The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 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, July 3rd

It’s hard to believe, but I hadn’t seen Aníbal since he returned from Brazil at the beginning of May. He made me happy when he called yesterday. I needed to talk to someone, confide in someone. Only then did I realize that up to now I had kept my entire relationship with Avellaneda to myself, that I hadn’t told anyone about it. And it makes sense. Who could I have discussed it with? My children? I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Vignale? I think about his mischievous wink, his pat on my shoulder, his abetting guffaw, and I immediately become unavoidably reserved. My co-workers? It would be a horrible mistake, and at the same time, make it an absolute certainty that Avellaneda would have to quit her job. But even if she didn’t work at the office, I don’t think I would have the strength to talk about myself that way. There are no friendships in the workplace; there are fellows who see each other everyday, get furious together or apart, tell jokes and laugh at them, exchange complaints and convey their ill feelings, mumble about the Directorate in general, and flatter every director in private. This is called coexistence, but only through wishful thinking can coexistence manage to look like friendship. After so many years in an office, I confess that Avellaneda is my first true object of affection. The rest of them have the disadvantage of an unchosen relationship, of a bond imposed by the circumstances. After all, what do I have in common with Muñoz, Méndez, and Robledo? Still, we laugh together sometimes, have a drink occasionally, and treat each other nicely. Deep down though, they’re all unacquainted with each other, because in this type of superficial relationship one talks about many things, but never about the essentials, the truly important and decisive essentials. I think work is what impedes another kind of trust; work, that kind of constant hammering, morphine, or toxic gas. On occasion, one of them (particularly Muñoz) has approached me to initiate an actual conversation. He begins to talk, candidly outlining his self-portrait, and synthesizing the parts of his drama, that moderate, stationary, baffling drama which poisons everyone’s life, regardless of how average one feels. But there is always someone who beckons from the counter. For a half an hour Muñoz has to explain the inconvenience and the levy imposed for late payment to a delinquent client; argues, shouts a bit, and surely feels degraded. When he returns to my desk, he looks at me and doesn’t say anything. He makes a strong effort to smile, but the corners of his mouth fold downward. Then he takes an old payroll document in his hands, carefully crumples it, and throws it in a waste paper basket. It’s a simple substitute; that which is no longer any good, and he throws in the waste paper basket, is confidentiality. Yes, work muzzles trust. But there’s also mockery. We’re all mockery specialists. The availability of interest toward our fellow man has to be utilized in some way, otherwise, it becomes cystic and then claustrophobia and neurasthenia, what do I know, suddenly ensues. Since we don’t have enough courage or honesty to interest ourselves amicably in our fellow man (not the obscure, biblical, faceless fellow man, but the fellow man with a first and last name, the nearest fellow man, the one who writes at the desk in front of mine and hands me the calculation of the profit gains so I can review and initial it), since we voluntarily renounce friendship, well then, let’s mockingly become interested in that neighbor who is always vulnerable for eight hours. Furthermore, mockery provides a kind of solidarity. Today this is the candidate, tomorrow that one, and the day after it will be me. The person who is mocked curses silently, but quickly becomes resigned, knows it’s only part of the game, and that in the near future, perhaps in an hour or two, he can choose the form of revenge which best coincides with his vocation. The mockers, for their part, feel united, enthusiastic, and effervescent. Every time one of them adds an incisive element to their mockery, the others celebrate, nod at each other, and feel lustful with complicity; after which the only thing left for them to do is embrace each other and shout hurrah. And what relief it is to laugh, even when one has to hold back laughter because the manager has appeared in the back, showing his watermelon face, and what retaliation against the routine, the paperwork, that penalty which means being ensnared in something unimportant for eight hours, something which inflates the bank accounts of those useless people who sin by merely living, of allowing themselves to live, of the inane who believe in God only because they don’t know God stopped believing in them a long time ago. Mockery and work. After all, how are they different? And how much work mockery is, how tiring! And what a mockery this job is, what a bad joke!

