The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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JUNE 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 summer 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

Thursday, August 1st

The manager called me into his office. I could never stand that man; he’s so marvelously common and cowardly. On a few occasions he’s tried to bare his soul to me, his abstract existence, and I’ve encountered a repulsive image. There, in that place where dignity normally is, he only has a stump; his dignity was amputated. Nevertheless, the orthopedic dignity he now uses is good for smiling. And he was doing just that when I entered his office. “I have good news,” he said, rubbing his hands together, looking like he was going to strangle me. “You’ve been offered nothing less than the Assistant Manager position.” You knew by looking at him that he didn’t agree with the director’s offer. “Allow me to congratulate you,” he said. His hand is sticky, as if he had just opened a jar of marmalade. “Of course, there is one condition,” he continued. For once, the Crab’s angle in all of this. He really does look like a crab. Especially when he walks sideways to get around his desk. “The condition is that you can’t retire for at least two years,” he said. And what about my retirement plans? The Assistant Manager’s position is a fine one, especially for ending one’s career in the firm. There is little to do; you meet with several important clients, supervise personnel, stand in for the manager when he’s absent, tolerate the directors and their horrible jokes, and the directors’ wives and their display of encyclopedic ignorance. But, what about my retirement plans? “How much time do I have to think it over?” I asked. My question was a preview to my refusal. The Crab’s eyes brightened, and he replied: “One week. I have to give the Board of Directors your answer next Thursday.” When I returned to the department, everyone already knew. That always happens with strictly confidential news. There were hugs, congratulations, and commentary. Even Avellaneda, the civil servant, approached and shook my hand. And of all those hands, hers was the only one which conveyed life.

Saturday, August 3rd

I spoke to her about it for a long time. She tells me to think about it very carefully, that the Assistant Manager position is comfortable, pleasant, respectable, and well-paying. Well, I already know this. But I also know I have the right to rest and I won’t sell that right for a hundred peso raise in my salary. Perhaps I wouldn’t sell it even if the offer were much higher. What’s important to me has always been that the salary I earn be enough to live on. And it is enough. I have a good salary. I don’t need a raise. Not even now, with the added expense of the apartment. Besides, when I retire, I think I can depend on a slightly higher income (almost a hundred pesos more), since the bonuses I’ve received have raised my average income considerably over the last five years, and furthermore, I won’t have any deductions. Of course, I should be mindful of the drop in the value of currency, which is the surest guarantee of inflation. The threat is real, but I always have the opportunity to do some bookkeeping, secretly, more or less. But surely Avellaneda will offer some other reasons which are more moving, and less ready and available than all this sordid foresight: “If you’re not there, the office is going to be unbearable.” That’s better. But she doesn’t convince me with this remark either, because I have a plan: when I retire, Avellaneda will stop working. The amount I’ll receive will be enough for both of us, and besides, we’re both moderate people. Our pastimes are, for obvious reasons, strictly domestic. On occasion, the movies, a restaurant, a pastry shop. On any Sunday when it’s cold, but sunny, we walk along the shore to improve our breathing. We buy a book, a record, but more than anything else, we amuse ourselves by talking, about us, referring to every area of our lives that is stretched out in front of Our Relationship. There is no pastime, no spectacle that can substitute for what we enjoy during that exercise of sincerity and openness. We’re already receiving advanced training. Because one also has to get accustomed to sincerity. In light of the years during which Aníbal was abroad, because of all my problems of communication in my relationship with my children, because of the modest defense with which my private life always protected me from the maliciousness of the office, because of my solely hygienic closeness to women; always new, never familiar, it’s obvious I had become unaccustomed to sincerity. It’s also probable that I would only practice it sporadically with myself. I say this because on occasion, during these honest dialogues with Avellaneda, I’ve found myself saying words that seemed even more sincere to me than my own thoughts. Is that possible?

