes includes in office or coffee shop chatter, or about which one vaguely thinks about in passing while reading the newspaper during breakfast. Aníbal forced me to form an opinion and I think I started asserting myself as I responded. He asked me if I thought everything was better or worse than it was five years ago, when he left. “Worse,” replied my body cells unanimously. But later I had to explain. Phew, what a task!

In reality, there were always bribes, job arrangements via influence peddling, and bureaucracies, as well. So, what’s worse then? After greatly wracking my brain, I arrived at the belief that what is worse is the resignation. The rebels have become semi-rebels, and the semi-rebels have become resigned. I think that in this luminous Montevideo, the two associations which have progressed the most in recent times are the homosexuals and the resigned. “Nothing can be done,” people say. Before, someone would only offer a bribe if they wanted to obtain something illicit. So go on and get on with it. Now, someone who wants to obtain something that’s not illegal also offers a bribe. And this means total disorder.

But resignation isn’t the complete truth. In the beginning it was resignation, then, the abandonment of scruples; much later, of joint participation. It was a man who had formerly resigned who delivered the famous phrase: “If the ones upstairs can stand it, so can I.” Naturally, this man has an excuse for his dishonesty: it’s the only way the others won’t take advantage of him. He says he was forced to play the game, because otherwise his money was worth less and less and there were more and more honest paths being blocked off to him. He still maintains a vindictive and latent hatred towards those pioneers who forced him to follow that path. Perhaps after all is said done, he’s the most hypocritical, because he doesn’t do anything to get out of his situation. Perhaps he’s also the biggest thief, because he knows perfectly well that no one dies of honesty.

 What it is like to be unaccustomed to thinking about all of this! Aníbal left at dawn and I felt so restless I didn’t want to think about Avellaneda.

Tuesday, May 7th

There are two ways I can approach Avellaneda: a) candidly, essentially telling her: “I like you, let’s see what happens;” or b) dishonestly, essentially telling her: “Look here, girl, I’m experienced, I could be your father, take my advice.” Although it seems incredible, perhaps the second option would be the best choice for me. With the first option I risk quite a bit, and besides, everything is still very new. I think that up to now she sees me as a boss who is generally kind and nothing else. Nevertheless, she’s not a child. She’s twenty-four, not fourteen. She’s the kind middle-aged men prefer. But her boyfriend was a teenager, nevertheless. Well, that’s how it was with him. Perhaps now, in response to this, she’ll go to the other extreme. And I could be that other extreme; a middle-aged gentleman, experienced, gray-haired, rested, 49 years old, without any major illnesses, and earning a good salary. I don’t include my three children in my dossier; they don’t help. Anyway, she knows about them.

Well now (and to put it in terms of neighborhood gossip), what are my intentions? The truth is I’m not thinking about anything permanent, like “until death do us part” (I wrote “death” and Isabel quickly appeared, but Isabel was something else, in regards to Avellaneda, I think the sexual aspect is less important to me, or that is to say, that perhaps sex is less important at forty-nine than it is at twenty-eight), but I haven’t decided to be without Avellaneda either. I already know that the ideal situation would be to have Avellaneda without any obligation to permanency. But it’s already too much to ask. However, one could try.

I can’t know anything until I talk to her. They’re all stories I tell myself. It’s true that, at this late stage, I’m a little bored with rendezvous in the dark and hotel encounters. There’s always a tense atmosphere and a sense of immediacy, of something urgent which distorts any kind of dialogue I could have with any type of woman. Up until the moment I go to bed with her, regardless of who she is, the important thing is to go to bed with her; and after making love to her, the important thing is to leave, each of us to our own bed, and ignore each other forever. Throughout the many, many years of playing this game, I don’t remember a single comforting conversation, or touching remark (mine or theirs) made by those women who are destined to reappear later, at who knows what awkward moment, to put an end to some hesitation so that we can decide to adopt an outlook that requires a minimum dose of anger. Well, this isn’t entirely true. Six or seven years ago, in a hotel on Rivera Street, a woman told me this famous cliché: “You make love with the look of a clerk.”