Thursday, July 4th

I spoke to Aníbal for a long time. It’s the first time I mentioned Laura Avellaneda’s name to someone, that is to say, the first time I mentioned her name with the sincere feelings I have for it. At some moment, while I was telling him about Laura, it looked as if he was observing the situation from the outside, like a profoundly interested spectator. Aníbal listened to me with religious attention. “And why don’t you get married?” he asked. “I don’t quite understand the meaning of your hesitation.” It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t understand, it was so clear. I went back to the explanation, the stereotypical explanation I’ve been giving myself since the beginning: my age, her age, me in ten years, her in ten years, my desire not to hurt her, the other desire not to look ridiculous, the enjoyment of the present, my three children, etc., etc. “And do you think that this way you’re not hurting her?” he asked. “Of course, that’s inevitable, but in any case, I’m hurting her less than I would be by enchaining her,” I replied. “And what does she say? Does she agree?” he continued. That’s called a difficult question. I don’t know if she agrees. When she had her opportunity, she said yes, but the truth is I don’t now whether she agrees or not. Could it be she prefers a stable situation, officially stable and sacred? Could I be telling myself I do it for her, but in reality be doing it for myself? “Are you afraid of looking ridiculous, or is it something else?” he asked. Apparently, Aníbal was determined to put his finger on the sore spot. “What do you mean by that?” I said. “You asked me to be candid didn’t you?” he replied. “I mean that the entire problem seems clear to me: you’re afraid that in ten years she’s going to be unfaithful to you.” How ugly it is to be told the truth, especially if it’s one of those truths one has avoided telling oneself even during the morning soliloquies, when one is just waking and mumbling bitter nonsense, profoundly nasty, full of rancor, which is necessary to dispel before completely waking up and putting on the mask that, for the rest of the day, others will see, and that will see others. So, I’m afraid that in ten years she’ll be unfaithful to me? I answered Aníbal with a curse word, which is the traditional manly reaction to being treated like a cuckold, even if it is from a long distance and postdated. But my doubts continued to spin around in my head and in the moment in which I write this I can’t avoid feeling a little less generous, a little less poised, and a little more vulgar and unpleasant.

Saturday, July 6th

It rained buckets during the afternoon. For twenty minutes we waited on a corner for the rain to subside and looked discouragingly at the people who were running by. But we were inevitably getting cold and I started to sneeze with menacing regularity. Finding a taxi was virtually impossible. Since we were only two blocks from the apartment we decided to walk. Actually, we, too, ran like crazy and reached the apartment in three soaked minutes. For a while I remained very fatigued and lay useless on the bed. But before my fatigue set in, I had the strength to find a blanket and wrap it around her. She had taken off her dripping jacket and her skirt which was in a pitiful condition. Little by little, I regained my composure and a half an hour later began to feel warm. I went to the kitchen, lit the kerosene stove, and started to boil water. She called me from the bedroom. She had gotten out of bed, just like that, wrapped in the blanket, and was standing near the window watching it rain. I approached, also looking at how it rained, and we didn’t say anything for a while. All of a sudden, I realized that that moment, that slice of everyday life, was the highest degree of well being, it was Happiness. Never before had I been so completely happy than at that moment, but still I had the cutting sensation I would never feel that way again, at least at that level, with that intensity. The pinnacle of happiness is like that, surely it’s like that. Furthermore, I’m sure the pinnacle is only a second long, a brief second, a flashing instant, and it’s unfair to make it any longer. Meanwhile, down below, a dog wearing a muzzle was slowly trotting along, hopelessly resigned. All of a sudden, the dog stopped, and obeying a strange inspiration, raised one of its legs and afterwards continued his very peaceful trot. Actually, it looked like the dog had stopped to make sure it was still raining. We looked at each other simultaneously and started to laugh. I assumed the spell had been broken, that the arrival at the famous pinnacle of happiness had passed. But she was still with me, I could hear her, feel her, kiss her. I could simply say: “Avellaneda.” “Avellaneda” is, furthermore, a world of words. I’m learning how to inject her with hundreds of definitions and she’s learning to remember them. It’s a game. In the morning, I say: “Avellaneda,” and it means: “Good morning.” (There is an “Avellaneda” that is reproach, another that is a warning, and yet another that is an apology.) But she purposely misunderstands me to make me furious. When I say the “Avellaneda” which means: “Let’s make love,” she, very cheerfully replies: “You think I should leave now? But it’s so early!” Oh, the old days when Avellaneda was just a surname, the surname of the new assistant (just five months ago I wrote: “The girl doesn’t seem too interested, but at least she understands what is explained to her”), the label with which to identify that little person with a wide face and a large mouth who looked at me with enormous respect. And there she was now, in front of me, wrapped in her blanket. I don’t remember what she was like when she seemed insignificant to me, inhibited, and nothing more than just nice. I only remember what she’s like now: a delicious little woman who I’m captivated by, makes my heart absurdly excited, and conquers me. I blinked intentionally, so that nothing would impede us afterwards. Then she was wrapped in my gaze, which was much better than her blanket; actually, it wasn’t independent of my voice, which had already started to say: “Avellaneda.” And this time she understood me perfectly.