Sunday, August 4th

This morning I opened one of the drawers of the small wardrobe and a surprising amount of photographs, clippings, letters, receipts, and appointment slips fell and scattered all over the floor. Then I saw a piece of paper of unspecified color (its original color was probably green, but now it had a few dark stains and permanently dried running ink from aged dampness). Until that moment, I didn’t exactly remember the letter existed, but once I saw it I realized it was a letter from Isabel. Isabel and I had written very few letters to each other. Actually, there was never any reason to, as we were never apart for very long. The letter was dated 17 October 1935, Tacuarembó. I felt a little strange seeing those thin letters, with long and fine strokes, in which it was possible to recognize a person and also an era. It was obvious the letter had not been written with a fountain pen, but with one of those little dipping quills that, no sooner do you force them to write, do they complain silently and even spew almost invisible little drops of violet ink all around them. I have to transcribe that letter into this diary. I have to do it because Isabel is a part of me, of my unexchangeable past. The letter was written to me under very special circumstances and its rereading has shaken me up a bit, made me doubt a few things, and I would also add, has moved me. It says the following: “My Dear: It’s been three weeks since I arrived here. Translate this as: I’ve been sleeping alone for three weeks. Don’t you think that’s awful? You know that sometimes I wake up during the night and I have the absolute need to touch you, to feel you next to me. I don’t know what it is about you that’s so comforting, but knowing you’re next to me makes me feel protected in my semi-sleep. Now I have terrible nightmares, but without monsters. They’re only about dreaming in bed alone, without you. And when I wake up and drive the nightmare away, it turns out I really am in bed alone, without you. The only difference is that in the dream I can’t cry, but when I wake up, I do. Why is this happening to me? After all, I know you’re in Montevideo, that you’re taking care of yourself, and that you’re thinking of me. You do think of me, don’t you? Esteban and Blanca are fine, although you must know that Aunt Zulma spoils them terribly. Be prepared, because when we get home, Blanca isn’t going to let us sleep for a few nights. But for God’s sake, when are those few nights going to arrive? By the way, I have some news. I’m pregnant again. It’s terrible to tell you this and not have you kiss me. Or is it not too terrible for you? It’s going to be a boy and we’ll name him Jaime. I like names that being with a J. I don’t know why, but this time I’m a little scared. I mean, what if I die? Please write to me immediately telling me no, I’m not going to die. Have you already thought about what you’re going to do if I die? Well, you’re brave, you’ll know how to defend yourself; and besides, you’ll find someone else right away; I’m dreadfully jealous of her already. You see how neurotic I am? It’s that it’s very hurtful not to have you here, or for you to have me there, it’s the same thing. Don’t laugh; you always laugh at everything, even when there’s nothing to laugh about. Don’t laugh, don’t be mean. Write to me saying I’m not going to die. I couldn’t stop missing you even if I was a soul in torment. Oh, before I forget: please call Maruja and remind her that Dora’s birthday is on the 22nd. Tell her to say hello for both of us. Is the house very messy? Did the cleaning woman who Celia recommended to me show up? Be careful about looking at her too much, all right? Aunt Zulma is happy to have the kids here. And as for Uncle Eduardo, what can I say.... Both of them tell me long stories about when you were ten years old and would spend your vacations here. It seems that you became famous for having an answer for everything. A great kid, says Uncle Eduardo. I think you’re still a great kid, even when you come home tired from the office with some resentment in your eyes and you treat me indifferently, sometimes with hatred. But at night we have a good time, don’t we? It’s been raining for the last three days and I sit next to the living room balcony and look out into the street. But not a single soul passes by. When the kids are asleep I go to Uncle Eduardo’s desk and entertain myself by reading the Spanish-English dictionary, patently expanding my culture and increasing my boredom in the process. Will it be a boy or a girl? If it’s a girl you can name her, provided that you don’t name her Leonor. But no. It’s going to be a boy and he’ll be called Jaime. He’ll have a long face like yours, be very ugly, and be very successful with women. Look, I like children, I love them very much, but what I like most is that they be your children. It’s now raining frantically on the cobblestone sidewalk. I’m going to play five-stack solitaire; the game that Dora taught me, remember? If I win, it means I’m not going to die in labor. I love you, I love you, I love you, your Isabel. P.S. No cards left, I won! Hurray!”

How defenseless this enthusiasm seems after twenty-two years! Nevertheless, it was legitimate, honest, and true. It’s interesting how after rereading Isabel’s letter I’ve found her face again, that face which, despite all my forgetfulness, was in my memory. And I found it by way of those “you’s,” “can’s,” and “have’s,” because Isabel never used personal pronouns, and not because of any conviction she might have had, but merely out of habit, or perhaps some mania. I read those “you’s” and I could immediately reconstruct the mouth that said them. And Isabel’s mouth was the most important part of her face. The letter is like she was: a little confused, permanently vacillating between optimism and pessimism and vice versa, always about lovemaking in bed, filled with fear, and emotional. Poor Isabel. The child was a boy and he was named Jaime, but she died from a series of convulsions a few hours after giving birth. Jaime doesn’t have a long face like me. He isn’t ugly at all, but his success with women is temporary, and furthermore, useless. Poor Isabel. She thought by winning at solitaire, she had persuaded destiny, but in fact she had only provoked it. Everything is so very, very remote. Even Isabel’s husband, the addressee of this 1935 letter who was me, even he is now remote, and I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. “Don’t laugh,” she says and then repeats it. And it was true: I was laughing continuously just then and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like the wrinkles that would form next to my eyes when I laughed, didn’t find the cause of my laughter amusing, nor could she avoid feeling annoyed and aggressive when I laughed. When we were with other people and I laughed, she would look at me with censoring eyes that anticipated the subsequent reproach which would be expressed later when we were alone: “Please don’t laugh, you look repulsive.” When she died, laughter vacated my mouth. For a year I felt oppressed by three things: pain, work, and the children. Later, my poise, self-confidence, and composure returned. But the laughter didn’t. Well, of course, sometimes I laugh, but it’s only for a special reason or because I consciously want to laugh, and this is very rare. On the other hand, that laugh which was practically a tic, a permanent gesture, didn’t return. Sometimes I think it’s a pity Isabel isn’t around to see me so serious; she would have really enjoyed seeing how serious I am now. But, maybe if Isabel were here, with me, I wouldn’t have been cured of my laughter. Poor Isabel. I realize that I didn’t speak to her very often. Sometimes I couldn’t find anything to talk to her about; actually, we didn’t have very much in common apart from the children; the creditors, and sex. But it was never necessary to talk about sex. Our evenings were already quite eloquent. Was that love? I’m not sure. It’s likely that if our marriage hadn’t ended after five years, we would have realized much later on that sex was only one of its ingredients. And perhaps not too much later, either. But during those five years it was an ingredient which managed to keep us together, firmly together. Now, with Avellaneda, sex is (at least for me) a less important ingredient, less necessary; much more important and necessary are our conversations, and our natural attraction to each other. But I don’t get excited. I’m well aware that I’m 49 years old now, and when Isabel died I was 28. I’m absolutely certain that if Isabel were to appear now, the same Isabel of 1935 who wrote me a letter from Tacuarembó, an Isabel with black hair, probing eyes, firm hips, and perfect legs, I’m sure I would say: “What a pity,” and I would go looking for Avellaneda.

