from Who Among Usby Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales
I shall never Si tu t’imagines
be different. Love me. xa va xa va xa
—Auden va durer toujours.
Who Among Us narrates the history of a classic love triangle, but with the variation that it is the husband who encourages the wife to take a lover. The novel consists of three parts; three different versions of the same sentimental conflict which culminate in the story that each character relates from their own perspective. The novel takes place in Montevideo, but this is merely circumstantial because the most prevalent element of this work is the psychological delving into each characters’ mind and not the monitoring of a social atmosphere. With effective subtlety, Benedetti manages the diametrically opposite mirrors of the three characters’ lives and at its climax explicitly asks the question that floats throughout the novel: “Who among us judges who?”
Part Three: “Lucas”
For the first time in recent years, he deliberately wanted to evoke her appearance.1 She must be transfigured, of course.
- In all the stories I’ve written I can recognize, unlike my poor critics, a slice of reality. Sometimes it involves my own reality, on other occasions, a foreign reality: But I always write from the moment that something happens. Perhaps the true explanation has to do with my incapacity to imagine in the void. I don’t know how to tell myself stories; I know how to recognize a story in something I see or experience. Then, I deform it, I add to it, I subtract from it. I’ve always wanted—for nothing more than my own personal use – to examine that deformity, but it’s been a long time since a real story has happened to me. Now that Alicia has gone, now that I’m still surrounded by her image, her smell, her desire, I want to write this peculiar episode. With footnotes. It’s probable that some day I’ll edit the narrative. The footnotes (even though I write them with the reader in mind and use the tone appropriate to his interest) will always be unpublishable, strictly personal, valid only to me. It’s possible that that’s how the deformation that my reality suffers upon converting itself into literature will be recorded. As long as what I write is in effect literature.
But he didn’t know how much he was going to appreciate the change. The instantaneous revelation, so sharp that it still wasn’t possible to speculate about her, it was simply that I didn’t remember her.2 That is to say, her attitude, the apprehension of her hands, her lanky legs, a certain irony centered on the chin was on display. And, still, I didn’t remember her. My memory seems to have gone astray in light of the possibility of so many remembrances and doesn’t resign itself to offer the complete image, the substantial face. Nor did it manage to imitate, to recover them, to strategically place her adolescent feelings. After all, what had she represented to him? The single act of striking in the present with her name signified an allusion to the “life that deserves to be lived.” But that didn’t prove anything. One always transforms the story into legend. The past is, initially, a succession of pleasures and vulgar afflictions; they are the new commonness, the new voids, which arrive to grant it a retroactive prestige. Perhaps it was possible for him to discern, during her Claudia era3, how much she had effectively contributed to attitudes, what unconscious subterfuges was he using to persuade himself of a probably false image?
- Well, I think that I do remember her. Alicia signifies a very typical aspect of those years, as if to be forgotten without any formality. But literarily, it’s more effective to remember it all when she appears, as if my memory is affixed to her image, as if only her image could awaken my memories. That which is literary is always a little poetic and there is, I don’t know, something lyrical in that memory-image relationship.
- That is to say, Alicia. The name of the character has an unlikely origin. Eleven years ago, when she would telephone me, I always confused her voice with “Claudia’s.” Of course, Claudia didn’t exist; but it was a way to make her furious.
In a certain way his curiosity represented a precarious justification of the past. At least, something existed. Willingly, he would have wanted to find himself with other resources, other areas of interest. But later on there was nothing other than routine, only altered by some day of hunger, by some woman who used nostalgia like a cheap perfume,4 by the surly feeling of being superfluous or shortchanging life. He suddenly felt the cool taste of tobacco and relit the cigarette.5
He was in a café again during the routine part of the day. His job as a translator, his nights as a journalist, his reading material, his stories, maintained a percentage of creativity; it was an opportunity to be imaginative. But to sit down at the little corner table, feel deprived of flatterers, simply like Oscar Lamas;6 without modesty or reputation, without talking to the Galician who only at six months learned to bring four cubes of sugar instead of three; without uttering to himself excellent observations about the bettors, the eloquent, the worn-out women and the gossips who met in the late afternoon; all of that constituted a circular mechanism, a dead weight of his monotonous conscience.
- There exists another kind of woman who in this case isn’t pertinent: those who use cheap perfume like nostalgia.
- To be verified. Since I’ve never smoked, I don’t know if tobacco has a cool taste.
- That is to say, me. I don’t like the name. But I don’t like the name Lucas Orellano either.