Sunday, July 7th

A splendidly sunny day, almost autumnal. We went to Carrasco Beach. It was deserted though, perhaps because in early July, people don’t have the courage to believe in good weather. We sat on the sand. When the beach is empty like this the waves become imposing, only they rule the landscape. In that sense I admit that I’m regrettably docile, yielding. I see that relentless and desolate sea, so proud of its foam and power, barely stained by ingenious sea gulls, almost unreal, and I immediately take refuge in an irresponsible admiration. But afterwards, almost right away, the admiration disintegrates, and I start to feel as defenseless as a clam, or a rock. That sea is a kind of eternity. When I was a child, the sea pounded and pounded, but it also pounded when my grandfather was a child, and when my grandfather’s grandfather was a child. A mobile, but lifeless presence. A presence of dark, unfeeling waves. A witness of history, useless because it doesn’t know anything about history. And what if God was the sea? Also an unfeeling witness. A mobile, but lifeless presence. Avellaneda, with the wind in her hair, and almost without batting an eyelid, was also looking at the sea and asked: “And you, do you believe in God?”, continuing the dialogue which I, my thoughts had initiated. “I don’t know, I would want God to exist, but I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m also not sure that God, if He exists, is going to be satisfied with our gullibility, which bases itself on a few pieces of scattered and incomplete data.” “But it’s so obvious,” she replied. “You make it complicated for yourself because you want God to have a face, hands, and a heart. God is a common denominator, but we could also call Him the Total. God is this rock, my shoe, that sea gull, your pants, that cloud, everything.” “And you’re drawn to that? That satisfies you?” I asked. “At least, it inspires respect,” she replied. “I’m not inspired,” I replied. “I can’t imagine God being a big stock company.”

Monday, July 8th

Esteban already gets up. His illness has left both of us well balanced. We’ve had two or three truly healthy and candid conversations, and on occasion, have even discussed generalities, but in a natural way, without letting our mutual irritation dictate the responses.

Tuesday, July 9th

So, I’m afraid in ten years she’ll be unfaithful to me?

Wednesday, July 10th

Vignale. I bumped into him near Sarandí. I didn’t have any choice but to stop and listen to him. He didn’t sound happy. I was in a hurry, so we only had a cup of coffee at the counter. There, in a loud voice, in that thundering style of confidence he cultivates, he related the latest chapter of his romance: “Hey, what bad luck. My wife caught us, understand? She caught us in the act. We were just kissing. But still, you can imagine the commotion fatso caused. For such a thing to occur in her own house, under her own roof, while eating her own food. I, her own husband, felt like a cockroach. Elvira, on the other hand, took it quite calmly and stated the theory of the century: that her and I had always been like brother and sister and what my wife had seen was just that, a brotherly kiss. I felt very incestuous and fatso started a big argument. You’re being naïve, she said, if you think I’m going to remain passive like that idiot Francisco. She spoke to my mother-in-law, the neighbors, the grocer. Two hours later the entire neighborhood knew that Elvira, that madcap woman, had wanted to steal her husband. For her part, Elvira spoke to Francisco vigorously and told him that she was being insulted, and that she wouldn’t stay in that house for another single minute. Nevertheless, she stayed for about three hours, during which time she did something very nasty to me; what’s thought of as very nasty. Just think, Francisco would agree with everything, he wasn’t very dangerous. But fatso was insisting, screaming, and two or three times became physical with Elvira. And then Elvira, in one of those moments of terror said.... Well, I bet you don’t know what she told her. She said, what kind of sense would it make for her to notice trash like me. Understand? And the worst of all is that by saying that, she convinced Fatso I was trash, and she calmed down. Do you understand? I swear I’m not going to forgive Elvira for this. Her and her little cuckold should just leave. Look, after all, she’s not as good looking as I thought. Besides, now that I’m no longer a faithful husband, I’ve arrived at the conclusion I can have much younger and fresher love affairs, which above all, would have nothing to do with the subject of family life, which for me was always sacred. Meanwhile, poor miss fatty doesn’t worry.”