Wednesday, August 7th

There’s another factor to consider regarding the possibility of becoming Assistant Manager. If Avellaneda hadn’t entered my life, perhaps I would have the right to hesitate. I understand that for some people retirement can be fatal; I know several retirees who weren’t able to survive that interruption of their routine. But these are people who have become hardened and stagnant, and who have virtually stopped thinking for themselves. I don’t think this would happen to me. I think for myself. But nevertheless, I’m still capable of mistrusting retirement, provided that retirement would be a simple variant of solitude; like it could be, in my future of the last few months, before Avellaneda appeared. But with Avellaneda installed in my life, there will no longer be any solitude. That is to say: I hope there won’t be. One has to be much more modest. But not in front of the others. What difference do they make? One has to be more modest when one faces and confesses to oneself, when one encounters one’s ultimate truth, which can become even more decisive than the voice of conscience, because this ultimate truth suffers from losing its voice and unexpected hoarseness which often prevents it from being heard. I now know my solitude was a horrible phantom. I know the sole presence of Avellaneda has been enough to scare it away, but I also know it hasn’t died and that it will be gathering its forces in some filthy cellar, in some slum of my routine. And that’s the only reason why I get off my high horse and limit myself to say: I hope.

Thursday, August 8th

What a relief! I turned down the position. The manager smiled self-satisfied, satisfied because he doesn’t like me as a co-worker, and also because my rejection of his offer will help him qualify all the good reasons which he surely must have offered to oppose my promotion. “It’s what I was saying: a man who’s finished, a man who doesn’t want to work hard. What we need for this position is someone who is active, vital, ambitious, and not someone who is worn out.” I seem to see his filthy thumb print on this vulgar, boastful, and egocentric little game. Case closed. What peace!

Monday, August 12th

Yesterday afternoon Avellaneda and I were sitting together at the table. We weren’t doing anything, not even talking. My hand was resting on an empty ashtray. We were sad: that’s what we were, sad. But it was a gentle sadness, almost like a peacefulness. She was looking at me when she suddenly moved her lips to say three words: “I love you.” Then I realized it was the first time she was saying that to me, and furthermore; it was the first time she was saying it to anyone. Isabel would say it to me twenty times a night. For Isabel, repeating those words twenty times was like giving me another kiss; it was a simple aspect of the love game. Avellaneda, on the other hand, had already said it once, the one necessary time. Perhaps she doesn’t need to say it anymore. Besides, it’s not a game: it’s a necessity. And then I felt a tremendous weight on my chest, a weight which didn’t seem to affect any physical organ, but that was almost asphyxiating, unbearable. There, in my chest, near my throat, is where my soul should be, curled up. “I hadn’t told you that until now,” Avellaneda mumbled, “but not because I didn’t love you, but because I was ignoring why I loved you. Now I know why.” I could breathe now, and it seemed the wave of hot air I was feeling was coming from my stomach. I can always breathe when someone explains matters. Pleasure in the face of the mysterious and enjoyment in the face of the unexpected are sensations which my moderate powers can’t tolerate sometimes. But at least someone always explains matters. “Now I know why,” said Avellaneda. “I don’t love you for your face, for your old age, for your words, or for your intentions. I love you because you’re made of good stock.” No one had ever held such a moving, simple, and life-giving opinion of me. I want to believe that it’s true; I want to believe that I’m made of good stock. Perhaps that moment had been an exception, but still, I felt alive. That weight on my chest signifies feeling alive.

Thursday, August 15th

Before I retire, I’m going on vacation for the last time next Monday. It will be a preview of the great Final Rest. Jaime has not shown any signs of life.

