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.
Sunday, September 1st
The party is over. Back to the office again tomorrow. I’m thinking about the sales reports, the soft eraser, the carbon copy books, the checkbooks, the manager’s voice – and then my stomach turns.
Monday, September 2nd
With all the problems still unresolved, I was welcomed back like a savior. It looks like they had a visit from an inspector and he created a furor about something stupid. Muñoz, the poor man, drowns in a glass of water. I found Santini to be more effeminate than usual as he made several lewd and silly faces at me. Could these also be platonic? They say that because I turned down their promotion, they’re going to bring in an assistant manager from another company. Martínez is raging mad. Today, for the first time since Suárez was fired in June, the Valverde woman made an appearance. She moves her rear end with an enthusiasm that is worthy of a better cause.
Tuesday, September 3rd
For the first time, Avellaneda talked to me about her old boyfriend. His name is Enrique Ávalos and he works at city hall. They dated for exactly one year, from April of last year to this past April. “He’s a good man. I still have respect for him, but...,” said Avellaneda. I realize that I was always afraid of that explanation, but I also realize that my greatest fear was that I would never hear it. If she dared to mention it, it was because the subject was no longer very important. In any case, all of my feelings were depending on that “but,” which sounded ridiculous. This is because Ávalos had his advantages (his age, his looks, the mere fact of meeting her first, but perhaps hadn’t known how to make good use of them. My advantages began with that “but” and I was prepared to make good use of them, that is to say, to undermine poor Enrique Ávalos’ status. Experience has taught me that one of the most efficient ways to defeat a rival in the vacillating heart of a woman is to praise the rival, become so understanding, so noble and tolerant, that you even feel moved. “Really, I still have respect for him, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have even been moderately happy with him,” said Avellaneda. “Well, why are you so sure? Haven’t you said that he’s a good man?” I asked. “Of course he is,” she replied. “But that’s not enough. I can’t even charge him with being too frivolous and myself with being too profound, because not even I am so profound that a good dose of frivolity would bother me, nor is he so frivolous that he wouldn’t be moved by a very deep feeling. The difficulties were of a different kind. I think the most insurmountable obstacle was that we didn’t feel we were able to talk to one another. He exasperated me; I exasperated him. It’s possible that he loved me, who knows, but the truth is he had a special talent for hurting me.” How wonderful. I had to make an enormous effort to prevent the satisfaction I was feeling from swelling up in my cheeks in order to take on the preoccupied look of someone who truly regrets that her relationship had ended in disappointment. I even had the strength to plead for my enemy: “And did you consider whether or not you shared the blame? He probably hurt you simply because you were always expecting him to hurt you. You can be quite sure that living forever on the defensive is not the most effective way to improve your life together.” And then she smiled and only said: “With you I don’t need to live on the defensive. I feel happy.” Her remark was greater than my powers of rivalry and pretense. The satisfaction I was feeling seeped into all of my pores, my smile stretched from ear to ear, and I no longer cared about dedicating myself to destroying, once and for all, the still surviving influences of poor Enrique, a marvelously defeated man.
Wednesday, September 4th
Muñoz, Robledo, and Méndez persisted in telling me about Avellaneda; how well she had worked during my vacation, how good a fellow worker she demonstrated she was. What’s happening? How did Avellaneda behave during that time so that those callous men now behave so emotionally? Even the manager called me, and among other matters we discussed, dropped the following absentminded question on me: “How is that young woman you have in your department? I have good reports about her work.” I formulated and then delivered a modest tribute in the most conventional tone in the world. But the Crab continued, adding: “Do you know why I was asking? Because I’ll probably bring her in here as a secretary.” He smiled mechanically, and I smiled mechanically. But at least there were plenty of curses underneath my smile.
Thursday, September 5th
I think we both feel the same way about this: we have an overbearing need to tell each other everything. I talk to her as if I was talking to myself; actually, it’s even better than if I was talking to myself. It’s as if Avellaneda was part of my soul, curled up there in the corner of it, waiting for my trust, demanding my sincerity. On her part, Avellaneda tells me everything too. But at some other time, I know I would have noted: “At least that’s what I think.” But now I can’t write that, simply because it wouldn’t be true. Now I know she tells me everything.
Friday, September 6th
I saw Vignale in the pastry shop. He was sitting with a very gaudy teenage girl at a table quite hidden away in the back. He greeted me with a sweeping public gesture, as if to confirm that he’s thrown himself into this affair on a large scale. The way they looked, from afar, made me feel sorry for them. Suddenly, I found myself thinking: “And what about me?” Of course, Vignale is vulgar, pompous, and impudent...But what about me? How do I look to whoever might observe me from afar? Avellaneda and I don’t go out very often. Our life together takes place in the office and in the apartment. I’m afraid that my resistance to going out with her is, more than anything, based on a guarded fear of looking bad. No, it can’t be. At one moment, while Vignale was talking to the waiter, the girl shot a harsh, scornful look at him. Avellaneda wouldn’t be able to look at me like that.
