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What luck! Here’s another unexpected hidden gem, a book that is not hyped by its publisher but turns out to be a small masterpiece. In this case (Mario Benedetti’s The Truce) we’re talking about a novel that was first published in Spanish fifty-five years ago by the great Uruguayan writer, translated into twenty languages, and out-of-print in an English edition for many years. Moreover, Harry Morales (who has translated many of Benedetti’s short stories) is up to his usual stuff as an inspired translator and is to be commended for this new translation. Kudos also to Penguin Books, though so far the book is only available in England.
As the story opens, Martín Santomé, the narrator whose diary entries we read, is forty-nine years old and about to retire from his position of many years as the section director of a large business. It’s a desk job in the corporation’s main office in Montevideo, akin to a bureaucratic job in the government, and he’s looking forward to his retirement. He’s a widower, also, of many years, with three grown children (two sons, and a daughter) who still live with him. His wife died from complications with the birth of the last child, Jamie. Thus, Martín has largely raised his children by himself, never remarried, though he has had a number of casual relationships with women down through the years.
Within pages of the opening of the story, Santomé thinks about “the old men who ride the bus to the customs house and return without ever getting off, thereby reducing their moderate spree to the lone comforting look with which they traverse the Old City of their memories….” Will that be his lot? Two days later, he encounters a drunk on the street who asks him, “Do you know what’s wrong with you? You’re going nowhere.” That observation is even more unsettling. Is that what his retirement will be: “nowhere”?
Santomé has recently been assigned three new people for his office, two men and a woman, whom he is supposed to train. The young woman is named Laura Avellaneda, who has a “wide face and a large mouth, two features that generally impress” him, but he doesn’t anticipate anything more between them than that. Moreover, he thinks of his “flabby skin, the wrinkles under [his] eyes, the varicose veins on [his] ankles.” Why would she be interested in him? Furthermore, she has told him that she has a boyfriend. He confesses that he often feels ridiculous.
Perhaps these are the various reasons that lead to their love affair, slowly, gradually—with no rush on his part. Months later, June, he reflects on their relationship, “I’m very fussy about the middle ground…. I don’t want to hurt her, nor to hurt myself (first middle ground); I don’t want our bond to drag along with it the absurd situation of a betrothal headed towards matrimony, nor that it acquire the semblance of a common and vulgar affair (second middle ground); I don’t want the future to condemn me to be an old man disdained by a woman in full use of her senses, nor do I want, through fear of that future, to remain on the margin of a present time such as this, so attractive and inexchangeable (third middle ground); I don’t want (fourth and final middle ground) to roam from motel to motel, nor do I want to create a house with a capital H.” Above all, he doesn’t want to trap Avellaneda into a marriage where, as he grows older, she begins looking for younger men.
Santomé is very much concerned about not hurting Avellaneda. The relationship moves slowly. They are very discrete about their activities, totally concealing them from their co-workers at the office. He doesn’t tell his sons about the relationship, though he does tell his daughter, Blanca, who is about the same age as Avellaneda. He introduces them and the two women become good friends. Then, he decides that he will move out of the house with his children and rent a flat for Avellaneda and himself.
Out of nowhere, Blanca reveals to her father that that Jamie is gay, only the word in the translation is “queer” because of the era (the 1950s). The result of this revelation is the one tense moment in the story. Jamie writes a letter to his father, stating that he can’t accept his father’s “preaching.” Worse, his father has a “secret life, too. I’ve seen you with the girl who has ensnared you,” and he accuses his father of showing no respect for his mother’s memory. Then, Jamie disappears, and never appears in the rest of the story with an obvious affect on his father. Santomé thinks about his morality and agonizes over the memories of his wife, dying in childbirth.
Oddly, Jamie’s letter is the emotional center of the story because what follows is unexpected, so totally from left field that it will leave you reeling. But that is for you to discover is this amazing book about a decent man (Avellaneda even refers to Santomé as that, including his decency in her reasons for being attracted to him.) Since the entire narration is from his point-of-view, we see more of him than we do Avellaneda, but she is, also, decent, mature—in virtually every way the ideal woman you would want to fall in love with.
The Truce packs an incredible emotional wallop in its final fifty pages. Even the title of the novel is unclear until the story’s startling ending. But you will be richly rewarded if you can locate a copy of this novel (try Amazon.co.uk). No surprise that the book has been translated into all those languages and sold millions of copies worldwide.
Mario Benedetti: The Truce: the Diary of Martín Santomé
Trans. By Harry Morales
Penguin (UK), 175 pp., £8.99