Friday, August 16th

A really uncomfortable situation. I met Aníbal at seven-thirty, and after chatting for a while in the café, we took the trolley. Even though he gets off before I do, the trolley is good for him, too. We talked about women, marriage, fidelity, etc., in very broad and general terms. I spoke in a very low voice because I’ve always been suspicious of other people’s roaming ears; but Aníbal, even when he wants to whisper, does so with a thundering blast which inundates his surroundings. I don’t know what specific topic we were discussing, but standing next to him, in the aisle, was an old woman with a square face and a round hat. I realized she was hanging on Aníbal’s every word, but because what he was saying was very enlightening, a little bourgeois, very moral, and without extenuating circumstances, I wasn’t too concerned. Nevertheless, when Aníbal got off the trolley, the old woman stepped by me to occupy a seat next to me and the first thing she said to me was: “Don’t listen to that wicked man.” And before I could articulate how stunned I was by saying: “What did you say?” the old woman was already continuing: “A really wicked man. He’s the kind of man who ruins homes. Oh, you men. How easily you blame women! Look, I can assure you that when a woman goes astray, there’s always a mean, idiotic, insulting man involved who first caused her to lose faith in herself.” The old woman was now shouting, which caused all the heads in the bus to turn in an effort to see who was the recipient of such a scolding. I felt like an insect. And the old woman continued: “I’m a batllista*, but I’m opposed to divorce. Divorce is what has destroyed the family. Do you know what’s going to happen to that wicked man who was giving you advice? Oh, you don’t know. Well, I do. That man is going to end up in jail or committing suicide. And he would be doing good, because I know men who should be burned alive.” I envisioned the unusual image of Aníbal being scorched in a bonfire. Only then did I have the courage to respond: “Tell me, lady, why don’t you just shut up? What do you know about it? What that man was saying is exactly the opposite of what you’ve understood...” And then the old woman, unaffected by my response, replied: “Just look at the families of long ago. Morality existed then. In the evenings, one could pass by and see the husband, the wife, and the children; all of them sensible, decent, and well educated, sitting on the sidewalk in front of their houses. That’s happiness, sir, and not allowing the woman to lose her way, and give herself to a life of debauchery. Because deep down, no woman is bad, understand?” And then I noticed that while she was shouting and pointing her index finger at me, her hat was tilting a little to the left. I have to admit that that ideal image of happiness; the entire family sitting on the sidewalk in front of the house, didn’t really move me very much. “Don’t listen to him, mister. Laugh, what you have to do is laugh,” she said. “And why don’t you laugh, instead of becoming so angry?” I said. Meanwhile, the people on the bus had started to make remarks. The old woman had her supporters, and I had mine. When I say “I”, I’m referring to that hypothetical and ghostly enemy to whom she directed her insults. “And remember that I’m a batllista, but I’m opposed to divorce,” she repeated. And then, before she could begin her ominous cycle again, I excused myself and got off the bus, ten blocks before my destination.

Saturday, August 17th

I talked to two members of the Board of Directors this morning. We talked about things of little importance, but nonetheless, the conversation was enough to make me understand that they feel a kind and comprehensive disregard for me. I imagine that when they stretch out in the fluffy chairs in the director’s lounge, they must feel almost omnipotent, or at least as close to Olympus as a sordid and dark soul can get. They’ve reached the top. For a soccer player, the top means to someday play for the national team; for a mystic, to communicate with their God at some point; and for a sentimental person, to on some occasion find the true echo of their own emotions in another person. For these poor people on the other hand, the top is getting to sit in the directors’ armchairs, experience the sensation (that for others would be so uncomfortable) that a few destinies are under their control, create the illusion they make decisions, make arrangements, and that they are Someone. Today, nevertheless, when I looked at them, I didn’t see the faces of Someone, but of Something. They look like Things, not People. But, what do I look like to them: An imbecile, an incompetent, a piece of garbage who dared to turn down an offer from Olympus. Once, a long time ago, I heard one of the oldest members of the board say: “The biggest mistake that some businessmen make is to treat their employees as if they were human beings.” I never forgot, not will I ever forget those words, simply because I can’t forgive him for saying them. Not only on my own behalf, but also on behalf of all mankind. Now I feel a strong temptation to turn the words around and think: “The biggest mistake that some employees make is to treat their bosses as if they were people.” But I resist the temptation. They’re people. They don’t look like people, but they are. And they’re people who are worthy of hateful pity, of the most infamous kind, because the truth is that they develop a shell of pride, a repulsive boldness, and a firm hypocrisy. But deep down, they’re vain. Filthy and vain. And they suffer from the most horrible variant of solitude: the solitude of someone who doesn’t even have oneself.