He started to think with discipline. That other café era hadn’t been bad, with Claudia at his side, listening to the fools. In the middle of the boredom, the filthy pretexts, the visceral metaphors, there were flashes of lucidity and a rancorous unsentimentality that wasn’t astounded by anything and constituted, in spite of everything, an experience. One ended up a little dizzy, but those nights didn’t become integrated like those which came afterwards, a bad memory. They endured impeccably, displaying a proper balance, since one can always breathe in the annoying smell of the commonplace, the long, loose hair, the mid-digestion yawns. With Claudia at his side. Perhaps this was the key. That the undercurrent would find them together. Even so, it was incredible that he had never touched her breasts.7 He vaguely remembered having desired her. He had experienced more than one sleepless night in an attempt to summarize her movement as a child, her hands with her palms up in the air.
- I think I touched them only once, but I no longer remember. If I strain my tactile memory, my hands, that is to say, the very center of one’s palm, fill with memories like those of a receptacle that would have contained related materials and nevertheless quite differentiated. But I don’t know who is who.
He absent-mindedly looked toward the door and suddenly remembered her, now indeed, perceiving the image of that other woman, filled with pride and fear, literally inserted into the sac of an otter, who was turning its head as if looking for him. She’s unique, he thought. He also thought that only an imbecile could have that thought.
She finally saw him, made an idle gesture of regained familiarity, and approached coughing through the smoke.8
“What a place. Oscar!”
He extended his hand to her and suddenly found that he was subject to the unspeakable of that old contact. Only a second, but I could recognize it all. As if instead of those long fingers, more defenseless than ever, an already powerless era that was collapsing, abolished, was taking root at the last available minute.
“I thought that…”
She didn’t say it. It was to concoct nostalgia and it wasn’t like that. The nostalgia had begun now.
“That was something else. And I liked it. But that era has already ended. We’re serious, aren’t we? All the cafés in the world are the same, but we’re much too old to notice it. Don’t you feel that way?”
She was talking with a serious and condescending air, showing herself to everyone and hiding from him, as if she had prepared the boring speech and had been persistent in doing so. Oscar couldn’t help smiling, mocking himself a little, and she became defensive. There was something obscene, inexplicable about her smile.
- Through the smoke, exactly. But it wasn’t in the café, it was at the port. I went to wait for her (Miguel had informed me) but I arrived late and when she descended from the boat I saw her through the smoke below that was coming out of an open shed or storeroom, I don’t know exactly. It’s true that then it appeared as if she was advancing forward, like so many other times in Montevideo, through the smoke of the smokers. The dialogue which follows, with its closeness, took place in the inspection hall (where the respective official so strongly expressed his jealousy that he set some delightful black panties on fire) and in the taxi (where I realized that indeed things had changed).
“No, I don’t feel it. You should keep in mind that I’ve continued alone. That’s important. No one jerked me out of an environment.9
- I think that if I had told her this she would have slapped me. But I wasn’t lacking the desire. This type of vengeance (the writing of it in the story, because in reality I didn’t dare) depresses me.
She pressed her lips together, without anger or consternation; a kind of new tic which he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t understand that it would have started like that, without fear of deceiving him, stubbornly hitting upon a philosophy of swapping.
“Andrés removed me.”10
- That is to say, Miguel. I chose this name by opening a page of the telephone book at random. It is a response to the third attempt. The first two were Abraham and Cornelio, which were eliminated for obvious reasons.
Yes, more or less. That was the beginning. Andrés exactly like him, but with the eyes of a tame ox. Andrés who never closed his fists. Andrés, who allowed his arms to drop.
“Sorry. I should have asked you about him.”
She stretched her arm out on the small table, as if she was stretching herself with the least elegance, and he liked those insignificant, strained muscles, the hand not as white as it once was eleven years ago, but steadier. She smiled tactlessly and loosened her face a little.
“Of course. He’s fine. He’s always fine.”
He couldn’t express himself nor was there disgust or gratitude in that almost stationary vehemence. But surely it wasn’t love.
“Why always? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing is wrong.”
Once again on the defense. She thought about Andrés’ ordinary ties, his proper, gray suits, with the invariable handkerchief in the pocket. She thought about the perfect way he folded his newspaper, his blue covered economic books with a white label, his academic description of things. She was right, he was always fine. She couldn’t imagine him wearing retail clothes or making love.
“That is defending oneself.”
