Many end of year selections deservedly identified the enormous contribution which small publishers make to translated literature. However, anyone interested in writers from around the world becoming available to English-speakers would do well to keep an eye on Penguin Modern Classics. Already this year we’ve seen the second book from Stanislaw Lem’s back catalogue and two new works from Brazilian Raduan Nasser, as well as a translation of Stefan Zweig’s novel, Impatience of the Heart. February will see the publication of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years; and last August saw the appearance of Uruguayan classic The Truce, Mario Bendetti’s debut in the UK six years after his death, and fifty-five years after the novel’s first publication. (This isn’t translator Harry Morales first attempt to bring Bendetti to a wider audience: a collection of short stories appeared in the US in 1997).
Bendetti was a Uruguayan writer who had the misfortune to be of the same generation as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. If The Truce is anything to go by, his fiction is much quieter, lacking the pyrotechnics of magical realism, focused instead on the everyday lives of the middle-classes. The Truce is sub-titled ‘The Diary of Martin Santome’, and that is the form it takes, recounting Santome’s life over the course of around a year. Santome could hardly be more ordinary: he works as an accountant and looks forward to the day he can retire; indeed, it is the first thing we learn about him:
“In only six months and twenty-eight days I’ll be in a position to retire. I’ve been doing this daily calculation of the time remaining for at least the past five years.”
His wife died a number of years ago and he lives with his adult children with whom he has generally awkward and uncommunicative relationships:
“Esteban is the most aloof. I still don’t know whom his resentment is directed at, but he truly appears resentful…Jaime is probably my favourite, although I can never understand him…It’s apparent that there is a barrier between us…At least Bianca and I have something in common: she, too, is a sad person with a calling for happiness.”
“A sad person with a calling for happiness” is an accurate description of Santome’s character, and it seems he may have a chance of that happiness when a young woman, Laura, joins his department. Despite having “never trusted women with numbers” he is forced to admit she is an “intelligent employee” (generally cynical, this comes as a surprise). He’s not immune to her physical appearance either:
“Every now and then I would sneak a look at her. She has pretty legs… She isn’t beautiful, but her smile is passable. Better than nothing.”
The diary form works well in both illustrating and easing the slow pace of the novel – a month passes before Santome admits to himself he is attracted to Laura. In the meantime he records his conversations with his children, and his irritation at running into an old friend who insists on renewing the relationship. Santome is not only an individual of habit, but one who wishes for few acquaintances – this emphasises how striking his decision to pursue Laura is. As we have only his viewpoint, it is unclear how Laura will respond.
Of course, as an older man, and Laura’s boss, such a relationship would be frowned upon today; but so reticent and gentle is Santome in his approach, it’s difficult not to feel sympathetic; at no point does Laura seem under any duress. He also worries about how his children will react. Though we are far from Romeo and Juliet territory, it becomes clear that a deep and genuine love is at the heart of his feelings.
So does Santome achieve the happiness that is his calling? The answer is, of course, yes and no, the novel’s title originating in a feeling that perhaps we have all had regarding joy in our lives:
“…it wasn’t happiness, it was only a truce.”
It is this exploration of happiness that makes the novel as relevant today as ever, and, while it’s easy to see why Bendetti was overshadowed by the Boom generation of Latin American writers, this quiet, ordinary novel is, in its own way, a classic.