Sunday, August 18th

“Tell me about Isabel.” That’s one good thing about Avellaneda: she makes you discover things about yourself, makes you get to know yourself better. When one spends a great amount of time alone, when many, many years go by without life-giving and exploratory dialogue encouraging one to deliver that modest civilization of the soul called lucidity to the most intricate zones of instinct; to those truly virginal lands, unexplored, desirous, emotional, and repulsive, when that solitude becomes routine, one inexorably begins to lose the capability to feel determined, alive. But then Avellaneda comes and asks questions, and in addition to her questions, I ask myself many more, and then yes, I feel alive and determined. “Tell me about Isabel” is an innocent, simple request, but still...Isabel’s affairs are my affairs, or they were; they are the affairs of that man I was when Isabel was alive. My God, what immaturity! When I first met Isabel, I didn’t know what I wanted, nor did I know what to expect from her or from myself. There were no modes of comparison, since there were no standards for identifying happiness or misfortune. The good moments were later shaping the definition of happiness, while the bad moments served to create the formula of misery. That’s also called freshness, spontaneity; but how many abysses exist in the spontaneous! In the midst of everything, I was lucky. Isabel was a good woman, and I wasn’t an idiot. Our marriage was never complicated. But what would have happened if the passage of time had worn away that threatened attraction of sex? “Tell me about Isabel” was an invitation to be sincere. I knew the risk Avellaneda was taking. Retrospective jealousies (because of their impossible resentment, their lack of challenge, and their improbable competence) are frightfully cruel. Nevertheless, I was sincere. I related details about Isabel which really belong to Isabel. And me. I didn’t invent an Isabel who would allow me to show off in front of Avellaneda. Naturally, I had the impulse to do so. Because one always likes to make a good impression, and after making a good impression, one lies to look even better in front of the person one loves, in front of who we, in turn, pretend to distinguish ourselves in order to be loved. First of all, I didn’t invent her because I think Avellaneda is worthy of the truth, or secondly, because I too am worthy, because I’m tired (and in this case fatigue is almost disgusting) of pretense, of that pretense that one puts on like a mask over one’s old sensible face. That’s why I’m not amazed that, as Avellaneda became interested in what kind of person Isabel had been, I too had become interested in what kind of person I had been.

Monday, August 19th

Today I went on vacation for the last time before I retire. It rained all day, so I spent the entire afternoon in the apartment. I changed two outlets, painted a little cabinet, and washed two nylon shirts. Avellaneda arrived at seven-thirty, but only stayed until eight o’clock. She had to go to an aunt’s birthday. She says that Muñoz, as my substitute, is unbearably bossy and scholarly. There’s already been an incident involving Robledo.

Tuesday, August 20th

It’s been a month since Jaime left home. Whether I think about it or not, the truth is that the problem is always on my mind. If only I had been able to talk to him at least once!

Wednesday, August 21st

I stayed at home and read for I don’t know how many hours, but only magazines. I don’t want to do it again. It leaves me with the horrible sensation that I’ve wasted my time, as if stupidity was anesthetizing my brain.

Thursday, August 22nd

I feel a little strange not being at the office. But perhaps I feel like this because I know this isn’t really retirement, that it’s only a limited leave of absence, once again being threatened by the office.

Friday, August 23rd

I wanted to surprise her. I positioned myself a block away from the office and waited for her. At five minutes after seven I saw her approaching. But she was walking with Robledo. I don’t know what Robledo was telling her; but the truth is that she was laughing freely, really enjoying herself. Since when is Robledo so amusing? I went into a café, let them pass by and then started to follow them some thirty steps behind. When they reached Andes they said good-bye. Then, she turned towards San José. She was going to the apartment, of course. I entered a very greasy little café where I was served a demitasse with a dash of milk that even had lipstick on it. I didn’t drink it, but I didn’t complain to the waiter about it, either. I was agitated, nervous, and uneasy, but overall, annoyed with myself. Avellaneda laughing with Robledo. What was wrong with that? Avellaneda in a simple human relationship, not merely professional, with a man other than myself. Avellaneda walking along the street with a young man, someone from her generation, and not a worn-out weakling like me. Avellaneda far away from me, Avellaneda living on her own. Of course there was nothing wrong with any of that. And perhaps the horrible sensation I feel comes from the fact that this is the first time I consciously foresee the possibility that Avellaneda could live, develop and laugh, without my help (not to mention my love) being necessary. I knew that the conversation between her and Robledo had been innocent. Or maybe not. Because Robledo has no way of knowing she’s not available. How idiotic, how pretentious, how conventional I feel when I write: “She’s not available.” Available for what? Perhaps the essence of my uneasiness is having verified the following, and nothing else: that she could feel very comfortable with young people, especially with a young man. And another thing: what I saw is nothing, but on the other hand, what I began to see was quite a bit, and what I began to see was the risk of losing everything. Robledo doesn’t interest her. Deep down, he’s a frivolous man who would never interest her. Unless, of course, I don’t know her at all. Well, do I know her? Robledo doesn’t interest her. But, what about the others, all the others in the world? If a young man makes her laugh, how many others could win her love? If one day she loses me (her only enemy could be death, the malicious death which has our names on file), she would have a complete life, time on her hands, and a heart which will always be new, generous, and splendid. But if one day I lose her (my only enemy is the Man, the Man who is young and strong and who pledges himself), I would also be losing the final opportunity to live, the final interruption of time; because if my heart really feels generous, happy, and renewed now, without her it would return to being an unquestionably old heart.