She didn’t know from whom. There is an immemorial, renewable and trembling defense, an exact symptom of vacillation. Thus, one protects oneself from pure error, error without prejudice and that which might not be good in what is to come.
“I don’t know from whom. I don’t know if that is defending himself from me, Andrés or you. But before, you attacked instead of defended.”
Her head swayed; as if she had begun to compare the past and the present and couldn’t decide.
“Before, we were incredibly foolish. We would allow everything to occur and would only find the strength to chat, to listen to how the others chatted.
“And do you chat much with Andrés now? Or have you become less foolish?”
She liked the jovial voice of the attack. Her face relaxed a bit, as if demonstrating that she could look like the other Claudia.
“That too is defending oneself. This too is having changed. Before, you would have confessed that you were waiting for me to talk to you about Andrés.”
“Now I’m the Other one.”
Perhaps I wasn’t anything. But the Other one was him.11
- It’s not bad as a climax of the first encounter. It’s only a sentence and quite insipid. Furthermore, it was a sentence that wasn’t uttered. Its relative effectiveness rests in that he synthesizes the role changes, elapsed time, the appearance of the experience as a mute.
The second time was a Sunday in Palermo.12 Like two adolescents. She was without a hat and stubbornly young, as if she couldn’t enter another division of life.
- In reality, a Thursday. This meeting, unlike the one previous, is for the most part traced from reality. Perhaps because of that, it would literarily be the most vulnerable.
“Well, tell me what you did,” he said. “During these years.”
It wasn’t politeness. She really wanted to understand, enter into that new area. Her arms were hanging loose, without a purse, like those of a woman who was going to run an errand. Everything about her inspired a wary confidence.
“You know that already.”
“I know it because of the letter?”
He laughed openly, tilting his head back.13 How he had lied in those letters. Lied for Andrés and so that Claudia would realize that he was lying.
- A conventional gesture. Why can’t I write: “He laughed,” and nothing else? I should, however, add: openly, although further on that openness would be implicit. I should however, add: “tilting his head back,” which, within the character I imagine, represents an almost unlikely move. I should do it so that the Literature critic doesn’t once again accuse me of employing “horribly mutilated sentences, in the best stammering style.”
“I thought that you believed my magnificence.”
“Of course I do.”
“Andrés believes everything that adds to his pessimism.”
“Are my letters also an addition?”
“Your letters as well.”
Deep down that was it. He had deliberately tried to stimulate his pessimism. Andrés was responding with tedious lamentation, complaining about life and work, his salary and his vices; never about Claudia, of course, because in the end Claudia added her loving memories.
“Tell me what you did.”
“Are you really interested?”
This time he started to insistently ask himself about what she wanted from him and what he wanted from her and from himself. That was the past. A camaraderie among three: Andrés, Claudia and him. There was a major misunderstanding: that the friendship between Claudia and him was going to lead to something more. But it didn’t lead to anything. She married Andrés and he went to Buenos Aires. It was all a gesture. This was the present: after eleven years of marriage, Andrés would send her to Buenos Aires with the request – under the pretext – that she deliver a book (a book by J.B., for the utmost torture) and she would complete that mission with such diligence that she continued seeing him, like this very afternoon.
There were so many possibilities that they disoriented him. Evidently, there was some nonsense going on. Perhaps he was the idiot, for letting her escape, for not touching her. Or Andrés, for now offering her to him on a platter. And what if it was her, and that’s the only reason she would have led both of them, Andrés and him, to indifference?14
“Look, what I did was so insignificant that I would almost prefer to tell you what I didn’t do. This way we can feel bitter together.”
- Personally, I’m convinced that I was the idiot. More than an idiot, absent-minded. Not realizing that eleven years ago Alicia symbolized luck at hand was unforgiveable negligence. Today everything is different. It isn’t possible to go back nor recover the naiveté, or in other words the gift of talking rubbish without becoming agitated. It isn’t possible . . . but I don’t remember if this very same aspect developed further on in the story.
She wasn’t the idiot. Now he was sure. She appeared so defenseless that it was almost impossible not to hug her. A spontaneous double file of couples was forming: the maid with the fixed smile and the young man with the flat nose, stern during their inflexible private Sunday; the two adolescents isolated in their final rapture and their initial selfishness: the poor dirty old man, convinced of the fervent loyalty of the little wife with the round and jiggling buttocks who trotted alongside him, allowing herself to be looked at.
