Springtime in a Broken Mirror

Until 2015, when The Truce was translated by Harry Morales, Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti had been largely ignored by the English speaking world. Three years later a second novel, Springtime in a Broken Mirror, has appeared, this time translated by Nick Caistor – a much shorter time period than the twenty-two years which separated their original publication (Benedetti wrote eight novels over fifty years). Initially it seems an addition to the large Latin American library of dictatorship lit, but in fact, like The Truce, its interests are more domestic.

The novel is told from a variety of viewpoints. It begins in the voice of Santiago, imprisoned in his native Uruguay, but goes on to include his exiled father, Rafael, his wife, Graciela, his daughter, Beatriz, and his friend, Rolando. Each voice has its own title: while Rafael’s is simply headed ‘Don Rafael’, Santiago’s is (unusually but appropriately) ‘Intramural’, and Graciela’s is ‘Battered and Bruised’. Each also has its own style. Graciela’s, for example, is in the third person and generally consists of dialogue; Santiago’s is written like a diary or letter; Rafael’s is presented in a single paragraph each time as if revealing his thoughts. There are also chapters in italics entitled ‘Exiles’ which relate the writer’s experiences:

“At approximately six p.m. on Friday 22nd August 1975, I was reading, relatively carefree, in the apartment I rented on Calle Shell in the Miraflores district of Lima, when someone rang the doorbell downstairs and asked for Senor Mario Orlando Bendetti. That already smelt fishy because my middle name only appears in official documents. None of my friends ever uses it.”

The author’s experience of exile reflects that of the other characters. Rafael questions:

“Am I a foreigner? There are days when I’m sure I am; others when I don’t attached any importance to that at all, and other still when I in no way admit my foreignness to myself. Can it be that the condition of being foreign is a state of mind?”

Even Beatriz is challenged by her exile:

“This country isn’t mine but I like it a lot. I don’t know if I like it more or less than my own country. I came here when I was very little and can’t remember what that was like any more.”

Santiago, on the other hand, is experiencing an internal exile, separated from those he loves. Trapped not only in his cell, but in his mind, he seeks control where he can find it:

“I was being tyrannized by my memories. Then, one evening, I thought, I’m going to free myself from this tyranny. And from that moment on, I’ve been the one controlling my memories.”

However, as Rafael warns:

“The past becomes resplendent and yet it’s an optical illusion. Because the poor, dismal present wins a decisive battle: it exits.”

This matters in a practical sense as, during the course of the novel, Graciela’s affection for Santiago diminishes and her love for Rolando grows:

“I still love him. How couldn’t I, after ten years of a wonderful relationship?… The problem is that our forced separation has made him more tender. Whereas it’s made me tougher.”

Rolando is aware that Graciela is preoccupied. “Can it be I’ve been transformed, by exile, into as different woman?” she asks. He believes that her doubts over her relationship with Santiago are caused by her physical needs and asks her if she has erotic dreams:

“When I’m awake, I do day dream. You’re going to laugh. I dream of you.”

As their relationship blossoms, the question becomes whether to tell Santiago while he is in prison or wait until his release:

“He’s a prisoner there, but I’m also imprisoned in my situation.”

Springtime in a Broken Mirror does a number of things extremely well. It explores the price of protest – imprisonment and exile – in the context of everyday life rather than political legend. Further, it uses these experiences to examine our relationship with the past on a personal level without ever losing sight of the national context. Ranging across a number of characters – each different, each convincing – our understanding and sympathy flourishes. Building emotional tension, Benedetti skilfully delivers his climax using his multiple narratives to fashion a conclusion which is both subtle and heart-breaking. Hopefully more of his work will follow.

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6 Responses to “Springtime in a Broken Mirror”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds incredibly well done. I love a multiple narrative.

  2. Melissa Beck Says:

    What a wonderful review, Grant. Going to order this one!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    While reading your review I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rodrigo Hasbun’s novel ‘Affections’ which uses a variety of different voices and tones to build up a broader picture, almost like the literary equivalent of a collage. You may well have read it too?

    And I do recall you writing about this author before – in fact The Truce is still sitting on one of my wishlists somewhere! Too many books, too many books…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it is a little like Affections, though I preferred this. The Truce is also good – in fact, I’ve now ordered his only other book in English – a collection of short stories.

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