Saturday, July 13th

She’s here, next to me, asleep. I’m writing on a leaflet and tonight I’ll copy it into the diary. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and the end of siesta. I began to think about one comparison and ended up with another. It’s here, next to me, her body. It’s cold outside, but in here it’s pleasant, rather hot. Her body is partly exposed, as the sheet and blanket have slipped to one side. I want to compare this body next to me with my memories of Isabel’s body. But apparently, those were different times. Isabel wasn’t thin, her breasts were big, and that’s why they sagged a bit. Her navel was large, sunken inwards, and dark with thick edges. Her hips were the best, they’re what attracted me to her the most and I have a tangible memory of them. Her shoulders were well rounded and a rosy white color. Her legs were being threatened by a future of varicose veins, but they were still beautiful and very shapely. This body next to me has absolutely no features in common with Isabel’s. Avellaneda is thin, her bust inspires a bit of pity in me, her shoulders are covered with freckles, her navel is small and infantile, her hips are also the best (or could it be that I’m always aroused by hips?), and her legs are skinny, but well developed. Nevertheless, Isabel’s body attracted me once, and now Avellaneda’s body attracts me. There was an inspirational force in Isabel’s nudity, as I would look at her and my entire being would immediately become sex; there was no reason to think about anything else. There is a sincere modesty in Avellaneda’s nudity, pleasant and unarmed, a touching helplessness. I’m profoundly attracted to it, but with Avellaneda, sex is only part of the suggestion, the solicitation. Isabel’s nudity was total, ever purer perhaps. Avellaneda’s body is nudity with an attitude. To love Isabel it was enough to feel attracted to her body. To love Avellaneda it’s necessary to love her nudity more than her attitude, since it’s at least half of what makes her attractive. To hug Isabel meant hugging a body which was sensitive to every physical reaction and also capable of every permissible stimulation. To hug Avellaneda’s distinctive thinness means hugging her smile, and in addition, her look, her way of speaking, the repertory of her tenderness, her reluctance to completely surrender herself, and her apologies for her reluctance. Well, that was the first comparison. But then came the second one, and it left me gloomy, depressed. My Isabel’s body and my Avellaneda’s body. What sadness! I’ve never been an athlete, God forbid. But I once had muscles, strength, and smooth tight skin. Above all, though, my body didn’t have as many other features as it unfortunately has today. From my uneven baldness (the left side is the more barren), my wider nose, and the wart on my neck, to my chest with islands of red hair, my rumbling stomach, my varicose ankles, and my incurable, depressing athlete’s foot. But when I’m in front of Avellaneda I don’t care, because she knows this is how I am and doesn’t know how I once looked. But it matters to me, because I care about seeing myself as a ghost of my youth, like a caricature of myself. But perhaps there’s some compensation: with my head, and my heart, in short, as a spiritual person, perhaps I’m a little better today than I was during those days and nights with Isabel. But only a little better, because it’s not a good idea to indulge in wishful thinking. Let’s be balanced, objective, sincere, and so forth. The response is: “Is that important?” God, if He exists, is probably up there crossing Himself. Avellaneda (oh, she exists) is here now, down below, opening her eyes.

Monday, July 15th

When all is said and done, Aníbal could be right; I’m avoiding marriage more because I’m afraid of ridicule than because I’m defending Avellaneda’s future. And that wouldn’t be good because there’s one thing that’s true, and that is that I love her. I write this for my eyes only, so it doesn’t matter if it sounds pretentious. It’s the truth, period. So, I don’t want her to suffer. I thought (actually, I thought I knew) I was eluding a permanent situation so that Avellaneda would always be free, so that in a few years she wouldn’t feel chained to an old man. If now it turns out that was just an excuse I made up, while the real reason was a kind of insurance against future deceptions, it’s quite clear the entire framework and outward appearance of our relationship had to be changed. Perhaps she would suffer more from a clandestine situation, always temporary, than being tied down to a man twice her age. After all, by fearing ridicule I misjudge her, and that’s terrible of me. I know she’s a good person, and that she has a good-natured disposition. I know that if she were ever to fall in love with someone else, she wouldn’t let me remain in that humiliating ignorance which constitutes an insult to those who are ridiculed. Maybe she would tell me, or somehow I would manage to grasp the situation and have enough patience to understand it. But perhaps it would be better to talk to her about it, grant her the power to decide for herself, and help her feel secure.