That was the past: Claudia filled with admiration and promises, and he telling himself there’s no reason to worry; him believing that life was going to remain there, detained in that unjust romance, one next to the other, protected – who knows why – alone in the cloud of smoke and filthy metaphors. This was the present: her searching for him, pressured, with the indispensable hatred toward Andrés, summoning him like someone who calls the substitute when the regular person has died or isn’t effective or resigns; him, stopped by force, stirred by the past and the promises that this one secured, but also imperceptibly injured by that feeling of deprivation toward him who they attempt to lift out of a garbage can.15
- It’s a common image, but both of them aren’t very thin. I shouldn’t forget that in part I am Lamas, nor also that I have experienced moments of dangerous depression during which I slowly savored some image of the same mold.
“I think that one can be honest. I was never, you know, one of those who stick posters of naked women to the headboard of the bed.”16
- Never. Generally, I hid those images in the letter X of the Larousse Dictionary.
“They do that?”
The naiveté, lasting and dated, wasn’t a joke. The new face, of impenetrable experience, that had learned so much in eleven years, lacked the minimum pornographic scholarship.
“The ones who do it are those who don’t dare to have them there, in body and soul.”
“And did you dare?”
“In body and soul?”
That was the past: Andrés acting as a witness, consumed with resignation and inertia; Claudia in the trap of cordiality, affection, compassion: as for him, so quiet because he thought very little, because he didn’t like to think nor talk nor worry. This was the present: Claudia eleven years hence, with her false cynicism, with a desire to win; him, sleepless once again, seeing what happened before very clearly and that which is today very confusedly; Claudia and him, now, behind the dirty old man and the jiggling buttocks, buying the tickets for the zoo, and Andrés acting as a witness today too.
“In reality, each new era always catches me off guard,” he was saying. “When you appeared I hadn’t understood the images of early adolescence yet. I had not become accustomed to discovering you and you were already married to Andrés. I had not accepted the diseased solitude to which that act was condemning me, when other women appeared. One after the other, when I still didn’t know what to do with the first one.”
“Now you’re here again. And I don’t know what I should do with the other Claudia.”
She didn’t say anything. The old man and the little wife were tossing candies to the monkeys. A young boy wearing a sailor’s suit was buying a yellow balloon and the older monkey was ostentatiously displaying his bright red buttocks.
“I don’t know what to do with the earlier Claudia.”
She became sad for the first time. Now cynicism was uncomfortable. Like a new suit. The young monkey was grabbing only the green candies, which were mint. Pursued, the female monkey came out with another baby monkey on her back, holding on like a disagreeable excretion.
“Perhaps she would know something if she understood Andrés.”
She wasn’t saying anything. Did she simply not dare, or could it be the same type of silence that he had used when he had nothing to say?
The viper barely moved in the long and filthy glass showcase, and that abusive life inside an inanimate horrible thing was like an inevitable mouthful of disgust.
“I can’t understand why she delegates you. It’s as if she thinks that I’m an imbecile or a pig.”
They mechanically looked into the pit that separated the rails. The guy was immobile, with his old horn nose awaiting the impossible lucidity. A little girl with braids who was hanging from an imperceptibly tall mother, was asking if it was a hippopotamus and the mother was saying no, but she wasn’t saying what it was.
After all he is (or was) my friend.17
Yes, that was the past: those three organized in a kind of mutual mocking, each one thinking that the other two didn’t communicate and that he was the only proper man. And this was the present: him, engaged in the search for motives, for remorse and for scruples, only somewhat prepared to carry the load of another affair, with the dead weight of his dubious conscience as a friend; him, engaged in conjecture in front of quiet Claudia, while they return to find the old man and the little wife still entertained in front of the eminent monkey who preferred mint candy.
- I understand that it is questionable whether I refer to Andrés-Miguel or the rhinoceros. The ambiguity doesn’t displease me because Miguel has always been a cuckold with a single horn: the one which he is quick to attribute to himself and accept.
When that tall woman, with a staunch face and large hands, opened the door for them, Claudia thought: “This is his lover.” But he kissed her with ease, like he would a sister, and then made the introduction: “Claudia. Lucía.”18 Lucía smiled. Her mouth was big, her cheekbones prominent. Claudia succumbed to her absurd and old conviction that people with large mouths were faithful, noble, and generous.19 (Andrés had a small mouth, but fleshy lips: the worst type among those with small mouths).
- Lucía is the real name. She’s the only one who can’t feel offended, for the simple reason that she subtly despises her fellow man, including his opinions and sustained prejudices. Lucía is, as a character, the purest I’ve written. Even in reality she continues to be a story character.