Wednesday, May 8th

Vignale again. He was waiting for me outside the office so I had no other choice but to accept his offer to join him for a cup of coffee; an inevitable prologue to an hour of his confessions.

She’s radiant. Apparently, his sister-in-law was successful in her amorous offensive, so much so that they are now in the middle of a romance. “She’s so lovingly attracted to me, that it hardly seems possible,” said Vignale as he caressed his very youthful looking tie, cream-colored, with little blue diamonds, which really shows an obvious evolution from the obscure, very wrinkled, dark brown ties he used to wear when he was just a plain, loyal husband. “Hey, she’s every bit a woman whose longing is overdue.”

I think about robust Elvira’s overdue longing, and I don’t even want to think about what will become of poor Vignale six months from now. But at the moment, happiness radiates through all of his pores. He sincerely believes she was seduced by his masculinity. But he doesn’t realize that as far as Elvira’s “overdue longing” is concerned (poor Francisco surely can’t refute his blissful novice face), Vignale merely represented the closest man at hand, an opportunity to bring herself up to date.

“And your wife?” I asked him, with an air of vigilant conscientiousness. “Just taking it easy,” Vignale replied. “Do you know what she said to me the other day? That lately I’ve had a much better disposition. And she’s right. Even my liver is working properly.”

Thursday, May 9th

I can’t talk to her in the office. It has to be somewhere else. I’m studying her schedule. She often prefers to eat downtown. She has lunch with a friend, a fat woman who works for the London Paris department store. But afterwards, they part company and she goes to the café at 25th and Misiones for a drink. It has to be a chance encounter. It’s the best way.

Friday, May 10th

I met Diego, my future son-in-law. My first impression: I like him. He has a determined look, and speaks with the kind of pride that (it appears to me) isn’t gratuitous, that is to say, which relies on some portion of his attributes. He treated me with respect, but without flattering me. There was something I liked about his overall attitude, and in return, I think he liked my vanity. He was very biased in my favor, that was obvious. And from what other source could that bias have come from if not from his conversations with Blanca? I would be really happy about this detail at least, if I knew my daughter has a good impression of me. It’s interesting; for example, I don’t care about Esteban’s opinion of me. On the other hand, I really do care about Jaime and Blanca’s opinion. Perhaps the carefully researched reason consists of the fact that the three of them mean quite a bit to me, because I see many of my impulses and inhibitions reflected in the three of them, and furthermore, in Esteban I’ve noticed a kind of discrete hostility, a variance of hatred that even he doesn’t dare to confess to himself. I don’t know which occurred first, his rejection or mine, but the truth is I don’t love Esteban as much as I love Jaime and Blanca. I’ve always felt distant from this son who is never at home, talks to me as though out of duty, and makes all of us feel like “strangers” in “his family,” which is made up of him and only him. Jaime also doesn’t feel very inclined to talk to me, but in his case I don’t notice that kind of irrepressible rejection. Jaime is, by nature, a hopeless loner, and everyone else eventually pays the price.

Getting back to Diego: it pleases me that the young man has character, it will be good for Blanca. He’s a year younger than she is, but he looks four or five years older. The main thing is that Blanca feels protected; because as far as she’s concerned she’s faithful and she isn’t going to disappoint him. I like the fact they go out alone together, without some cousin or little sister tagging along as chaperone. Camaraderie is a beautiful stage; irreplaceable and irretrievable. I’ll never forgive Isabel’s mother for her behavior during our courtship; she would always stick to us like plaster and would watch us so closely and zealously that even if one was the epitome of purity, one would still feel forced to summon all of one’s available sinful thoughts. Even on those truly rare occasions when she wasn’t present, we didn’t feel we were alone; we were sure that some kind of ghost with a shawl on its head was watching every move we made. If on some occasion we kissed, we were so nervous and so concerned that she’d appear at any of the cardinal points of the living room, that the kiss always ended up being merely instantaneous contact, with little sexuality and even less tenderness, but with a good dose of fear, short circuitry, and damaged nerves. She’s still alive; I saw her near Sarandí the other afternoon, tall, determined, ageless, accompanying the youngest of her six daughters and a pitiful man who looked like a suitor who was in custody. The young girl and the candidate weren’t walking arm-in-arm: there was at least eight inches of light between them. You can see that Isabel’s mother still hasn’t budged from her famous motto: “the arm, when you get married.”