Wednesday, July 17th

Blanca was sad today. While she, Jaime and I ate dinner in silence, Esteban was preparing for his first night out since his illness. I didn’t say anything during dinner, because I know quite well how Jaime reacts. Afterwards, when Esteban had left, virtually without saying good-bye (the grumbling which preceded the door slam can’t be interpreted as “good night”), I remained in the dining room reading the newspaper while Blanca purposely lingered clearing the table. I had to lift up the newspaper so she could put away the table cloth, and then I looked at her. Her eyes were a bit tearful. “What’s wrong with Jaime?” I asked. “I had an argument with him, and Diego, too,” she replied. Very puzzling. I couldn’t imagine Jaime and Diego joining forces against her. “Diego says Jaime is a queer. And that’s why we argued,” she continued. The word hit me twice: first, because it was directed at my son, and second, because it was Diego who had made the remark; Diego, who I trust and place my hopes in. “And can you tell me why your pleasant Diego is allowed to insult Jaime this way?” I asked. Blanca smiled with some bitterness and replied: “But that’s the worse thing. It’s not an insult. It’s the truth. And that’s why I argued with Jaime.” It was obvious that Blanca was forcing herself to say all of that, especially because it was I who was the recipient of her revelation. It even sounded insincere to me when I said: “And do you give more credit to Diego’s slander than to what your own brother says?” Blanca lowered her eyes. She was holding the bread basket in her hands; an image of moving and homely poignancy. “As a matter of fact,” she said, “it’s Jaime himself who says it.” Until that moment I never thought my eyes could pop open so wide. Even my temples hurt. “So, those friends of his...,” I stammered. “Yes,” she said. It was a hammering blow. Still, at that moment, I realized that deep down I had suspected it. And that’s the reason, the only reason why the word didn’t sound altogether new to me. “There’s just one thing I ask,” she added, “don’t say anything to him. He’s lost and has no sense of scruples, you know what I mean? He says he’s not attracted to women, that it’s not something he searched for, that each person has a God-given nature, and that he wasn’t given the capacity to feel attracted to women. He justified himself arduously and I assure you he doesn’t have a guilt complex.” And then, without any conviction, I said: “If I smash his head in with a few punches, you’ll see how fast he gets a guilt complex.” Blanca laughed for the first time all evening and said: “Don’t lie. I know you’re not going to do any such thing.” Then I became discouraged, horribly discouraged and hopeless. It was about Jaime, my son, who inherited Isabel’s forehead and mouth.

How much of this is my fault and how much of it is his? It’s true I didn’t take care of them the way I should have, that I couldn’t totally replace their mother. Ah, but I don’t have a mother’s calling. I’m not even too sure about my calling as a father. But what does this have to do with how he turned out? Perhaps I would have been able to cut off those friendships when they first began. Perhaps if I would have done so, he would have continued spending time with them without me knowing it. “I have to talk to him,” I said, as Blanca appeared to be resigning herself to the turmoil. “And also, you have to reconcile with Diego,” I added.

Thursday, July 18th

I had two things to say to Avellaneda, but we were in the apartment for only an hour and during that time I only talked about Jaime. She didn’t say I was totally blameless, and I appreciated it. Mentally, of course. But also, I think that when a person is rotten, there is no education that will cure him, or any amount of attention that will straighten him out. Sure, I could have done more for him, that is so true, so true, that I can’t feel blameless. Besides, what do I want, what would I prefer? That he not be a queer, or that I simply feel free of all blame? What egotists we are; my God, what an egotist I am! Still, everyday I feel that my conscience is a kind of selfishness, of fondness for convenience and the comfort of the spirit. I didn’t see Jaime today.

Friday, July 19th

I didn’t see Jaime today either. But I know that Blanca told him I wanted to talk to him. Esteban is quite violent. It’s better that he doesn’t find out. Or might he know already?

