Archive for the ‘Mario Benedetti’ Category

Who Among Us?

July 1, 2019

Who Among Us? is the third of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s novels (though the first written, in 1953) to appear in English in recent years, translated, as with Springtime in a Broken Mirror, by Nick Caistor. His previous novels demonstrate a writer intrigued by different narrative forms: The Truce is written in the form of a diary; Springtime in a Broken Mirror presents us with a chorus of different voices. Who Among Us? is perhaps the most daring yet – its love triangle, while not quite a ménage a trois, is certainly a recit de trois, a story told in three narratives: the first a journal, the second a letter, and the third a short story written by one of the characters.

Each member of the triangle (Miguel, Alicia, Lucas) tells the story from their own particular angle. It is Miguel who writes the first and longest section, having encouraged his wife, Alicia, to go to Buenos Aires to sell some property in the hope she will meet Lucas. He now regards their eleven-year marriage as the wrong choice for her:

“The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas.”

Miguel, Alicia and Lucas’ relationship dates back to their time at school, the first two quickly becoming friends with Lucas added when he arrives a year later at Miguel’s insistence. Though Alicia is closer to Miguel, he feels that her relationship with Lucas is somehow more necessary:

“It was plain the two of them really liked me, were loyal to me and would carry on being so. I was certain of that. They, however, did not like each other: they needed one another.”

Despite this, and a period after school when it is Alicia and Lucas who spend most time together, it is Miguel and Alicia who later marry. Even so, Miguel considers Lucas an important factor in Alicia’s choice:

“Probably Lucas sang my praises (I also praised him whenever I talked with Alicia; the absent person was always the star), and no doubt as a result Alicia became convinced I was the best of the three – and consequently the better of the two, Lucas and me, which in the end was the only choice that mattered.”

Miguel tells the story of his relationship with Alicia in a detached manner, frequently commenting on his lack of strong feelings. “I’ve never needed,” he tells us, “to be the reflection of other people’s affections.” The crisis in his marriage with Alicia is precipitated by a realisation that his feelings for her, even when she is pregnant, are lacking to the point of absence:

“All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced and that deep down I couldn’t care less about her or her condition.”

“I still don’t know if any any point was in love with her,” he says, “but that’s more because I question my emotional capacity.” Miguel excuses his indifference by portraying himself as the inferior member of the trio. As a teenager, he says, “I knew I was there as their witness… and consciously vegetated in their shadow,” going one step further to describe his relationship with his own life in the same terms:

“Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can’t even avoid being witness to my own life…”

He briefly describes a childhood where his father routinely abused his mother, where he is also a “silent witness,” winning the reader over with his honesty:

“I don’t want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.”

Or, at least, so it seems – at the end of the first section there is a revelation which I assume is the reason Jonathan Gibbs commented on Twitter:

“Blimey. Something’s just happened in this book… that makes me want to chuck it across the room and leave it there.”

Miguel is not, after all, a reliable narrator, as we quickly discover reading Alicia’s letter:

“I never understood why you insisted on brining me and Lucas together. I saw him as an intruder and wanted to refuse him entry, to cut him down to size, before the boundless prestige you endowed him with could begin to overshadow our fragile bond.”

The final section is a short story written by Lucas with footnotes on which he relates the characters and events in the story to those in his life (for example the character Claudia is Alicia) when he meets Alicia in Buenos Aires. Just as the previous narratives have allowed us insight into the narrator’s feeling, so too does the story in the gaps between reality and fiction.

Who Among Us? is masterfully constructed, refracting its three relationships through three different lenses, while also questioning a fourth relationship – that between text and truth: the stories we construct to explain what we do. Luckily Benedetti still has five other novels awaiting translation.

Springtime in a Broken Mirror

April 24, 2018

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.

The Truce

January 10, 2016


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.