But again, I stray from the Diego topic. He says he works in an office, but that it’s only temporary. “I can’t be satisfied with the prospect of seeing myself always there, locked in, swallowing the smell of old books. I’m sure that I’m going to be and do something else. I don’t know if it will be better of worse than what I’m doing now, but it will be something else.” There was also a time when I thought like that. Nevertheless, nevertheless....This fellow looks more determined than I did.

Saturday, May 11th

At some moment I heard her say that at noon on Saturdays she meets a cousin at 18th and Paraguay. I have to talk to her. I waited at that corner for an hour, but she didn’t show up. I don’t want to make a date with her; it has to be a chance encounter.

Sunday, May 12th

I also heard her say she goes to the fair on Sundays. I had to talk to her, so I went to the fair. I thought I saw her two or three times, suddenly spotting part of a neck, hairdo or shoulder that looked like hers amongst the many heads in the crowd. But afterwards, when the figure came into full view, and even the piece of neck connected to it had passed by and integrated itself into the crowd, there was no longer any similarity to her. Every now and then a woman I saw from behind had the same walk, hips, and nape. But when she suddenly turned around, her resemblance would become absurd. The only thing that doesn’t deceive (like a single trait) is her gaze. I didn’t find her eyes anywhere. Nevertheless, (I’ve only just thought about this) I don’t know what they look like, what color they are. I returned home tired, confused, annoyed, and bored. Although, there is a more accurate word to describe it: I returned home alone.

Monday, May 13th

They’re green. Sometimes gray. I was looking at her, perhaps for too long, when she asked me: “What’s wrong, sir?” It’s ridiculous for her to call me “sir.” “You have a smudge on your face,” I replied, like a coward. She wiped off her cheek with her index finger (one of her very characteristic gestures which stretches her eye downward and looks unattractive) and asked: “And what about now?” “Now it looks impeccable,” I replied, with a little less cowardice. She blushed, and I was able to add: “Now you’re no longer impeccable, you’re beautiful.” I think she noticed. I think now she knows that something is happening. Or had she interpreted what I said as paternal flattery? It disgusts me to feel paternal.

Wednesday, May 15th

I was in the café at 25th and Misiones from twelve-thirty to two o’clock in the afternoon. It was an experiment. “I have to talk to her,” I thought, “so she has to show up.” I started to “see” her in every woman who came by 25th. Now I don’t really care that there isn’t a single detail about this or that figure which would remind me of her. I was still “seeing” her all the same; it was a sort of magical game (or idiotic, depending on one’s point of view) I played. It was only when the woman was a few steps away that I would I have an abrupt mental relapse and stop seeing her, substituting the desired image for the undesirable reality. Until such time when all of a sudden the miracle occurred. A young woman appeared at the corner and I immediately saw in her the image of Avellaneda. But as I began to have my usual relapse, I realized she was actually Avellaneda. My God, what a shock! I thought my heart had become lodged in my temples. She was two steps away, next to my window. I said: “Hello, how you are? What are you up to?” The tone was casual, almost matter of fact. She looked surprised, pleasantly surprised I think, I hope. “Oh, Mr. Santomé, you scared me.” Without any emphasis and an indifferent gesture of my right hand I extended an invitation to her: “A cup of coffee?” “No, I can’t, what a pity,” Avellaneda replied. “My father is waiting for me at the bank to make a transaction.” It’s the second invitation for a cup of coffee she has turned down, but this time she said: “What a pity.” If she wouldn’t have said that, I think I would have either shattered a glass on the floor, bitten my lower lip, or sunken my nails into my finger tips. But no, nonsense, that’s just not true; I wouldn’t have done anything of the kind. At most, I was left discouraged and empty, with my legs crossed, grinding my teeth, and my eyes hurting from looking at the same cup of coffee for so long. But she said: “What a pity,” and still, before she left, she asked: “Are you always here, at this hour?” “Sure,” I replied, lying. “Then let’s postpone the invitation for another day.” “Well, don’t forget,” I stressed, and then she left. The waiter appeared about five minutes later with another cup of coffee and said, looking out into the street: “What lovely sunshine, huh? One feels renewed. There’s a desire to sing and everything.” Only then did I hear myself. Unconsciously, like an old gramophone on which a record is placed and is forgotten, I had arrived, without realizing it, at the second stanza of the national anthem, “Mi Bandera.”