Saturday, July 20th

Blanca brought me an envelope. The letter says the following: “Dad: I know that you want to talk and I already know what’s on your mind. You’re going to give me a lecture on morality and there are two reasons why I can’t accept what you have to say. The first is that I have nothing to be ashamed of, and second, you too have a secret life. I’ve seen you with that little woman who has ensnared you, and I think you would agree that it’s not the best way to show proper respect for mother’s memory. But your unilateral puritanism is your business. Since I don’t like what you do and you don’t like what I do, the best thing for me to do is disappear. So, I’ll disappear. Now you have a clear field. I’m of age, so don’t worry. Besides, I guess my retreat will bring you closer to my younger brother and sister. Blanca knows everything (for more information, see her); I told Esteban myself, yesterday afternoon, in his office. For your peace of mind, I should tell you that he reacted like every inch a man and gave me a black eye. The one that’s open enables me to see the future (it’s not so terrible, you’ll see) and direct a last look at my pleasant family, so fastidious, so formal. Best wishes, Jaime.” I handed the letter to Blanca. She then read it slowly and said: “He’s already taken his possessions. This morning.” She looked pale when she added: “And is that woman business true?” “Yes and no,” I said. “It’s true that I’m having a relationship with a woman, a young girl almost. I live with her. On the other hand, it’s not true this signifies an offense to your mother’s memory. It seems to me I have the right to love someone. I haven’t married her only because I’m not sure it would be the most proper thing to do.” Perhaps this last remark wasn’t necessary. I’m not too sure. Her lips were pressed together. I think she was vacillating between a certain resemblance to a remote female ancestor and a very simple sense of what is human. “But, is she a good person?” she asked, eagerly. “Yes, she is,” I replied. She breathed a sigh of relief, signifying she still trusts me. I too breathed a sigh of relief about feeling capable of inciting that trust. And then I acted upon a sudden inspiration and said: “Is it too much to ask you to meet her?” “I was going to ask you that myself,” she replied. I didn’t say anything, but the gratitude was in my throat.

Sunday, July 21st

“Perhaps, in the beginning, when we first began our relationship, I would have preferred it. Now I don’t think so.” I write that first, because I’m afraid I’m going to forget it. That was her reply. Because this time, I was completely honest when we discussed the subject of marriage until it was exhausted. “Before we came here, to this apartment, I noticed it was painful for you to say that word,” she said. “One day you said it, in the entrance hall of my house, and you have my deepest gratitude for having done so. It helped me to decide, believe in you, in your love. But I couldn’t accept it, because it would have been a false foundation for this present, which at that time was the future. If I had accepted it, I also would have had to accept that you give in, that you feel an obligation to a decision for which you were not prepared. Instead, I gave in, but, as it stands to reason, I can be more certain about my own reactions that I can be about yours. I knew that even though I was giving in, I wasn’t holding a grudge against you, but on the other hand, if I forced you to give in, I didn’t know if you would hold a bit of a grudge against me. But now it’s all over. I understand now. There is a resemblance to something remotely ancestral in a woman which causes her to defend her virginity, to make demands and to demand the maximum guarantees to ascertain her losses. Afterwards, when one has an understanding, you realize that everything was a myth, an old legend used to pursue husbands. That’s why I tell you that now I’m not sure that marriage would be our best solution. The important thing is that we both be united for something: that certain something exists, doesn’t it? Well now, don’t you think it would be more powerful, much stronger, and more beautiful if what unites us would be something which really exists, and not just a simple formality; the ritual discourse of a worried and potbellied judge? Furthermore, there are your children. I don’t want to appear as if I want to compete for your life with the image of your wife; I don’t want them to feel jealous in representing their mother. And finally, there’s your fear of time, that you’ll become old and I’ll go looking elsewhere. Don’t be so sensitive. What I like most about you is something which won’t go away with the passage of time.” More than just her truths, she was very calmly expressing my desires. And how pleasant they were to hear.

Monday, July 22nd

 I carefully prepared the meeting, but Avellaneda didn’t know anything about it. We were in the pastry shop. We don’t go out together very often. She’s always nervous and thinks someone from the office is going to see us together. I tell her that it has to happen sooner or later, and so we’re not going to spend the rest of our lives locked up in the apartment. She noticed my gaze over her cup and said: “Who did you see? Someone from there?” “There” is the office. “No, this person isn’t from there,” I replied. “But it’s someone who wants to meet you.” She became so nervous that for a moment I regretted having conducted this test. She followed the direction of my gaze and recognized her before I had a chance to say anything else. After all, Blanca must have some feature of mine. I called out her name with a gesture. She looked pretty, happy, and delightful. I felt very proud to be her father. “This is my daughter, Blanca,” I said. Avellaneda extended her hand. It was trembling. Blanca, on the other hand, was quite calm. “Please, relax,” Blanca said. “It was I who wanted to meet you.” But Avellaneda wasn’t recovering her composure. She was very nervous, and was mumbling: “Jesus, I can’t get used to the idea that he’s spoken to you about me. I can’t get used to the idea that you wanted to meet me. Forgive me, I must sound like I don’t know what....” Blanca and I were doing all we could to calm her down. In spite of everything, though, I noticed that a thread of sympathy had extended itself between the two of them. They’re almost the same age. Little by little, Avellaneda began to relax; but even so, she still shed a tear. Ten minutes later, they were already talking like two normal and civilized people. And I let them. It was a new pleasure to have both of them near me, the two women who I love the most. When we parted company (Avellaneda insisted that I accompany Blanca), we walked in the drizzle for a few blocks before taking the bus. Afterwards, when we arrived at the apartment, Blanca gave me a hug, one of those hugs which she doesn’t squander and for that very reason, are more memorable. With her cheek next to mine, she said: “I really like her. I never thought you had such good taste.” I ate very little and went to bed. I’m so tired I feel as if I have had an entire year of hard labor. But what does it matter.