I paid for the demitasse that I didn’t drink and headed for the apartment. I was carrying the shameful fear of her silence, especially because I knew beforehand that even if she didn’t say anything, I wasn’t going to pry, ask, or place blame. I was just simply going to swallow my bitterness, that was certain, and begin a period of short-term torment without relief. I have a particular distrust for my gray periods. I think my hand was shaking when I turned the key in the door lock. “Why are you home so late?” she shouted from the kitchen. “I was waiting for you to tell you about Robledo’s latest crazy act, what a character! It’s been years since I’ve laughed so much.” And then she appeared in the living room wearing her apron, a green skirt, and a black jersey. Her eyes were clear, warm, and sincere. She could never know that she was saving me with those words. I led her over to me, and while I hugged her, breathing in the sweet animal smell of her shoulders through the other universal smell of wool, I felt the world was beginning to turn again, that I could once again relegate that real threat who had been called Avellaneda and the Others, to a distant future, still nameless. “Avellaneda and I,” I said slowly. She didn’t understand why I had said those three words at that particular moment, but some obscure intuition made her realize that something important was happening. She pulled away from me a little, but still without letting go, and said: “Let’s see, say it again.” “Avellaneda and I,” I repeated, obediently. Now I’m alone, here at home, and it’s almost two o’clock in the morning. Every now and then, for no other reason than it gives me strength, boosts my ego, and makes me feel secure, I keep repeating: “Avellaneda and I.”

Saturday, August 24th

I rarely think about God. Nevertheless, I have a religious background, a yearning for religion. I would like to convince myself that I really know a definition of God, a concept of God. But I don’t know anything like that. I rarely think about God, simply because the concept exceeds me so greatly and with such sovereignty that it provokes a kind of panic, a general disbandment of my powers of understanding and reasoning. “God is the Total,” Avellaneda says often. “God is the Essence of everything,” says Aníbal, “it’s what keeps everything in balance, in harmony; God is the Great Coherence.” I’m capable of understanding both definitions, but neither one of them is my definition. They’re both probably quite right, but that’s not the God I need. I need a God to talk to, a God I can turn to for refuge, a God that would respond to me when I question It, when I machine-gun It with my misgivings. If God is the Total, the Great Coherence, if God is the only energy that keeps the Universe alive, if It is something so immeasurably infinite, why should It care about me; an atom, mistakenly promoted to being an insignificant insect in its Kingdom? I don’t mind being an atom of the last insect in its Kingdom, but I do care that God be within my reach, I care about grabbing hold of It, not with my hands, of course, not even with my powers of reasoning, but with my heart.

Sunday, August 25th

Avellaneda brought me her baby pictures, pictures of her family, her world. It’s proof of love, right? She was a skinny baby, with somewhat frightened eyes, and long, dark hair. An only child. I too was an only child. And it’s not easy. One ends up feeling abandoned. Among the pictures she brought me is a delightful photograph in which she appears with an enormous police dog, and the dog is looking at her with an air of protection. I guess that everyone always must have wanted to protect her at one time or another. Nevertheless, she isn’t so defenseless, and is quite sure about what she wants. And besides, I like that she’s sure. She’s sure that her job suffocates her, that she’ll never commit suicide, Marxism is a serious mistake, I like her, death isn’t the end of everything, her parents are magnificent, God exists, and that the people she trusts will never betray her. I could never be as categorically sure as she is. But best of all is that she’s not mistaken. Her certainty also helps her to frighten destiny. Also, among the photographs is one of her and her parents when she was twelve years old. And it’s because of that photograph, that I too get the desire to construct my impression of that extraordinary, harmonious, and different marriage. Her mother has smooth features, a delicate nose, black hair, and very light skin with two moles on her left cheek. Her eyes are serene, and perhaps too much so; perhaps they’re useless in completely becoming involved in the spectacle they’re witnessing, in what they see existing, but I think they’re capable of understanding everything. Her father is a tall man, with rather narrow shoulders, a bald head which at the time played havoc with him, very thin lips, and a very sharp, but not aggressive chin. I worry quite a bit about people’s eyes. His are a little unbalanced. But certainly not because they’re alienated, but because they’re foreign. They are the eyes of a man who is surprised by the world, by the mere act of finding himself in it. They’re both (you can see it in their faces) good people, but I like her kindness better than his. The father is an excellent man, but he isn’t capable of communicating with the world, so that one can’t possibly know what would happen on the day he finally manages to establish communication. “They love each other, I’m sure about that,” says Avellaneda, “but I don’t know if that’s the kind of love that I like.” She shakes her head to accompany her doubt, but then is inspired to add: “There are a series of neighboring and kindred areas regarding feelings which are easy to confuse. Love, trust, pity, comradeship, tenderness; I never know in which one of these areas my parents’ relationship exists. It’s something which is very hard to define and I don’t think that they themselves had defined it. On occasion, mother and I have briefly discussed the topic. She thinks there is a great amount of serenity in her marriage with my father; too much balance for love to really exist. That serenity, that balance, which could also be called lack of passion, perhaps might have been unbearable if they would have had something to blame each other for. But there is nothing to blame each other for, nor any reasons for blame. They know themselves to be good, honest, generous. And they also know that all of that, even as magnificent as it is, still doesn’t signify love, nor does it signify that they burn in that passion. They don’t burn, and that which unites them lasts even longer.” “And what’s wrong with you and I? Are we burning?” I asked. But at that precise moment she was daydreaming, and the look on her face was also like that of someone who was surprised by the world, by the mere fact of finding herself in it.