Thursday, May 16th

“I bet you don’t know who I bumped into,” said Vignale over the telephone. My silence was, without a doubt, so provocative he couldn’t even wait three seconds to offer the answer: “Just imagine, Escayola.” I thought about it. Escayola? It’s strange to hear that name again, the kind of old family name which isn’t around any longer. “You don’t say,” I replied. “And how is he?”

“He looks like a tuna and weighs 215 lbs.,” Vignale replied. Well, it turns out that Escayola found out Vignale himself had bumped into me unexpectedly and so naturally, there is a dinner in the future.

Escayola. He’s also from the Brandzen Street era. But him I remember. As a teenager, he was a scrawny, tall, and nervous; he was quick to make fun of everything and his chatter was generally delightful. In the café owned by Alvarez the Galician, Escayola was the star. Apparently, we were all predisposed to laughter because Escayola would say just about anything (it didn’t necessarily have to be funny) and we were immediately tempted to laugh. I remember that sometimes we would hold onto our stomachs, screaming with laughter. I think the secret lay in the fact that he would play the role of the funny man with great seriousness: a kind of Buster Keaton. It will be good to see him again.

Friday, May 17th

I was sitting in the café next to the window when it finally happened. This time I wasn’t waiting for anything or watching out for anyone. I think I was adding numbers in the vain attempt to balance the expenses with the income of this slow month of May, truly autumnal and overflowing with debts. I lifted my head and there she was, like an apparition or a ghost or simply—so much the better—like Avellaneda. “I’m here for that cup of coffee you offered me the other day,” she said. When I stood up, I bumped into the chair causing my little coffee spoon to slide off the table. The little spoon made such a noise when it landed on the floor, that it sounded more like a ladle. Meanwhile, the waiters looked on and Avellaneda sat down. I then picked up the little spoon, but before I could sit down my jacket got caught on that damned rim that’s on the back of all the chairs. In my dress rehearsal for this desired encounter, I hadn’t counted on such an emotional mise en scène. “It looks like I scared you,” she said, laughing candidly. “Well, yes, a little bit,” I confessed, and that saved me. The casualness had been recovered. We talked about the office, some fellow workers, and I related some anecdotes about the old times. She laughed. She was wearing a little dark green jacket over a white blouse. Her hair was uncombed, but only the right side, as if a gale wind had blown against her only on that side. I told her about it and she took a little mirror out of her bag, looked at herself, and for a while enjoyed looking at how ridiculous she looked. I liked that her good sense of humor was such that she could make fun of herself. Then I said: “Do you know that you are responsible for one of the most important crises in my life?” And still laughing, she asked: “Economic?” I replied: “No, emotional,” and she became serious. “Good God!,” she said, and waited for me to continue. And I did: “Look, Avellaneda, it’s possible that what I’m about to say sounds crazy. If it is, just say so. But I don’t want to beat around the bush. Avellaneda, I think I’m in love with you.” I waited a few moments, but she didn’t say a word and just stared at her purse. I think she blushed a little, but I didn’t try to ascertain if she blushed from embarrassment or was just radiant. Then I continued: “In light of our respective ages, the most logical thing for me to have done was to keep my mouth shut, but nevertheless, I think I owed you this homage. I’m not going to demand anything. If you, now or tomorrow or whenever, tell me to stop, we won’t discuss the matter anymore and we’ll remain friends. And don’t be afraid about your job or your peace of mind at the office; I know how to behave, don’t worry.” Again I waited. There she was, defenseless, that is to say, being defended by me from myself. Whatever she might say, whatever attitude she might have, it was going to signify: “This is the complexion of your future.” Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer and said: “And?” I smiled a bit forcibly and added, with a trembling voice that was refuting the joke I was pretending to make: “Do you have anything to declare?” She stopped staring at her purse and when she raised her eyes I had a premonition that the worst moment had passed. “I already knew,” she said. “That’s why I came to have coffee.”