- This chapter is composed from the point of view of Claudia-Alicia. I like it, since I had to invent quite a bit. Anyone knows what Alicia thinks! I now notice that due to the lack of others and with the objective of filling certain gaps, I expressed some of my own points of view that I’ve only halfway rejected.
Lucía led them along a wide, badly lit corridor. She opened the second door on the left and stepped to the side so they could enter. It was quite a large residence, with an armoire, two bronze beds, a little table, and three beach chairs. He greeted her with a gesture and Lucía said: “This is Claudia, a friend of Oscar.” Then, without any transition, he asked her: “May I address you in the familiar?” She said: “Sure,” and he handed her his hat, his portfolio, and his gloves.
There were two guys sitting on the bed, one of them holding several documents in his hand. A quite unrefined and almost pretty, young woman whose face imitated Greer Garson was leaning against the shoulder of the man holding the documents. Another woman, thirty odd years of age, with straight hair over her left eye, and a big boy ten years younger, with a blue sweater and flannel pants, were very close together, leaning against the wall at the back.
Lucía read Claudia the roll call: “This is Carlos, who is unemployed; he lives off his parents. This is Fortunati, a mediocre poet who we like. This is Asia – for exportation – in reality, Josefa, who has convinced us of her beauty, so that fortunately there is no longer any discussion regarding that issue. Those two, contrary to all appearances, are now together only be accident; she is María, but she likes tangos, men, and poetry. She’s only fulfilled the second vocation. He is Amílcar; a kid, as you can see. He specializes in the robbing of books, translations from English, and automobile accidents. He drives without a license and writes without inspiration. Generally, we don’t like him.20
- All these types are from long ago, approximately five years. They never had any contact with Lucía. But, if she had met them, she would have introduced them that way. To her, the snob is the most contemptible of all the types. Furthermore, that is the secret of her biased cynicism and self-contempt, since she considers herself a bit of a snob.
The laughter that followed confused her much more than Lucia’s summary. The one who was celebrating the loudest was Asia-Josefa.21 When she could halfway calm down, she approached Claudia, took hold of her hands and asked, directing herself at Lamas: “Where did you find this cutie?” He was comfortable, reserved like he was eleven years ago, in this atmosphere of men and women, older and more idiotic than those from that time. “It is Andrés’ wife,” he said, but directing himself to Lucía. That contempt didn’t seem to matter to Asia and she put on her best mime face to tell Claudia: “Ah, Andrés’ little woman without Andrés! Why didn’t you bring him? How is he? Do you still like him?” Emerging through her straight hair from the wall at the back, María screamed at her to be quiet, but the other was saying: “Or did you come here to rest? It’s very rare that you can rest with Oscar. Unless Lucía says so. Or are you just a little friend?”
Claudia shook her head denying she didn’t know what.22 In reality, the denial was coming from deep inside, a kind of disgust for this which had constituted the naturalness of eleven years earlier and that now couldn’t even move her with a distant radiance, with that inevitable light of self-compassion that surrounds the attitudes of any past. That Oscar would have remained in this while she was hardening next to Andrés, seemed to her such an assured injustice, such uncomfortable inertness, like that of an individual who, having been quite celebrated for the act of sucking his finger during the first year of his existence, would claim the same success for the act of sucking it at thirty.
- The real Asia didn’t look like Greer Garson but like Joe Brown. Looking at her with indispensable serenity, it’s necessary to confess that she was scary. Nevertheless, I always felt so moved by her absolute and ingenuous conviction about her beauty, that I granted her unexpected sympathy. Everyone ended up admitting that she was intelligent and acceptable and furthermore, I know two guys who aren’t imbeciles who fell in love with her. Without success, moreover, because Asia found them horrible.
- This dialogue (or, better, its original) took place in Montevideo more than ten years ago. It was in Café Central and I especially remember Alicia’s reaction. I decided to include it, with variations (solely maintaining its intention), because in some way it should represent Alicia’s confrontation with her past, with our past, which these days, I’ve mentally confronted her with until becoming weary.
“That’s enough, Josefa,” said Oscar, and this time Asia felt humbled by her own name. She moved away from Claudia, apologizing: “You’re right, that’s enough. Don’t pay attention to me, I’m half crazy.”
“So, you’re from Montevideo,” said Carlos, misleadingly. Then Fortunati looked at her attentively for the first time and slowly commented, as if he was pulling along an unheard of truth: “The city that gave France three poets.”