Tuesday, July 23rd

I haven’t seen Avellaneda since yesterday, when Blanca and I parted company with her. In the office early today, she approached my desk with two account books for a consultation. We’re always careful at the office (until now, no one has noticed). But today I watched her carefully. I wanted to know how she had fared in that test I conducted yesterday. She looked serious, very serious, and was almost wearing no rouge. I gave her the instructions. We were surrounded by people, so we couldn’t say anything to each other. But as she walked away, she took the opportunity to leave me two receipt books and a little slip of paper containing a single scribbled word: “Thanks.”

Friday, July 26th

Eight o’clock in the morning. I’m eating breakfast at the Tupí Nambá Café and sitting next to one of the windows that face the plaza. It’s one of my greatest pleasures. And it’s raining, which is even better. I’ve learned to love that hideous symbol of folklore that is the extravagant Palacio Salvo Tower. No wonder it’s on all the postcards the tourists buy. It’s almost a representation of the national character: impudent, dull, over-burdened, and pleasant. It’s so, so ugly that it puts one in a good mood. I like the Tupí at this hour, very early, when it still hasn’t been invaded by the queers (I had forgotten about Jaime, what a nightmare) and there’s only a few other lonely old men around, and they’re reading the El Día or El Debate newspapers of the Red Party and the National Party, respectively, with incredible delight. The majority of the customers are retirees who haven’t been able to stop waking up very early. Will I continue to patronize the Tupí when I retire? Will I never get accustomed to enjoying staying in bed until eleven, like some executive’s son? The true separation of the social classes should have been made taking into account the time each person gets out of bed. Biancamano, the amnesic, efficiently simple, and cheerful waiter, approaches my table. For the fifth time, I ask him for a demitasse with a dash of milk and croissants. Instead, he brings me a large cup of coffee and crackers with ham and cheese. He’s trying so hard, so I just give up. While I drop the sugar cubes into the cup, he talks to me about work and weather, saying: “This rain is a nuisance to people, but I say to them: ‘After all, it is winter isn’t it?’” I say that he’s right, because it’s obvious that it’s winter. Then, a man sitting at a table in the back calls over to him; he’s very upset because Biancamano brought him something he hadn’t ordered. Now he’s the kind of person who doesn’t give up. Or perhaps he’s just an Argentine who came to pay his weekly visit to exchange currency and still doesn’t know the house routine. The newspapers are the second part of my breakfast. There are days when I buy all of them because I like to read all of their regular articles. The inconsistent style of syntax and the editorials of El Debate; the civilized hypocrisy of El País; the crude reporting of El Día, barely cut short by a few anticlerical faces; and the sturdy organization of La Mañana, the only one of the four which generates a profit. How different and yet how similar they all are. They all play a kind of card game; tricking one another, exchanging face signals, and switching partners. But they all play with the same deck of cards and feed on the same lie. And we read, and because we read, we believe, vote, discuss, lose our memory, and completely and foolishly forget that what they’re saying today is contrary to what they said yesterday; that today they passionately defend the same person they cursed yesterday, and that worst of all, today that same person proudly and happily accepts that defense. That’s why I prefer the frightening openness of the Palacio Salvo Tower, because it was always dreadful and it never misled us, because it was built here, in the most frequented spot in the city, and for the last thirty years has forced all of us, citizens and foreigners alike, to raise our eyes in homage to its ugliness. But in order to read the newspapers, one has to lower one’s eyes.