Saturday, May 18th

Yesterday, when I finished writing what she had told me, I stopped. I stopped because I wanted the day to end that way, even a day written by me, with that hopeful beat. She didn’t say: “Stop.” But not only did she not say: “Stop,” but said: “That’s why I came to have coffee.” Afterwards she asked me to give her a day, or at least a few hours to think. “You already knew and still it’s a surprise,” I should say. Tomorrow, Sunday, we’ll have lunch downtown. And now what? Actually, my prepared speech included a long explanation I didn’t even have the opportunity to give. It’s true I wasn’t quite sure that giving a speech was the most advisable thing to do. I had also considered the possibility of offering to counsel her, to place my years of experience at her disposal. Nevertheless, when I finished my calculations and saw her in front of me, and started making all those clumsy and uncontrollable gestures, I managed to surmise that the only way of fruitfully escaping ridicule was to say what the inspiration of the moment dictated and nothing else, forgetting the prepared speeches and the previous ambushes. I’m not sorry I followed that impulse. The speech was short and—overall—simple, and I think that simplicity could be an adequate trump card when I face her. She wants to think about it, and that’s fine. But I say to myself: if she already knew I felt the way I do, why didn’t she already have a formed opinion? How can she waver about which attitude to adopt? There could be various explanations, for example: that she actually intended to utter the terrible word, “stop,” but had thought it terribly cruel to say this to me that way, point blank. Another explanation: that she had already known (having already known, in this case, means she had sensed it) what I felt, what I feel, but, that notwithstanding, still hadn’t believed that I would have expressed it in words, in a solid proposition. And therefore, she wavers. But she said: “that’s why” she came to have coffee. What does she mean? Did she want me to pose the question and, therefore, pose doubt? When one desires to be asked this kind of question, it’s common to answer in the affirmative. But she could have also wanted me to finally pose the question so she could stop waiting, tense and uncomfortable, and be prepared, once and for all, to say no and regain her poise. And besides, there’s the boyfriend, the ex-boyfriend. What’s happening with him? Not in regards to the facts (the facts, evidently, indicate the end of his relationship with Avellaneda), but in regards to Avellaneda. Am I, finally, the impetus that was missing, the little push her misgivings were waiting for to convince her to go back to him? Furthermore, there is the difference in our ages, my widower-hood, my three children, etc., and having to decide what kind of relationship I really want to have with her. This last item is more complicated than it looks. If the reader of this diary were someone other than myself I would have to close out this day in the style of serialized novels: “If you want to know the answers to these very pressing questions, read our next installment.”