Monday, August 26th

I told Esteban. Blanca had left to have lunch with Diego, so he and I were alone at midday. It was a great relief to learn that he already knew. Jaime had told him. “Look Dad, I can’t completely understand it nor do I think that getting involved with a woman who is much younger than you is the best answer. But one thing is true: I don’t dare judge you. I know that when one sees matters objectively, when one is not involved in them, it’s very easy to declare what’s good and what’s bad. But when one is up to one’s neck in the problem (and I’ve been in that position many times), the situation changes, the intensity is different, and deep convictions, inevitable sacrifices, and renouncements appear which could seem unexplainable to the mere observer. I hope you have a good time, not superficially, but a really good time. I hope you feel like the protector and the protected at the same time, which is one of the most pleasant feelings a human being can allow themselves to have. I remember very little about Mom. Actually, she’s really an image onto which the imagery and memories of others have been superimposed. I no longer know which one of those memories is exclusively mine. Well, perhaps just one: she’s in the bathroom combing her long, dark hair and allowing it to fall on her back. You can see that there’s not very much I remember about her. But over the years I’ve become accustomed to thinking of her as ideal, unreachable, almost heavenly. She was so pretty, wasn’t she? I realize that my portrayal of her probably has little to do with what she was really like. Nevertheless, that’s how she exists for me. That’s why I was a bit shocked when Jaime told me that you were involved with a young woman. It shocked me, but I accept it; I know that you’ve been very lonely. And now I realize it even more, because I’ve followed your progress and I’ve seen you become renewed. So, I don’t judge you, I can’t judge you; and furthermore, I would very much like to believe that she’s the right choice and hope that you come as close as possible to happiness and good luck.”

Tuesday, August 27th

Cold and sunny. Winter sun, which is the most affectionate, the most benevolent. I went to the Matriz Plaza, found a bench, spread a newspaper over the bird droppings, and sat down. In front of me a city worker was sweeping the sidewalk. He was sweeping very slowly, as if it was a function that was beyond his capability. How would I feel if I were a city worker sweeping the sidewalk? No, that’s not my calling. If I could choose a profession other than the one I have, a routine other than the one I’ve dedicated myself to for the last thirty years, I would choose to be a waiter in a café. And I would be quick, have a retentive memory, and be exemplary. I would use mental tricks so that I wouldn’t forget anyone’s order. It must be wonderful to always work with new faces, to talk freely with a fellow who walks into the café today, asks for a cup of coffee, and will never come around here again. The people are terrific, entertaining, and energetic. It must be great to work with people instead of numbers, books, and payroll accounts. Even if I were to travel, even if I were to leave here and have the opportunity to surprise myself with landscapes, monuments, roads, and works of art, nothing would fascinate me as much as the People, to see them pass by and scrutinize their faces, see signs of happiness and bitterness here and there, see how they rush headlong towards their destinies, in insatiable turbulence, with splendid difficulty, and see how they hurry along, unaware of their brevity, their insignificance, their life without any reservations or even feeling corralled, and without ever admitting that they are indeed corralled. Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been aware that the Matriz Plaza existed. I must have crossed it a thousand times, and perhaps on many occasions I even cursed all the turns one has to make to circle the fountain. Sure, I’ve seen it before, but I had never stopped to look at it, hear it, draw out its character and examine it. I spent a good while contemplating the aggressively solid architecture of city hall, the hypocritically clean face of the cathedral, and the slow swaying of the trees. At that moment, I think one of my convictions was definitively affirmed: I’m from this place, this city. In this (and probably in nothing else) I think I’m a fatalist. Each one of us IS from only one place on earth and it’s there that one should pay one’s dues. And I’m from here. I pay my dues here. That man who passes by (the one with the long overcoat, the protruding ear, the violent limp), he is my fellow man. He still ignores that I exist, but one day he’ll see me from the front, from the side or from the rear, and he’ll have the feeling there’s something secret between us, a hidden bond that unites us, that gives us the strength to understand each other. Or perhaps that day will never arrive, perhaps he’ll never notice this plaza, this air that makes us fellow human beings, pairs us off, communicates with us. But it doesn’t matter; because at any rate, he’s my fellow man.

Wednesday, August 28th

I only have four days of vacation left. I don’t miss the office. I miss Avellaneda. Today I went to the movies, alone. I saw a western. I enjoyed myself until half way through, then, after that, I became bored with myself, my own patience.

Thursday, August 29th

I asked Avellaneda to miss a day at the office. Me, her boss, authorized her to do it and that’s enough. She stayed in the apartment with me all day. I can imagine how angry Muñoz must be, with two less people in his section, and all of the responsibility resting on his shoulders. Not only can I imagine it, but I can understand it. But it doesn’t matter. I’m at an age when time seems to be and is irretrievable. I have to desperately hang on to this reasonable happiness that came to look for me and found me. That’s why I can’t become forgiving, generous, and start thinking about Muñoz’s problems before my own. Life goes on, it’s leaving right now, and I can’t bear that feeling of escape, completion, the end. This day with Avellaneda isn’t eternity, it’s only a day, a poor, contemptible, limited day, which we’ve all, from God on down, denounced. It’s not eternity, but the instant, which after all, is eternity’s only true substitute. So I have to clench my fist, I have to use up this abundance without any reservations or foresight. Then maybe afterwards, it will really be time to retire, a guaranteed retirement, and perhaps later there will be more days like this one, and then I’ll think about this distress, this irritation, and disregard it as a ridiculous waste of energy. Maybe, just maybe. But this “meanwhile” has the comfort and guarantee of what it is, of what it’s doing.