Saturday, September 7th
I met with Esteban’s friend. It’s practically assured that I’ll be able to retire within four months. It’s curious: the closer I get to my retirement, the more unbearable the office is. I know there are only four months of entries, counter-entries, balance sheets, order accounts, and sworn declarations remaining. But I would give a year of my life if those four months were reduced to zero. Well, on second thought, I wouldn’t give a year of my life because now my life has Avellaneda.
Sunday, September 8th
We made love this afternoon. Even though we’ve made love many times before, I still haven’t analyzed it. But today was marvelous. Never in my life, not with Isabel or anyone, have I ever felt so close to bliss. Sometimes I think Avellaneda is like a mold which has positioned itself in my chest and is expanding it, placing it in suitable condition to feel more each day. The truth is I would ignore the fact that I had those reserves of tenderness in me. And I don’t care that this is a word without distinction. I have tenderness and I’m proud to have it. Even desire becomes pure, even the act most definitively devoted to sex becomes almost immaculate. But that purity isn’t prudishness, it isn’t pretense, it isn’t pretending that I’m just romancing my soul. That purity means loving every centimeter of her skin, breathing in her scent, surveying her stomach, pore by pore. It means bringing the desire to a climax.
Monday, September 9th
The staff of the Sales Department has planned a cruel trick to play on a fellow named Menéndez; a naïve, mysterious, and very superstitious young man who joined the company as part of the group of new employees that included Santini, Sierra, and Avellaneda. It turns out that Menéndez bought a lottery ticket for tomorrow’s drawing. He said that this time he wasn’t going to show the ticket to anyone, because he had the presentiment that if he didn’t show it to anyone, the number was going to come up as the big winner. But this afternoon, when the bill collector from the Peñarol Athletic Club came to visit him, Menéndez, upon opening his wallet to pay him, left the ticket on the counter for a few seconds. He didn’t notice, but Rosas, an idiot who is in a permanent state of vigilance, took a mental note of the number on the ticket and immediately gave a verbal accounting of it. The trick the staff has planned for Menéndez tomorrow is the following: in concert with the neighboring lottery ticket salesman, they’ve arranged for the number, 15.301, to be written down on the blackboard in the first prize column at a pre-determined hour. But only for a few minutes; later he’ll erase it. The salesman liked the motion of the trick so much that contrary to what the staff expected, he agreed to collaborate.
Tuesday, September 10th
It was tremendous. At two forty-five, Gaizolo arrived in the office from the street and in a loud voice said: “Fuck, goddamn it. I had been playing number 1 up until last Saturday, and it just comes out today.” The first predictable question came from the back of the office: “So the last digit of the number is 1? Do you remember both numbers?” “01,” replied Gaizolo, in a bad mood. Then, Peña leaped up from behind his desk and said, “Hey, I played 301,” and quickly added, turning towards Menéndez, who works in front of the large window: “Go ahead Menéndez, take a look at the blackboard. If 301 came out, then I really hit the jackpot.” Menéndez appeared to turn his head as slowly as possible, with the attitude of someone who is still restraining himself so as not to be deceived. He saw the large and distinct numbers, 15.301, and for a moment remained paralyzed. I think that at that instant he had weighed all the possibilities and had consequently rejected every possibility of trickery. No one, but him, knew the number. But the itinerary of the trick ended there. The plan required that at that moment, the entire staff would break the news to him that they had played a practical joke on him. But no one had expected that Menéndez would leap up and run to the back of the office. One witness’ version is that he entered the manager’s office (who at that moment was meeting with a representative of an American firm) without knocking, practically threw himself on him, and before the manager could channel his shock, planted a loud kiss on his bald head. I, who was too late in noticing this last exploit to prevent it, went into the office after him, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him out by force. There, amongst the boxes of bolts and pistons, and while he shook with several bursts of loud energetic laughter that I’ll never be able to forget, I practically shouted the truth at him. I felt horrible doing that, but there was no other choice. I’ve never seen a man collapse in such a hopeless and sudden manner. His legs gave way, he opened his mouth without being able to close it, and then afterwards, only afterwards, covered his eyes with his right hand. I sat him down in a chair and then entered the manager’s office to explain the episode to him. But the idiot couldn’t bear the fact that the American representative had witnessed his humiliation and said: “Don’t bother offering me an unbelievable explanation. That imbecile is fired.”
That’s what’s horrible: he’s really fired, and furthermore, bitter forever. Those five minutes of frantic delusion are going to be unforgettable. When the staff learned the news, they formed a delegation and went to see the manager. But the Crab was inflexible. It must be the saddest, coarsest, and most depressing day in all the years that I’ve worked in the office. However, at the last minute, the brotherhood of cruelty made a gesture: while Menéndez is out of work, each of his co-workers in the Sales Department have decided to contribute a small percentage towards replacing his salary and then presenting it to him. But there was an obstacle: Menéndez doesn’t accept the gift or the act of reparation or whatever anyone wants to call it. He also doesn’t want to talk to anyone from the office. Poor man. I’m blaming myself for not having warned him since yesterday. But no one could have imagined that he was going to have such an explosive reaction.