Sunday, May 19th

I waited for her at Mercedes and Río Branco. She was only ten minutes late. Her tailored Sunday suit improved her looks quite a bit, although I was probably especially predisposed to find her looking better and better every time we meet. Today she was really nervous. Her little suit was a good omen (she wanted to make a good impression); but her nerves weren’t. I had the feeling that beneath her rouge, her cheeks and lips were pale. In the restaurant she chose an almost hidden table in the back. “She doesn’t want to be seen with me. This is a bad omen,” I thought. No sooner did she sit down, than she opened her purse, took out her little mirror and looked at herself. “She is careful about her looks. That’s a good sign,” I thought. This time we talked about generalities for fifteen minutes (during which time we ordered a cold dish of meat and vegetables, wine, and spread butter on the black bread). All of a sudden, she said: “Please, don’t torment me with those looks of expectation.” “I don’t possess any other kind,” I replied, like an idiot. “You want to know my answer,” she continued, “and my answer is another question.” “Then ask it,” I said. “What does it mean, that you’re in love with me?” It had never occurred to me that such a question ever existed, but there it was, within my reach. “Please, Avellaneda, don’t make me look even more ridiculous than I already do,” I said. “Do you want me to specify like an adolescent, what it means to be in love?” “No, certainly not,” she replied. “Well then?” I continued. Actually, I was pretending to be naïve; deep down I knew quite well what she was trying to tell me. “Well,” she said, “you don’t want to look ridiculous, but on the other hand, you don’t mind if I look ridiculous. You know what I’m trying to tell you. Being in love could mean, especially in the male jargon, many different things.” “You’re right,” I said. “Then let’s say it’s the best of all those things. Because that’s what I was referring to yesterday when I told you I was in love with you.” It wasn’t a romantic conversation, don’t I wish. The rhythm of our voices sounded like a conversation between merchants, or professors, or politicians, or anyone poised and restrained. “Look,” I continued, a bit more animated, “there exists what is called reality and there exists what is called appearances.” “Aha,” she said, without appearing to scoff at my remark. “I love you in what is called reality, but the problems arise when I think about that which is called appearances,” I said. “What problems?” she asked, this time sounding truly intrigued. “Don’t make me say I could be your father, or that you’re the same age as one of my children,” I replied. “Don’t make me say it, because that is the key to all the problems and, besides, then I’m really going to feel a little miserable.” She didn’t say anything, which was good. There was less risk this way. “Do you understand then?” I asked, without waiting for a reply. Then I continued: “My aim, apart from the very explicable desire to be happy, or as close to that as possible, is for you to be happy too. And that’s what is difficult. You have all the traits to share my happiness, but I have very few with which to share yours. And don’t think I’m acting important. Under different circumstances, I mean, at some other point in time, the proper thing for me to do would be to offer you a serious courtship, very serious, perhaps too serious, with a clear prospect of marriage within arm’s reach. But if I were to offer you something similar now, I think it would be selfish of me, because I would only be thinking of myself, and what I most want now is not to think of myself but to think of you. I can’t forget—and you can’t either—that in ten years I’ll be sixty years old. “Hardly an old man,” an optimist or a toady might say, but the adverb matters very little. I want to remain safely honest when I say that I can’t gather enough strength to talk about marriage just now, nor will I be able to in a few months, either. But—there’s always a but—then, what do we talk about now? I know that however much you understand this, it’s still difficult to accept another option. Because it’s obvious that another option does exist. There is room for love in that other option, but on the other hand, no room for marriage.” She raised her eyes, but didn’t question me. She probably just wanted to see the look on my face when I made that last remark. But, at this late stage, I was already determined not to hold back, so I continued: “In regards to the other option, the public imagination, which is usually poor at defining denominations, calls it an “fling” or an “arrangement” and so it’s quite logical for you to feel a little frightened. To tell the truth, I’m afraid that you think that I’m proposing we have an affair. Perhaps I would be even the slightest bit insincere if I told you that what I’m boldly seeking for is an accord, a kind of agreement between my love and your freedom. I know, I know. You’re thinking that the reality is exactly the opposite; that what I’m looking for is precisely your love and my freedom. You have every right to think this, but realize that at the same time, I have every right to put all of my eggs in one basket. And that one basket is the trust you can have in me.” Meanwhile, our dessert hadn’t arrived. When the waiter finally brought the heavenly dishes, I asked for the check. Immediately after the last mouthful of dessert, Avellaneda wiped her mouth vigorously with her napkin and looked at me and smiled; her smile forming little rays at the corners of her lips. “I like you,” she said.