It was cold and Avellaneda spent the entire day with her jersey and long pants on. She looked like a boy with her hair tied back like that. I told her she had the face of a newsboy, but she didn’t pay much attention to me. She was busy reading her horoscope. About a year ago someone read her horoscope and predicted her future. Apparently, her current job, and me, especially, would be playing a role in her future. “A very kind, mature man, a little dull, but intelligent.” Hello! That’s me. “What do you think? Can the future be predicted just like that?” Avellaneda asked. “I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think you’re being deceived,” I replied. “I don’t want to know what my future is going to be like. It would be horrible. Can you imagine how frightening life would be if one knew when one was going to die?” “I’d like to know when I was going to die,” said Avellaneda. “If it were possible to know the date of one’s own death, one could regulate the rhythm of one’s life, exhaust oneself more or exhaust oneself less according to the remaining balance.” That seemed frightening to me. But the prediction says that Avellaneda will have two or three children, that she’ll be happy, but that she’ll end up being a widow (humph!), and that she’ll die of a circulatory illness, in her eighties or thereabouts. Avellaneda is quite worried about the two or three children. “Do you want to have children?” she asked. “I’m not too sure,” I replied. She realizes that my response is caution in the flesh, but when she looks at me I know she would like to have children, at least one. “Don’t become sad,” I say, “if you become sad I’m capable of ordering twins.” She knows what I think, suffers because of it, and clings to what has been predicted about her. “And don’t you care about becoming a widow, even though it would be a clandestine widowhood?” I asked. “No, I don’t, because my faith doesn’t extend that far,” she replied. “I know you’re indestructible, that predictions pass near you and don’t touch you.” It is nothing more than a young woman perched on the sofa, with her legs curled underneath her, and the tip of her nose red from the cold.

Friday, August 30th

During my vacation, I wrote every day. Now it’s an uphill battle to return to the office. This vacation has been a good appetizer before my retirement, though. Blanca received a spiteful, violent letter today from Jaime. The paragraph he directs at me says the following: “Tell Dad that all of my love affairs were platonic, so that when he has nightmares in which my filthy person appears, he can turn over and breathe easy. For now.” There’s too much hatred together in one place for it to be true. In the end I’m going to think that this son loves me a little bit.

Saturday, August 31st

Avellaneda and Blanca have seen each other without me knowing about it. Blanca let a little remark slip and everything came out in the open. “We didn’t want to tell you because we’re learning quite a bit about you,” said Blanca. At first I thought it was a bad joke, but later I felt moved. I didn’t have any other choice but to imagine the two women exchanging their respective incomplete images about this simple man, who is me. A kind of jigsaw puzzle. There’s something curious about this, of course, but there’s also something loving about it, too. For her part, Avellaneda showed she was much to blame, asked for forgiveness, and for the hundredth time said that Blanca was wonderful. I like that they’re friends; on my behalf, through me, and because of me, but sometimes I can’t help feeling superfluous. Actually, I’m a veteran of learning about myself, which is what those two women are now concerning themselves with.


    * batllista: Batllism is the movement founded by José Batlle y Ordóñez (1856-1929) within the Colorado (Red) Party. Batlle, who served as President of Uruguay from 1903 to 1907 and from 1911 to 1915, was one of the most decisive instigators of Uruguayan patriotism and liberalism, as well as sponsor of various laws and official legislation in support of the working class.


Mario Benedetti

MARIO BENEDETTI (September 14, 1920 – May 17, 2009), born in Pasa de los Toros, Tacuarembó Province, Uruguay, was one of Latin America’s most renowned and beloved writers. As a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, playwright, songwriter, and screenwriter, Benedetti’s vast body of work encompasses every genre and is known worldwide. He wrote for magazines, newspapers, and various periodicals and journals in Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico. In addition, selections of his work are represented in anthologies published in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, England, Italy, United States, Israel, Venezuela, and Spain. He received numerous prizes for literature, including the Premio Ministerio de Instrucción Pública, Premio Municipal de Literatura, Simposio del Comisión del Teatro Municipal, Concurso Seix Barral in Barcelona, Concurso Periodístico de SAS, Premio Cámara del Libro, Medalla Félix Varela al Merito, Mejor Obra Extranjera in Mexico, Premio Llama de Oro Amnistía Internacional, Premio Jristo Botev de Bulgaria, Medalla Haydeé Santamaría, VIII Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana, Premio Iberoamericano José Martí, Premio Etnosur, the XIX Premio Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, La Orden de Francisco de Miranda, and several Doctor Honoris Causa.
Besides having written a full-length study of 20th century Uruguayan literature, he is the author of more than ninety books and his work has been translated into twenty-six languages, including Braille. He resided in Montevideo since 1985 and devoted his full time to writing until his death in Montevideo on May 17th, 2009.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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