Wednesday, September 11th
Even though my birthday is the day after tomorrow, she still showed me the gifts she bought me. First, she gave me a gold watch. Poor dear. She must have spent her entire savings on it. Then, a little embarrassed, she opened a little box and showed me another gift: an elongated little seashell, with perfect features: “I picked it up off the beach at La Paloma in Rocha, on my ninth birthday. A wave came and left it at my feet, as if in a show of kindness on behalf of the sea. I think it was the happiest moment of my childhood. Or at least, it’s the one material object that I most love, most admire. I want you to have it, to carry it with you. Do you think it’s a ridiculous gift?”
Right now it’s in the palm of my hand. We’re going to be good friends.
Thursday, September 12th
Diego is a worrier, and thanks to his influence, Blanca is becoming a worrier, too. Tonight I spoke with both of them for a long time. They’re worried about their country, their generation, and, at the base of both their worries, their preoccupation is called “Themselves.” Diego would like to do something rebellious, positive, stimulating, renovating; but he’s not too sure what, though. Until now, what he feels quite intensely is an aggressive nonconformism, towards which he still lacks some coherence. He thinks the apathy of our people, their lack of social drive, their democratic tolerance towards dishonesty, and their impudent and harmless reaction towards chicanery is unfortunate. For example, he thinks it’s frightening that there is a morning edition of the newspaper which employs seventeen editorial writers who write as a hobby, seventeen financiers who protest against the horrible plague of rest from a bungalow in Punta del Este, seventeen fops who use all of their intelligence and lucidity to cram skillful conviction into a fixed idea they don’t believe in; a diatribe that they, deep down, consider unjust. He is incited to rebel seeing the leftists endure, without too much pretense; a reservoir of middle class comfort, rigid ideals, and moderate hypocrisy. “Do you see any way out?” he asks and then asks again, with a candid, provocative anxiousness. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t. There are people who understand what’s happening, who think it’s absurd, but who limit themselves to just complaining about it. There’s a lack of passion, that’s the secret of this great democratic lie we’ve turned into. For a number of years we’ve been calm, objective; but objectivity is harmless, it doesn’t help to change the world, or even a pocket-sized country like this one. There’s a need for passion; a screaming passion, an imaginary passion, a passion written by screams. One has to scream in people’s ear, since their apparent deafness is a type of self-defense, a cowardly and unhealthy self-defense. One has to succeed in making the others realize their own shame, and encourage them to substitute their self-defense for self-disgust. On the day the Uruguayan feels disgusted about his own passivity, he will become useful.”
Friday, September 13th
Today is my 50th birthday. That is to say, from this day forward, I’m in the position to retire. It’s a date that seems to be issued in order to achieve a balance. But I’ve been maintaining a balance all year long. I’m infuriated with all the anniversaries, the happy occasions, and the grieving in fixed installments. For example, I think it’s depressing that on November 2nd it’s our duty to cry in tandem for our dead, that on August 25th, Independence Day, we should all become excited at the simple sight of the national flag. One is either excited or one isn’t, regardless of the day.
Saturday, September 14th
Nevertheless, yesterday’s date didn’t pass in vain. Several times during the day today, I thought: “Fifty years,” and my heart sank. I was in front of the mirror and I couldn’t avoid feeling a little bit of pity and a desire to commiserate with that wrinkled fellow with tired eyes who never succeeded at anything nor ever will. The most tragic thing is not being mediocre, but being unaware of that mediocrity; the most tragic thing is being mediocre and knowing that one is like that and not being satisfied with that destiny that, moreover (that’s the worse thing), is strictly justified. Then, while I was looking at myself in the mirror, Avellaneda’s head appeared over my shoulder. When that wrinkled fellow who had never succeeded at anything nor ever will saw her, his eyes lit up, and for two and a half hours forgot that he was now fifty years old.