Ultimately, Oscar looked at her compassionately. It was clear that she wanted to say something and couldn’t think of anything. She hadn’t spoken yet, but apparently they were only trying to get her to listen. “Lautréamont, Laforgue, Supervielle,” Fortunati’s erudition inexorably enumerated.
“So, you’re the one here who writes,” she was finally able to extract from herself, and she felt horribly awkward. “Yes, old girl,” said the one named Carlos, “he is the one who writes.” Then she, contradicting her life-long tact, was heard to say: “Read us something of yours,” and then, incredibly: “Please,” emphasized with a smile.
But the plea was too much. Fortunati picked up a document and quickly announced: “It’s one of my recent poems: ‘The Prayer of the Second Assistant.’”23
- Since the appearance of Barely Life, and the critic from Letras wrote that Lucas Orellano was conforming and was saying: “It has to do with some poems about destiny”; I don’t have the courage to stop writing them. “The Prayer of the Second Assistant,” is an ordinary and prosaic poem which I nevertheless like. Furthermore, this is a good occasion to see it published, despicably attributing it to a character as innocent as he is miserable.
Claudia noticed that everyone, even the lovebirds in the back, was approaching the reader. Fortunati added: “It’s the first time that I am reading it.” It was therefore a kind of preview, all the more extraordinary as it will never progress beyond that stage.
Fortunati closed his eyes for a moment, as if to seize momentary ecstasy, and then began to read, with his cracked voice of an old unpublished poet:
“Leave me this summer buzzing
and the holy absence of the siesta
It was horrible and nevertheless there was something pathetic about that trembling voice that had mentioned Lautréamont and which had its loving and wretched public.
“leave me this pencil
this writing pad
this impeccable two-month delay
this message from the tabulator
It was horrible and nevertheless transmitted a convincing resignation, an inevitable conformism in view of the double impossibility of writing something good and no longer writing.
“leave me alone with my salary
with my debts and my boss
but don’t leave me
When this fog of fiction vanishes
and You remain
if I remain.”
“See,” said Lucía, “he also knows that it isn’t any good, but we like it. Only ‘and You remain if I remain,’ is valid. The rest is long and boring, just an excuse to utter that ending. That’s why we forgive him. Because he says it.”
The guy had a resigned look on his face. As if Lucía had said what he deserved. Claudia, on the other hand, who was still quite confused and had murmured: “Very good,” or any other laudatory incoherence, was being observed by him with tranquil contempt.
She noticed, with a certain fear, that she was starting to feel lonesome. Inevitably, she thought about Andrés, the kids, home. It was the critical moment of nostalgia. Naturally, she would be better off in the little living room of the apartment, knitting, or listening to the radio, without any other worry than the next day’s menu or the repair of the floor polisher or the soles of her young daughter’s shoes. She felt uncomfortable in the affair to which she had condemned herself. But it wasn’t so difficult to overcome this discomfort. It was enough to imagine listening to Andrés’ moderate commentary about himself or any subject so that everything could appear new (these worn-out, sluggish guys, bad omens with bad posture), so that everything could appear spontaneous (the destitute verses, that bitingly sarcastic Lucía, at heart the tranquil femme fatale).
They continued talking, laughing with dislike, showing their teeth to each other. It was evident that they couldn’t surprise themselves. They knew all of their defects and their weaknesses by heart. They were bored with ridiculing, tolerating each other, being face to face.
“Why did you come here?” said María, and she was throwing her out.
“We have to go,” said Lamas, and he was throwing her out.
“Let’s see when you can bring her again,” said Lucía, and she was throwing her out.
And a long time before all those hands, saturated with tobacco, passed over her hand, she was already imagining herself on the street in a recovered independence.
Everything was proceeding like clockwork. He couldn’t believe that this had always been his room. Perhaps because he had never crossed the city to return home in the middle of the afternoon. 24 It was another room, with more light, without cockroaches or spiders, with Claudia’s almost fraternal perfume and the humble past, understood now or never.25
- The story is created in this chapter. A moment arrives when the possibilities branch off. From the instant he chooses one of them, the story will be created, not precisely because of the chosen one, but the rejects. That’s why reality poetically validates the story, because in this one reality is merely a rejected possibility.
- Here, especially, the story fails in its purpose. The reality is much more effective and can’t repeat itself. There was an untranslatable emotion about that arrival at my room. Furthermore, I think that I could have said it better and I didn’t. Despite not having illusions about myself, I am left with this final modesty and I want to preserve that bashful tenderness for my sole consumption.