Monday, May 20th

The devised plan is for absolute freedom. Get to know each other and see what happens, let time pass, and then review the situation. There are no shackles or obligations. She’s splendid.

Tuesday, May 21st

“The tonic is good for you,” Blanca told me at noon today. “You’re animated, much happier.”

Friday, May 24th

There’s a kind of game going on now at the office. The game of the Boss and the Assistant. The rules are: don’t fall out of rhythm, behave differently, or change the routine. At nine o’clock in the morning I distribute the work to Muñoz, Robledo, Avellaneda, and Santini. Avellaneda is one name on the list, just another one of those who extends their hand in front of my desk so I can hand them the payroll accounts. There’s Muñoz’s hand: large, wrinkled, with claw-like nails; Robledo’s hand: small, almost square; Santini’s hand: thin fingers, two rings; and nearby, Avellaneda’s hand, with fingers that look like Santini’s, except that hers are feminine instead of effeminate. I’ve already told her that every time she approaches my desk with the others and extends her hand, I place (mentally, of course) a gentlemanly kiss on her sharp, sensible knuckles. She says it’s not obvious from the look on my stone face. Sometimes she tests herself by trying to infect me with an irrepressible desire to laugh, but I remain firm. So firm, that this afternoon Muñoz approached me and asked if something was wrong; he noticed I had been looking a little preoccupied over the last few days. “Are you worried about the upcoming balance sheet?” he asked. “Relax, boss. We’ll update the books quickly. In the past we’ve been much farther behind.” What do I care about the balance sheet? I almost laughed right in his face, but one has to pretend. “Muñoz, do you think that we’ll ever finish?” I asked. “Don’t forget the excess profit entries are next, and those pests reject the sworn declarations three or four times, and then of course we start to choke on the work. We have to hurry, Muñoz, this is my last balance sheet and I want it to turn out just right. Tell the fellows, okay?”

Sunday, May 26th

Today I dined with Vignale and Escayola. I’m still in shock. I have never felt the passage of time as rigorously as I did today when I faced Escayola for the first time after not having seen or heard from him in thirty years. The tall, nervous, joking adolescent has turned into a potbellied monster, with an impressive nape, soft and full lips, a bald spot with blemishes that resemble coffee drippings, and horrible bags under his eyes which shake when he laughs. Because now Escayola laughs. When he lived on Brandzen Street, the effectiveness of his jokes precisely resided in the fact that he told them in a serious manner. We would all die of laughter, but he remained unmoved. During dinner he told a few jokes, a dirty story I had known since college, and some presumably stinging anecdote drawn from his experience as a stock broker. The most he could accomplish was to get me to smile moderately and Vignale (a fellow who is always quite willing to please) to release a loud laugh so artificial that it sounded more like he was clearing his throat. I couldn’t contain myself and told him: “Aside from gaining a little weight, the thing I now find most peculiar about you is that you laugh loudly. Before, you would tell the funniest jokes with a sensational sad look on your face.” A flash of rage or perhaps powerlessness passed before Escayola’s eyes, and he quickly started to explain: “You know what happened? I always told jokes with a great deal of seriousness, you’re right, how well you remember! But one day I realized I was running out of topics. I didn’t like telling someone else’s jokes. You know I was a creative person and the jokes I told had never been heard before by anyone. I would make them up and would sometimes attempt an actual series of jokes with a central character, like in short stories, and would get the most out of them for two or three weeks. Well then, when I realized I couldn’t think of any more topics (I don’t know what could have happened to me, perhaps my brain emptied out) and, like a good sportsman, I didn’t want to retire early, I started telling other people’s jokes. At first I was selective, but then I quickly used up my selection, and began to add anything whatsoever to my repertoire. And the people, the fellows (I always had my circle of friends) started not to laugh, and not to find anything I said funny. They were right, but I didn’t retire then either, instead, I thought of another recourse: laugh on my own, in proportion to how much it mattered, in order to impress my listener and convince them that my jokes were indeed quite hilarious. At first they would join me in the laughter, but quickly learned how to feel deceived, to know my laughter wasn’t exactly an omen of true humor. In this they were also right, but I could no longer stop laughing. And here I am, as you can see, transformed into a pest. Do you want some advice? If you want to keep my friendship, talk to me about tragic things.”