Sunday, September 15th
She laughs. Then I ask her: “Do you know what it means to be fifty years old?” and she laughs again. But perhaps deep down she’ll eventually realize everything and start to place many diverse matters on the plates of the balance scale. Still, she’s a good woman and doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t mention that there will be an inevitable moment when I will look at her without feeling passion, when her hand in mine won’t cause an electrical shock, when the love I preserve for her is the same love one preserves for one’s nieces, for the daughters of one’s friends, for the most aloof actresses of the cinema; a love that is a kind of mental ornament, but that can’t harm nor be harmed, can’t open scars nor accelerate the heartbeat; a gentle love, pleasant, harmless, that looks like a progression of the monotonous love of God. And then I’ll look at her and I won’t be able to feel jealous, because by then the era of turmoil would have ended. When a cloud appears in the clear sky of the septuagenarian, one immediately knows it’s the cloud of death. This must be the most pretentious and ridiculous sentence I’ve allowed to fall onto the pages of this diary. And perhaps the most truthful, too. Why is the truth always a little pretentious? One’s intentions serve to morally improve that which is worthy without any excuse, that which is stoic without faltering, and a balance without reservations. But the excuses, the faltering, and the reservations, are all captured in reality, and when we arrive there, they disarm us, weaken us. The worthier the intentions that have to be fulfilled are, the more ridiculous the unfulfilled intentions seem to be. I’ll look at her and I won’t be able to feel anyone’s jealousy; only my own, jealousies of this present-day individual who feels jealous of everyone. I went out with Avellaneda and my fifty years, taking both of them along 18th. I wanted to be seen with her, but I don’t think I saw anyone from the office, though. Instead, Vignale’s wife, a friend of Jaime’s, and two relatives of hers saw us. In addition (what a horrible “in addition”!), on 18th and Yaguarón, I bumped into Isabel’s mother. It’s incredible: so many, many years have passed over both our faces, and yet, when I see her, my heart still jumps; actually, it does something more than just jump, it takes an agonizing and powerless leap. She’s such an admirably invincible woman that one can do nothing less than remove one’s hat in her presence. She greeted us with the same aggressive sarcasm of twenty years ago, and then literally enveloped Avellaneda in a long stare, that was both diagnostical and dismissive. Avellaneda felt the jolt, squeezed my arm, and asked me who she was. “My mother-in-law,” I replied. And it’s true: she’s my first and only mother-in-law. Because even if I were to marry Avellaneda, even if I never would have been Isabel’s husband, this almighty, powerful, and decisive seventy year old matron, had always been and would always be my Universal Mother-in-Law; inevitable, destined, a woman who is a direct descendent of that God of terror who I hope doesn’t exist, despite how much he would only exist to remind me that the world is really like that, that sometimes the world stops to consider us with a look which can also become diagnostical and dismissive.
Monday, September 16th
We left the office almost at the same time, but she didn’t want to go to the apartment. She has a cold, so we went to the pharmacy and I bought her some cough syrup. Then we took a taxi and I dropped her off two blocks away from her house. She doesn’t want to run the risk of her father finding out. She took a few steps, turned around and happily waved good-bye. Deep down, none of that is very important. But there was a familiarity, a simplicity, in her gesture. And at that moment I felt comfortable because I was certain there was communication between us, helpless perhaps, but peacefully assured.
Tuesday, September 17th
Avellaneda didn’t come to the office.
Wednesday, September 18th
Santini started telling me his secrets again. He’s repulsive and amusing at the same time. He says that his sister no longer dances naked in front of him. She has a boyfriend now.
Avellaneda didn’t come to the office today either. It seems that her mother called the office when I wasn’t in, so she spoke to Muñoz. She says her daughter has the flu.
Thursday, September 19th
Today I really started to miss her. They were talking about her in the department today, and all of a sudden it felt unbearable that she hadn’t been in the office today.
Friday, September 20th
Avellaneda didn’t come to the office again today. I was in the apartment this afternoon and five minutes later everything became clear to me. It took that long for all of my misgivings to disappear: I’m going to get married. More than all of my lines of argument against it, more than all of my conversations with her, more than all of that, what matters most is her absence just now. How accustomed I am to her, to her presence!
Saturday, September 21st
I told Blanca about my weddings plans and left her feeling happy. I now have to tell Avellaneda; I have to tell her because now I really have found the strength, the conviction. But once again, she didn’t come to the office today.
Sunday, September 22nd
Couldn’t she send me a telegram? She’s forbidden me to go to her house, but if she doesn’t come to the office tomorrow, I’ll find some excuse to visit her.
Monday, September 23rd
My God. My God. My God. My God. My God. My God.
Friday, January 17th
It’s been almost four months since I’ve written anything in this diary. On September 23rd, I didn’t have the courage to write about what happened that day.
On September 23rd, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the telephone rang. Surrounded by employees, paperwork, and proposals, I picked up the receiver. A man’s voice said: “Mr. Santomé? Look, this is one of Laura’s uncles speaking. Sir, I have bad news. Very bad news. Laura passed away this morning.”
In the first moment I didn’t want to understand. Laura wasn’t anyone, she wasn’t Avellaneda. “Laura passed away,” her uncle’s voice had said. The words are disgusting. “Passed away” signifies a formality: “Sir, I have bad news,” her uncle had said. But what does he know? What does he know about how bad news can destroy the future, the face’s aspect, the sense of touch, and the ability to sleep. What does he know, huh? The only thing he knows is how to say: “Laura passed away,” something as unbearably easy as that. I’m sure he was even shrugging his shoulders when he gave me the bad news, and that too is disgusting. And that’s why I did something quite horrible: with my left hand I crumpled a sales account into a ball, and with my right hand I brought the receiver closer to my mouth and slowly said: “Why don’t you go to hell?” I don’t remember exactly, but I think the voice asked: “What did you say, sir?” several times, to which I repeated: “Why don’t you go to hell?” several times in reply. And then the receiver was taken away from me and someone spoke to the uncle. I think I screamed, gasped for air, and spoke gibberish. I could hardly breathe. I felt my collar being unbuttoned and my tie being loosened. Then there was an unfamiliar voice that said: “It’s been an emotional shock,” and another voice, this one quite familiar, Muñoz’s voice, that started to explain: “She was an employee who he held in great esteem.” In that nebula of sounds there were also Santini’s sobs, Robledo’s crude explanation of the mystery surrounding Laura’s death, and the manager’s ritual instructions about sending a wreath. Between Sierra and Muñoz, they finally managed to put me in a taxi and bring me home.