It was quite clear that his behavior depended on an angry feeling of triumph. It had been many years since he’d laughed loudly, felt optimistic and uneasy, with this unaccustomed energy that seemed foreign to him.
“Oscar,” said the woman. She had thrown herself halfway across the bed, as if to become accustomed to what was to come. “What is she like?”
“Who? Lucía?” Claudia’s dress was gray and tight-fitting. “You can’t imagine how good she is.” A band of sun was now crossing diagonally across her back.
“I already know she’s good. But how is she with you?” She was looking at him seriously, in a manner more mature and timid than eleven years earlier. “Does she satisfy you?”
“Is it so necessary that she satisfy me?” he said. He was remembering the assured sadness that existed in cordiality, in Lucía’s absurd behavior.26
Claudia stretched across the bed until she reached the small table on the left. The band of sun was now crossing over her waist. Lamas felt weak and emotional when he realized how he was regaining his capacity to desire her. She had taken a hold of the shoebox that contained the photos, a lock of her hair falling across her forehead in a manner that on another woman would have been obscene. But she was still a girl moving her legs in the air like when she studied the Theory of Knowledge lying on the grass. The grass was now a mended bedspread and the legs showed a few varicose veins, some bold blemish on the ankle.27
- I thought that I was saying this for the story. Nevertheless, I wrote it because it’s true. Lucía is important to me.
- Those varicose veins, what an absurdly sad condition. The worst part is that I don’t feel compassion for Alicia: I feel self-pity, I pity my time inexorably limited by a little violet-colored and immodest blemish.
“Is this you?” she asked. The photograph showed (in sepia) a five-year old boy, very clean and barefoot. It was evident that the newspapers underneath his arm, the cap, and the cigarette butt, didn’t belong to him; they were a costume display.
“It was the first time I took off my shoes in public.” She noticed his small feet, extremely arched so as to touch the floor tiles as little as possible, and only then realized that indeed that was a confession, that he was delivering an absent-minded revelation of the past, and immediately tried to forever secure the great frustrated hope of that photo from another time and likewise tried to discover what still survived of that boy in this guy with grayish eyes, no longer so young, who had been desiring her for a while and lived always backing away. He realized that he considered this an insult, as if he could flaunt his backward motion. Nevertheless, she knew that for her part, it wasn’t long ago that she had hastened having to turn to that vague nostalgia.28
- I think it’s well said. There was an unforgettable moment during which we inflexibly examine ourselves and the miseries of the other proceeded to become the reflection of one’s own. Worst of all (I don’t remember if I mention it in the story) was the feeling of irretrievability. Not only could we not retrieve the other just as he had been, we also couldn’t retrieve ourselves either.
But Lamas had become bored with his own brooding. “I ask you for the last time,” he said. The tone was that of someone who should still be rehearsing what he’s going to ask. “What role do I play in Andrés’ mind?”
She returned the photo to where she had found it and slowly shrugged her shoulders, cowering. The mouth remained motionless and aged, but the eyes were convinced that the moment was approaching.
‘You’ve become a type of photograph over the headboard. When he hugs me, when we make love, he knows that you’re there like a guardian angel.”
“I think I finally understand that. But I don’t understand why he sends you here.”
“It must be to test me. To free himself from you, to free himself from me.”
“Who knows. For a while I’ve asked myself what kind of guy Andrés must be. I would prefer that he be a man possessed, one of those guys who destroys one with his vulgarity. At least I would know how to recognize him and recognize myself. But, the way he is now is unbearable, with his miserable, pandering intelligence, his self-compassion, his drunken desires, his non-defiant mistress, and his cherished diary.29 I’ve had his notebook in my hands and I haven’t opened it, because that would have meant acknowledging I’m defeated. I’m sure that he wants me to read it, even though I wouldn’t be able to tell him; that he writes for me, even though he pretends to create the story in good faith. Yes, at a glance it’s crap. But one never knows.”
- This must be a figment of Alicia’s imagination. I don’t think Miguel would be capable of jotting down his reflections daily. He’s very fearful, very egotistical, and egotists don’t keep a diary.
A man and a woman isolated in a room, semi-drugged by an advancing desire, have to necessarily make themselves resilient to endure the tenderness. Increasingly, the history signified less and the expectant bodies were more and more important.
When she approached the pocketbook and took out the document, Lamas recognized the stooped and hook-shaped characteristics.
“In any case, if there is crap, it’s this,” she said. She unfolded the letter with an unwarranted disgust, as if she didn’t want to see herself involved in that game. “And if not, look.”
