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from the September 2015 issue

Mario Benedetti’s “The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé”

Reviewed by Samantha Schnee

This month, Penguin Classics will publish Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s La Tregua as The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé—fifty-five years after the novel was originally published in Spanish. Written as a journal, it is the poignant tale of how widower Martín Santomé’s affection for a young co-worker—to whom he refers only by her surname—blossoms and eventually conquers his reticent nature: “I always give less than what I have. That’s my style of loving: a bit reluctant, reserving my maximum effort for only the biggest occasions.” Over the course of a year, his love for his co-worker supplants that for his dead wife—and the novel remains as affecting today as it must have been when it was first published.

Translator Harry Morales has created an excellent voice in English for Santomé—and by extension the author who created him—conveying the protagonist’s gentle sarcasm, his reluctance, and the battle between his resignation to a life of solitude and his audacity to hope for joy. Santomé notes: “When she [his wife] died, laughter vacated my mouth. For a year I felt overwhelmed by three things: pain, work and the children. Later, my poise, self-confidence and composure returned. But laughter didn’t.”

As Santomé lets himself dare to hope for companionship and happiness again, he softens towards his children as well, who have grown over time to be strangers. On the whole, they are happy their father has found companionship despite the fact that his lover—Laura Avellaneda, always “Avellaneda,” never “Laura”—and his daughter are the same age. His elder son gives him a generous blessing: “I don’t judge you. I can’t judge you, and, furthermore, I would very much like it if you’ve made the right choice and get as close as possible to good luck.” Santomé’s joy at his children’s acceptance of his lover is marred only by his younger son coming out of the closet. Santomé’s reaction and his convoluted rationalization of his son’s homosexuality (has he failed as a father?) will seem like an anachronism to many, but fortunately there are no other vestiges of the era that will pull the reader out of the immediacy of the story and back into mid-twentieth century Uruguay.

Curiously, Laura Avellaneda remains a cipher throughout the novel; as the novel is a diary, perhaps it is fitting that the reader is left with only a vague idea of what Laura is like as a character. This doesn’t affect the reading of the novel adversely, because its focus is Santomé and his inner struggle to overcome his fear of loving and being vulnerable again. His children are also sketched in broad strokes; when they are first introduced, his eldest, Esteban, “truly appears resentful,” Blanca is “a sad person with a calling for happiness,” and about Jaime he says, “there is a barrier between us,” though at that point in time Santomé does not yet understand what that barrier is.

Although Santomé is a widower, this is at heart a classic tale of the middle-aged falling for the charms of youth. As sweet tenderness develops between the two cautious lovers, the inevitable question of children comes up. Santomé responds: “Don’t become sad . . . if you become sad I’m capable of ordering twins.” It takes some time, but they ultimately succeed in building the intimacy that has so long eluded Santomé, only to have it destroyed by circumstances beyond their control just as Santomé resolves to propose marriage. And so it is that this brief hiatus in his life of isolation becomes the titular truce between Santomé and a god he has no reason to believe in. The fact that this truce comes to an end precisely when Santomé is due to retire at the age of fifty–after paying off a municipal colleague of his son’s in order to be able to enjoy an early retirement, with pension—is a double-whammy.

On occasion it seems that Benedetti himself appears in the manuscript, as when Diego, Santomé’s future son-in-law, says he thinks “the apathy of our people, their lack of social drive, their democratic tolerance of fraud, and their pedestrian and innocuous reaction to mystification are fatal . . . . On the day the Uruguayan feels disgusted about his own passivity, he will become useful.” Written in 1959, these lines are not without irony; Benedetti was forced into exile in 1973 with the advent of a military dictatorship, and returned to Uruguay only when democracy was restored in 1983.

Benedetti was a member of Uruguay’s Generation of 1945, an intellectual and literary movement that included Juan Carlos Onetti and Amanda Berenguer, among others. The Truce was the inspiration for the 1974 film of the same name, the first Argentinean film to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Foreign Film). The novel was one of over ninety-five works of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay that Benedetti wrote during the course of his lifetime, very little of which has been translated into English.

Santomé’s persona is likely to resonate with a broad audience, not just fifty-year-old men like himself; he is a well-intentioned man who has encountered difficult circumstances through no fault of his own and is simply overwhelmed by life. In one of his first diary entries, he writes, “But everything was always too overly demanding to allow me to feel happy.” At one point he is accosted by a drunk stranger on the street who grabs him by the arm and says, “Do you know what’s wrong with you? You’re going nowhere.” This sentiment, too, will strike a chord with many a modern reader.

There are few references to his life before the death of his wife, Isabel, but even when they do appear the reader senses that either Santomé was too young and inexperienced to appreciate what he had (Isabel died of complications from Jaime’s birth) or perhaps he wasn’t truly happy then, either. He spends more time being haunted by the fact he cannot remember his wife clearly any longer. When the eldest son (who was four when Isabel died) says he does remember his mother, Santomé reflects, “How does he remember? Is it like me, with memories of memories, or directly, like someone who sees their own face in a mirror? Is it possible that Esteban, who was only four years old a the time, can possess her image, and that I, on the other hand, who has logged so many, many, many nights, am left with nothing?”

The reader may even wonder whether the happiness he finds with Laura truly exceeds his happiness with Isabel or whether Santomé has been living in emotional isolation so very long that his intimacy with Laura feels that much sweeter by comparison. But for readers of Benedetti’s work, as well as those who have yet to discover him, the publication of this book can best be summed up in much the same words as Martín Santomé’s late-life opportunity to love and be loved once more: better late than never.

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