Blanca was very frightened when she opened the door. But Muñoz quickly calmed her down, saying: “Don’t worry miss, your father is perfectly fine. Do you know what happened? A friend of his passed away this morning and he took the news quite hard. And it’s no wonder, she was a great girl.” He too said: “Passed away.” Well, maybe the uncle, Muñoz, and the others might all do well by saying “passed away,” because those words sound so ridiculous, so cold, so far away from Avellaneda, that they can’t harm her, can’t destroy her.
Then, when I was at home, alone in my room, when even poor Blanca withdrew the comfort of her silence, I moved my lips to say: “She died. Avellaneda died,” because “died” is the word, “died” is the collapse of life, “died” comes from within, bringing the real breath of pain, “died” is despair, the frigid and total void, the simple abyss, the abyss. Then, when I once again moved my lips to say: “She died,” I saw my filthy solitude, that which had remained of me, which was very little. With all the selfishness I had at my disposal, I thought about myself; the anxious, mended man I had now become. But at the same time, that was the most noble way to think of her, the most complete way to imagine her. Because up until three o’clock in the afternoon on September 23rd, I had much more of Avellaneda than I had of myself. She had begun to enter me, to become me, like a river that mixes itself with the sea too much and finally becomes salty like the sea. That’s why when I would move my lips and say: “She died” I felt awkward, stripped, empty, worthless. Someone had arrived and decreed: “Strip this man of four-fifths of his being.” And they did strip me. Worst of all, this remnant that I now am, that fifth part of myself that I’ve become, still continues to be conscious of its trifling amount and insignificance. I’ve been left with one-fifth of my good resolutions, good plans, and good intentions, but the one-fifth part of my sanity that has remained is enough to make me realize that what I’ve been left with isn’t any good. The matter has simply come to an end. I didn’t want to go to her house nor see her dead, because it would mean I had an improper disadvantage. That I should see her, but that she not see me. That I should touch her, but that she not touch me. That I should be alive, but that she be dead. She is something other than that though, she is her last day, there I can treat her as an equal. It’s her getting out of the taxi with the cough medicine I had bought her, it’s her taking four steps and turning around to make a gesture at me. The very, very last gesture. I cry and cling to it. On that day I wrote that I was certain there was communication between us. But this certainty existed while she existed. Now my lips move to say: “She died. Avellaneda died,” and the certainty is minimized; a shameless, improper condition, which doesn’t belong here. I returned to the office, of course, even though the office comments would pierce me, gnaw at me, sicken me. “Her cousin told me it was a simple and common case of the flu, and then suddenly, bang! She had heart failure.” I went back to work again, resolved matters, conducted meetings, and wrote reports. I’m a real exemplary civil servant. Sometimes, Muñoz, Robledo, or even Santini himself, approach me and try to initiate an evocative chat with introductory remarks like the following: “To think that Avellaneda did this job,” “Look boss, Avellaneda wrote this annotation.” Then I divert my eyes and say: “Well, it’s all right, one has to keep on living.” The points I gained on September 23rd, I’ve since lost with interest. I know they mumble that I’m indifferent, an egotist, that someone else’s misfortune doesn’t affect me. But their mumbling doesn’t matter. They’re on the outside. Outside that world which Avellaneda and I had been in. Outside that world which I am now in, alone like a hero, but with no reason to feel brave.
Wednesday, January 22nd
Sometimes I talk to Blanca about her. I don’t cry or despair; I simply talk. I know there’s an echo there. It’s Blanca who cries, despairs. She says she can’t believe in God, that God has been giving and taking away opportunities from me, nor does she feel strong enough to believe in a cruel God, an all-embracing sadist. Nevertheless, I don’t feel so spiteful. I not only wrote “My God,” a number of times on September 23rd, I also said it, felt it. For the first time in my life, I though I could talk to Him. But God’s half of our conversation was weak, vacillating, as if He wasn’t too sure of Himself. Perhaps I had been at the point of moving Him. I also had the feeling that a decisive argument existed, an argument that was right next to me, in front of me, and that despite this, I still couldn’t recognize it or add it to my half of our conversation. Then, after that time limit He had granted me to convince Him had elapsed, after His display of vacillation and weakness had come to an end, God finally regained His powers. God went back to being the almighty Negation He had always been. Still, I can’t feel spiteful towards Him, nor can I touch and caress Him with my hatred. I know he gave me the opportunity and I didn’t know how to take advantage of it. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to understand that unique and decisive argument, but by then I’ll already be terribly withered and am even more so now. Sometimes I think that if God played fair, He also would have given me the argument I should use against Him. But no, it can’t be. I don’t want a God to support me, who doesn’t choose to trust me with the means with which to return, sooner or later, to my conscience; I don’t want a God who offers me everything ready-made, like one of those prosperous fathers from Rambla Avenue, filthy rich, was able to do with his dandy and useless little son. No, definitely not that. Now my relationship with God has grown cold. He knows I’m not capable of convincing him. I know that He’s a distant solitude, to which I never had, nor will ever have, access. So that’s how we are now, each of us on our own shore, without hating or loving each other, strangers.