Saturday, July 27th

She’s delighted with Blanca. “I never imagined you could have such a charming daughter,” she said. She repeats this every half hour or so. This remark and Blanca’s (“I never thought you had such good taste”) don’t speak kindly of me, of the retroactive trust they were investing in my respective capability to be productive and selective. But I’m happy. And so is Avellaneda. Her scribbled “Thanks” of last Tuesday was fully explained afterwards. She confesses to having had a bad moment when she first met my daughter. She thought Blanca had come to cause a scene, expressing every form of reproach she imagined explicable, and that she felt she was practically entitled to. She thought the shock was going to be so violent, so serious, so crushing, that our relationship wasn’t going to survive it. And only then did she fully realize that our relationship really mattered in her life, that perhaps now it would be unbearable to end this relationship which barely has a temporary patent. “You won’t believe it, but all of that crossed my mind while your daughter was approaching us between the other tables,” she said. That’s why Blanca’s friendly attitude was an unexpected pleasure. “Tell me, could I be her friend?” is now her hopeful question, and she assumes a delightful look on her face, perhaps the same look she had twenty years ago when she asked her parents about the Three Wise Men.

Tuesday, July 30th

There is no news from Jaime. Blanca inquired at his office. He hasn’t been to work for the last ten days. As for Esteban, we’ve silently agreed not to talk about the problem. It’s been a blow to him as well. I ask myself how he’ll react when he finds out about Avellaneda. I’ve asked Blanca not to tell him anything, at least for now. Perhaps I pushed the issue by placing my children (or permitting them to reach that level) in a position to judge. I’ve fulfilled my obligations to them. I’ve given them guidance, care and love. Well, perhaps I’ve been a bit stingy when it comes to expressing love. But I can’t be one of those people who always goes around carrying their heart on their sleeve. It’s hard for me to be affectionate, even in my love life. I always give less than what I have. That’s my style of loving: a bit sarcastic, reserving my maximum effort to be viewed on only the biggest occasions. Perhaps there’s a reason for this and it’s that I’m obsessed with details, with gradations. So that if I were always displaying a maximum effort, what would I have in reserve for those moments (there are four or five during each lifetime, per individual) during which one should appeal to a full heart? I also feel a slight resentment towards pretentiousness, and to me, walking around with one’s heart on one’s sleeve is just that: pretentious. As for the person who cries every day, what will happen when they are touched by a great sorrow, a sorrow for which they will need their maximum defenses? The person could always commit suicide, but that, after all, is always a poor solution. I mean to say that it’s rather impossible to live in a permanent crisis, creating a susceptibility that immerses one (a kind of daily bath) in minor agonies. The fine ladies, with their habitual sense of psychological economy, say they don’t see depressing movies because “life itself is very bitter.” And there’s some truth to what they say: life itself is very bitter for us to become whining, spoiled, or hysterical, just because something got in our way and doesn’t allow us to continue our excursion towards happiness, which is sometimes utter foolishness. Once, when the kids were going to school, I remember that Jaime was given one of those recurrent homework assignments; he was to write a composition about the classic subject of the mother. Jaime was nine years old and came home feeling profoundly miserable. I tried to make him understand that this was going to happen to him often. He had lost his mother and should resign himself to this, that it wasn’t something to be crying about everyday, and that the greatest proof of love he could offer the memory of his deceased mother existed in precisely demonstrating that her absence didn’t make him feel inferior to the others. Perhaps it was inappropriate language to use with him at his age. But the truth is he stopped crying, looked at me with terrifying hostility, and with a predestined steadfastness, said: “You’re going to be my mother, if not, I’ll kill you.” What did he mean by that? He wasn’t so young that he didn’t know he was making an absurd demand, but perhaps he wasn’t so grown up that he could better conceal his first agony, the first of these daily agonies on which he later focused his spitefulness, his rebelliousness, and his frustrations. The fact that his teachers, his classmates, and society would summon his mother, was making him feel the total impact of her absence for the first time in his life. I don’t know by what stretch of the imagination he was blaming me for her absence. Perhaps he thought that if I had taken better care of her, she wouldn’t have disappeared. I was to blame, so therefore, I should be her substitute. “If not, I’ll kill you.” He didn’t kill me, of course, but he began to kill himself, to abolish himself. Since the man of the family had failed him, he dedicated himself to denying the man he had within himself. Phew! What a complicated explanation for unraveling such a simple, common, and ignoble fact. My son is a queer. A queer. Like the repulsive Santini, whose sister strips in front of him. I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a drug addict, or an imbecile. I would like to feel sorry for him, but I can’t. I know there are rational and even reasonable explanations. I know that many of those explanations would charge me with part of the blame. But why did Esteban and Blanca grow up to be normal? Why did Jaime deviate and they didn’t? And it just so happens that it’s Jaime, the one I loved the most. I don’t feel sorry for him. Not now, not ever.


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

MAY 2012

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