He could no longer regain his air of self-confidence. He lit a cigarette so that he could have something to blame for the stomach pain that was sure to arrive. “For God’s sake, may she not read it,” he thought, initially out of desperation.
But she was reading it: “Dear old girl, old girl. Another night alone. Maybe you don’t care. I hope you don’t care, so you can entertain yourself with desire. But it’s horrible to be here, without your inevitable kindness.”30 Nevertheless, she was reading without any kindness.31 She was harsh and there was an obscene hatred in the intonation which accompanied that cloying.
“Sometimes I become unbearable. But how good it is to ask for your forgiveness and that you never leave me. Today I opened the armoire and inserted my head into your clothes, retrieving a little bit of your smell.”
- The transcription of the letter is faithful to its meaning. I’ve eliminated some domestic-sexual details which would have provoked the critic from Letras.
- At that moment I had the feeling of a modest freedom. I moved away instinctively.
Andrés diverted his eyes, but located the mirror and there saw her bent over, as if defeated by all that stimulating hypocrisy. “Last night I hugged the pillow, it’s stupid of course, but it’s also horrible to extend one’s hand and not find you. Naturally, the children exist, but I don’t know why today I don’t care anything about them. It matters to me that you return and that you never leave me. I have an insane desire to examine and understand your skin, even though I fear that you never belonged to me. Is it true?”
Then she had an angry outburst and crumpled up the document. Afterwards, she tucked in her legs and let herself fall onto the bed. Lamas was listening to her sob convulsively.32 She was traversing her legs with her hands, as if recognizing that skin that the other wanted to understand.
He started to feel the stomach ache and felt hesitant in the center of the room. Then he couldn’t stand it anymore and literally threw himself upon her. He took a hold of her face with both hands and looked at her with desire and solicitude, as if he wanted to angrily possess her and also remove from desire the existing amount of misery, viciousness and ridicule on that bed with two tired bodies.33 “He’s so despicable,” she said. “Untrue. He’s never desired me. He’s a frigid, self-involved person.”
- But she didn’t cry. The story contains the possibility that I hoped for, that which I sincerely would have preferred to happen. If she had cried, if she had appeared defenseless and hesitant, I would have forgiven that hatred precisely directed at the individual who I myself despise. But she shouldn’t have read me the letter, she shouldn’t have remained harsh, without desire, only waiting for me to possess her once and for all to add other reasons to the hatred.
- Now I understand how much I desired that outcome. I wanted us to be rehabilitated, feel foolishly good, isolated by desire, without rancor and forgetfulness.
He remained silent. He was simply performing the rite of opening her blouse. He wasn’t self-involved and she was allowing him to do it.
For the first time he was making love to Claudia.
For the first time he could see Andrés’ absurd face on the wall darkened by grime looking at him like a guardian angel.34
- In reality I didn’t have to approach. She had betrayed herself and she realized it. Even then she didn’t lose her rigidity. She smiled, was smiling. Everything was said, she left and won’t be returning. Now is the moment to ask myself why I didn’t want to do it. Because of the guardian angel? At first I felt hopeful thinking about my friendship. Afterwards I realized that it didn’t exist. He’s a mediocre person, hesitant, repugnant, but she shouldn’t have reminded me of it with so much violence. So was that the reason she became coarse, miserable? I really don’t know. Maybe Lucía is another guardian angel. It’s true that that doesn’t worry me much, but also that I don’t want to hurt her. And not wanting to hurt her is the least risky interpretation of love. It’s also likely that everything would have gone better if at that time Alicia and I would have seen each other, if Miguel had not made the one and only decision in his life. But, who among us judges who?
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.
a Spanish literary translator whose translations include the work of the late Mario Benedetti, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Ilan Stavans, and Francisco Proaño Arandi, among many other distinguished Latin American writers. His work has been widely published in numerous anthologies and has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Agni, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, MÄnoa, BOMB, WORLDVIEW, Puerto del Sol, The Iowa Review, Michigan Review, World Literature Today, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Denver Quarterly, among others. His English translation of two verse collections by Mario Benedetti, Sólo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948-1950 (Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948-1950) and Poemas de la Oficina: 1953-1956 (Office Poems: 1953-1956) and a volume of stories, El Resto Es Selva y Otros Cuentos (The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories) are published by Host Publications. His new English translation of Benedetti’s internationally acclaimed award-winning novel, La Tregua (The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé) is published by Penguin UK Modern Classics in September 2015.