Friday, January 24th
Today, throughout the entire day, while I ate breakfast, while I worked, while I ate lunch, while I argued with Muñoz, I was bewildered by a single idea, which broken down, led me to have several doubts and ask myself: “What did she think about before she died? What did I mean to her at that moment? Did she turn to me? Did she say my name?”
Sunday, January 26th
For the first time, I reread my diary from February to January. I have to look for all of Avellaneda’s Moments. She made her first appearance on February 27th. On March 12th, I wrote: “When she says: ‘Mr. Santomé,’ she always blinks. She isn’t beautiful, but her smile is passable. Something is better than nothing.” I wrote that, I once thought that about her. On April 10th: “I’m attracted to something about Avellaneda, that’s obvious. But what is it?” Well, and what was it? I still don’t know. I was attracted to her eyes, her voice, her waist, her mouth, her hands, her laugh, her fatigue, her shyness, her crying, her honesty, her grief, her trust, her tenderness, her sleep, her walk, her sighs. But none of those traits was enough to attract me compellingly, totally. Every attractive trait supported another. I was attracted to her as a whole, as an irreplaceable sum of attractive traits, perhaps replaceable. On May 17th, I told her: “I think I’m in love with you,” and she had replied: “I already knew.” I keep repeating these words to myself, I hear her saying them, and everything about the present time becomes unbearable. Two days later I said: “What I’m boldly looking for is an accord, a kind of agreement between my love and your freedom.” She had replied: “I like you.” It’s horrible how much those three words hurt. On June 7th, I kissed her and that night I wrote: “Tomorrow I’ll think about it. Now I’m tired, or I could also say: happy. But I’m too alert to feel completely happy. Alert about myself, good luck, and that sole tangible future called tomorrow. Alert, that is to say: distrustful.” Still, what good did that distrust do? Did I perhaps take advantage of it to live more intensely, more industriously, more urgently? No, by no means. Afterwards, I acquired a particular sense of security, I thought everything was fine if one was conscious of loving, loving with an echo, with reverberation. On June 23rd, she talked to me about her parents and her mother’s theory about happiness. Perhaps I should replace my unyielding Universal Mother-in-Law with this good image, with this woman who understands, forgives. On the 28th, the most important event of my life took place. I, of all people, ended up praying. “May it last, and to pressure God I’m going to knock on wood, on any wooden object without legs, for good luck.” But eventually, God proved to be incorruptible. And yet on July 6th, I allowed myself to write: “All of a sudden, I realized that that moment, that slice of everyday life, was the highest degree of well-being, it was Happiness.” But I quickly gave myself several alerting slaps: “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.” I was being dishonest when I wrote that, however, I know better now. Because deep down, I had the faith that there would be extensions, that the pinnacle wouldn’t only be an ending, but a long, endless plateau. But I had no right to extensions, of course not. Afterwards, I wrote about the word “Avellaneda,” and about everything it meant. Now I think: “Avellaneda,” and the word means: “She’s not here, she’ll never be here again.” I can’t do the same.
Tuesday, January 28th
There are so many other things in this diary, so many other faces: Vignale, Aníbal, my children, Isabel. None of that matters though, none of that exists. While Avellaneda was alive, I had a better understanding of Isabel’s epoch, and of Isabel herself. But now she’s no longer here, and Isabel has disappeared behind a thick, dark curtain of depression.
Friday, January 31st
While I’m in the office I defend my essential, intimate, and profound life (death) tenaciously. No one knows exactly what’s happening to me. My collapse on September 23rd was, in everyone’s eyes, an understandable occurrence and nothing more. Now, no one talks about Avellaneda as much, and I don’t bring up the subject. I defend her with the little strength I have.
Monday, February 3rd
She would place her hand in mine and nothing else was necessary. It was enough to make me feel that I was quite welcome. More than kissing her, sleeping together, more than anything else, she would place her hand in mine and that was love.
Thursday, February 6th
The thought occurred to me the other night and today I acted on it. At five o’clock I rushed out of the office. When I arrived at number 368 and rang the bell, I felt an itch in my throat and started to cough.