Tuesday, May 28th

She comes to have coffee with me almost every day. The general tone of our conversation is always one of friendship. At most, about friendship and something more. But I’m making progress with that “something more.” For example, we sometimes talk about “Us”. “Us” is that undefined link that now binds us together. But whenever we mention it, it’s as outsiders. I will explain: we say, for example, that “no one in the office has noticed what’s going on between Us yet,” or that such and such a thing happened before Us began. But, in the end, what is Us? For now, at least, it’s a kind complicity we’re faced with, a secret sharing, a unilateral pact. Naturally, this isn’t an affair, or an arrangement, or—much less—a betrothal. Nevertheless, it’s more than a friendship. What’s worse (or better?) is that she feels comfortable with this lack of definition. She talks to me with complete trust, humor, and I think even affection. She is surrounded by her own very personal and ironic point of view. She doesn’t like to hear gossip about the office, but she has it all well catalogued. Sometimes, in the café, she looks around, and makes a well-informed accurate, and unsurpassable comment. Today, for example, sitting at a table were four or five women, all of them about thirty or thirty-five years old. She looked at them carefully for some time and then asked me: “They’re court clerks, right?” Yes indeed, they were court clerks. I’ve known a few of them, at least by sight, for years. “Do you know them?” I asked her. “No, I’ve never seen them before,” she replied. “So then, how did you guess?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I can always recognize women who are county clerks. They have very special characteristics and habits you don’t see in other professional women. They either apply lipstick in one hard stroke, like someone who writes on a blackboard, have an eternal sore throat from reading so many documents, or don’t know how to carry their purses because they’ve carried portfolios for so long. They check themselves when they talk, as if they don’t want to say anything that goes against the codes of law, and you’ll never see them look at themselves in a mirror. Look at that one, the second one from the left, she has calves like a runner-up champion athlete. And the one next to her looks like she doesn’t even know how to fry an egg. They annoy me, how about you?” No, they don’t annoy me (even more, I remember a court clerk who is the owner of the most attractive bust in this universe and its surroundings), but I amuse myself by listening to them enthusiastically discuss the pros and cons of something. The poor clerks—mannish, energetic, and muscular—continued talking, completely unaware of the demolishing criticism that, despite the table which separated Avellaneda and I from them, continued; with new reproaches about their appearance, posture, attitude, and conversation.

Thursday, May 30th

Esteban’s friend is shifty; a person of questionable behavior. He’s charging me fifty percent of my retirement bonus, but assures me I won’t have to work a single day longer than necessary. The temptation is great. Well, it was great, because I’ve already agreed to his terms. He reduced it to forty percent though and recommended I accept this offer before he changed his mind. He said he didn’t do this with anyone; he never charged less than fifty percent. He told me to just ask around, “because there are many abusive and unscrupulous people in my profession,” and he was giving me this special price because I was Esteban’s father. “I love Esteban like a brother,” he said. “We played billiards every night for four years. And that makes one close, sir.” It was then I remembered my conversation with Aníbal on Sunday, the 5th, when I told him: “Now, someone who wants to obtain something that’s not illicit also offers a bribe. And this means total disorder.”


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

MAR 2012

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