The door opened and I was coughing like a wretch. It was her father, the same father in the photographs, but much older, much sadder, and more tired. I suddenly coughed quite hard, in a decisive attempt to overcome the coughing spell, and managed to ask him if he was the tailor. He tilted his head to one side to say yes. “Well, I want to have a suit tailored,” I said. He led me into his workshop. “Never ask him to tailor a suit for you,” Avellaneda had said, “he uses the same mannequin for the size of every suit.” There it was – unperturbed, mocking, disabled – the mannequin. I chose the fabric, mentioned a few details, and settled on the price. Then he went to the back door and without shouting, called out: “Rosa.” “My mother knows about us,” she had said, “my mother knows everything about me.” But “Us” didn’t include my name, my face, my stature. For the mother, “Us” was Avellaneda and a nameless lover. “My wife,” said the father, “Mr...., what did you say your name was?” “Morales,” I said, lying. “Right, Mr. Morales.” The mother’s eyes had a penetrating sadness about them. “He’s going to have a suit tailored.” Neither of them was wearing mourning clothes. Theirs was a light, natural grieving. The mother smiled at me and I had to look away towards the mannequin, because I wasn’t strong enough to bear that smile which had once been Avellaneda’s. She opened up a little notebook and the father started to take my measurements, dictating two digit numbers to her. “Are you from the neighborhood? Seventy-five,” the father said. “More or less,” I replied. “I ask you because your face looks familiar. Fifty-four,” the father said. “Well, I live downtown, but I come around here very often,” I said. “Oh, that’s why. Sixty-nine,” he said. She wrote automatically, facing the wall. “You want the pant bottoms to rest on the shoes, correct? One hundred and seven,” the father said. I have to return next Thursday, for the fitting. There was a book on the table: Blavatsky. The father had to leave the workshop for a moment. The mother closed her little notebook and looked at me. “Why did you come to have my husband tailor a suit for you? Who recommended him?” she asked. “Oh, no one in particular. I knew that a tailor lived here, that’s all,” I replied. It sounded so unconvincing that I became embarrassed. She looked at me again. “He works very little now. Since my daughter died.” She didn’t say “passed away.” “Oh, of course. And has it been long?” I asked. “Almost four months,” she replied. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, and I, who doesn’t exactly regard Avellaneda’s death as merely painful; but more like as catastrophe, a collapse, chaos, was conscious of lying, because to say: “I’m sorry,” to say those words of condolence, so frivolous, so late, was simply frightening, it was almost just like saying: “passed away.” And it was especially frightening because I was saying it to the only person who could understand that Avellaneda “died;” the truth.
Thursday, February 13th
It was the day of the fitting, but the tailor wasn’t there. “Mr. Avellaneda isn’t here,” his wife said when I entered the workshop. “He couldn’t wait for you, but he left everything prepared so that I could do the fitting.” She went into the other room and returned with the jacket. It looked terrible on me. So it was true after all, he did use the same mannequin to tailor every single suit. Suddenly, I turned to one side (actually, she kept turning me with the excuse that she was placing pushpins in the jacket and making chalk marks) and ended up in front of a photograph of Avellaneda which hadn’t been there last Thursday. It was a very sudden, brutal blow. The mother was watching me and her eyes took good note of my poor stupefaction. She then placed the remaining pushpins and the chalk on the table, and smiled sadly, already sure, before she asked: “You...are?” Between the first and second word there was a two or three second interval, but that silence was enough to subtly reveal the transparency of her question. I felt obliged to respond. And I did, without saying a word; with my head, my eyes, with all of my being I said: yes. Avellaneda’s mother placed her hand on my arm, that arm which still didn’t have a sleeve and was emerging from that unskilled sewing design. Afterwards, she slowly took the jacket off of me and placed it on the mannequin. And how good it looked on it! “You want to know, right?” she said. I was sure she wasn’t looking at me with resentment or shame, nor anything that wasn’t exhausted, long-suffered pity. “You knew her, you loved her, and you must be in agony. I know how you feel. You feel that your heart is an enormous entity which starts in the stomach and ends in the throat. You feel miserable, and happy about feeling miserable. I know how horrible that is.” She was talking as if she had had a re-encounter with an old confidant, but there was also something in her voice that was more than her actual grief. “I had someone die on me twenty years ago. Someone who was everything to me. But his wasn’t a physical death. He simply left. The country, my life; especially my life. Leaving is a worse kind of death, I assure you. Because it was I who asked him to leave, and to this day I haven’t forgiven myself for doing so. This kind of death is worse, because one remains imprisoned in one’s own past, destroyed by one’s own sacrifice.” She passed her hand along the back of her neck and I thought she was going to say: “I don’t know why I’m telling you these things.” But instead she said: “Laura was all I had remaining of him. Again, that’s why I feel that the heart is an enormous entity which starts in the stomach and ends in the throat. That’s why I know what you’re going through.” She brought a chair over and sat down, completely exhausted. I then asked: “And what about her, did she know anything about that?” “No,” she replied. “Laura knew absolutely nothing. I am the sole owner of my history. Poor pride, right?” Suddenly, I remembered something and said: “And your theory of happiness?” She smiled, almost defenseless, and said: “Did she tell you about that too? Well, it was a beautiful lie, a fairy tale, which I would tell her so that she wouldn’t lose confidence and feel alive. It was the best gift I ever gave her. Poor thing.” She was looking upwards and crying, without passing her hand across her face; she was crying proudly. “But you want to know,” she said. And then she told me about Avellaneda’s final days, final words, and final moments. But that will never be written down. That is Mine, incorruptibly Mine. That will be waiting for me at night, every night, for when I gather up the thread of my insomnia again, and say: “Love.”
Friday, February 14th
“They love each other, I’m sure about that,” Avellaneda used to say about her parents, “but I don’t know if that’s the kind of loving that I like.”
Saturday, February 15th
Esteban’s friend called me to say that I’ll be able to retire soon. After March 1st I’ll no longer be going to the office.
Sunday, February 16th
I went to pick up the suit this morning. Mr. Avellaneda was just finishing the ironing when I arrived. The photograph filled the entire room and I couldn’t stop looking at it. “It’s my daughter,” he said, “my only daughter.” I don’t know what I said nor do I care to remember. “She died just recently.” Once again I heard myself say: “I’m sorry.” “It’s strange,” he quickly added, “now I think that I was distant, that I never showed her how much I needed her. Ever since she was little I’ve been postponing the long chat I had promised myself to have with her. At first I didn’t have time, then, she started to work, and furthermore, I’m quite a coward. Feeling sentimental scares me a little, understand? The truth is that now she’s no longer here and I’ve been left with that weight on my chest, those unspoken words which could have been my salvation.” He stopped talking for a moment and gazed at the photograph. “Many times I thought she hadn’t inherited a single trait of mine. Do you see any?” “A general resemblance,” I replied, lying. “There could be,” he said. “But when it comes to her soul, she was really like me. Or rather, the way I used to be. Because now I feel defeated, and when one allows oneself to be defeated, one becomes deformed and turns into a gross parody of oneself. Look, my daughter’s death was a dirty trick played on her by either destiny or the doctor, I’m not sure which. But I am sure it was a dirty trick. If you would have known her, you would understand what I’m trying to tell you.” I blinked my eyes ten times in a row, but he wasn’t paying attention. “Only via a dirty trick can a woman like her be exterminated. She was (how can I explain?) a pure being, and at the same time, intense, and modest about her intensity. She was delightful. I was always convinced I didn’t deserve her. But her mother did deserve her, because Rosa is a character; Rosa is capable of confronting the world. But I lack determination, confidence. Have you ever thought about suicide? I have. But I’ll never be able to go through with it. And that, too, is a deficiency. Because I have the mental and moral capacity to commit suicide, but not the strength to put a bullet in my head. Perhaps the secret lies in that my brain has a few of my heart’s needs, and my heart has some of my brain’s exquisiteness.” Once again he stopped talking, this time while holding the iron in the air, and looking at the photo. “Look at her eyes. Notice how they continue to look, out of habit, despite her death. They even seem to be looking at you.” His remark went without a response. I felt out of breath. He became silent. “Well, it’s ready,” he said, carefully folding the pants, “it’s a very smooth fabric. Look at how well it turned out.”
Tuesday, February 18th
I won’t go to number 368 again. Actually, I can’t go again.
Thursday, February 20th
It’s been a while since I’ve seen Aníbal. I haven’t heard from Jaime. Esteban limits himself to talking to me about general topics. Vignale calls me at the office and I have them say I’m not there. I want to be alone. Or at most, talk to my daughter, and talk about Avellaneda, of course.
Sunday, February 23rd
Today, for the first time in four months, I was in the apartment. I opened the armoire. I could smell her perfume. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is her absence. Sometimes, I can’t understand the nuances which separate lifelessness from desperation.
Monday, February 24th
It’s obvious that God granted me a dark destiny. It’s not even cruel, just dark. It’s obvious that He granted me a respite. In the beginning, I was unwilling to believe that this respite could be happiness. I resisted with all my might, but I eventually gave in to the belief that it was. But it wasn’t happiness, it was only a respite. Now I’m involved in my destiny again. And it’s much darker than before, much darker.
Tuesday, February 25th
Beginning on March 1st, I’ll no longer write in this diary. The world is no longer interesting. But it won’t be me who will record that fact. There’s only one subject I could write about. But I don’t want to.
Wednesday, February 26th
How I need her! God had been my most important deficiency. But I need her more than God.
Thursday, February 27th
The office wanted to throw me a farewell party, but I said no. So as not to be rude, I concocted a very credible excuse based on family problems. The truth is I can’t imagine myself as the unpleasant excuse for having a happy, noisy, dinner party, with bread slinging and spilled wine.
Friday, February 28th
My last day of work. But I didn’t do anything, of course. I spent the day shaking hands, and receiving embraces. I think the manager was gushing with satisfaction and that Muñoz was really touched. My desk remained there. I never thought it would matter so little to me to have to give up my routine. The drawers had been left empty except for an identification card I found belonging to Avellaneda. She had given it to me so that its number could be recorded on her personal record card. I put it in my pocket and here it is. The photograph must be five years old, but she was much prettier four months ago. Another matter has now become clear, and that is that her mother was wrong: I don’t feel happy about feeling miserable. I simply feel miserable. No more office. Starting tomorrow and to the day I die, time will be at my disposal. After so much waiting, this is leisure. What will I do with it?
Montevideo, January to May, 1959
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.