Reviewed by Travis McDonald
Most American readers have yet to become acquainted with Mario Benedetti, the prolific Uruguayan poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist, and political exile, who, by most accounts, published somewhere close to one hundred books in his lifetime. Though Benedetti has been translated into twenty languages and is considered a considerable force in twentieth-century Latin American literature, English translations of his books are few and far between.
It's no surprise then that Penguin would publish the novel that put Benedetti on the literary map, The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé, written between January and May of 1959 and originally published in 1960. The translation of this novel by Harry Morales, who has translated works by other Latin American luminaries such as Juan Ruflo, Reinaldo Arenas, Ilan Stavans, as well as two books of poetry and a short story collection by Benedetti, does an excellent job illuminating Santomé's voice, which is at once observant, idiosyncratic, and full of genuine pathos and self-deprecation.
What makes The Truce most interesting to me might rankle many contemporary readers and, in light of recent important social events and conversations, those criticisms would be fair to levy against the novel. For instance, one can imagine the eye rolls that might accompany a description of the book's plot: a forty-nine-year-old widower and accountant on the cusp of retirement falls in love with his twenty-something-year-old subordinate, and they begin a romance, which is the book's centerpiece.
I know, I know. This plot might be the last narrative readers want to give their time to, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement, while discussions about gender and power dynamics in the workplace are at the forefront of the cultural conversation. But the suspension over whether Santomé's story is a cautionary tale, or whether he is a character worthy of our sympathy, is left until the novel's final fifteen pages or so.
Benedetti does a successful job of establishing Santomé's listlessness as well as his melancholy in the book's first quarter. His wife has died more than two decades before the novel begins and he has spent those years raising his three children, who are grown now and not too enthused with their father. He is also working a job that he strongly dislikes and is hoping to retire from in six months after the novel begins.
Santomé is a ruminator as well as a keen observer, and there are a number of poignant insights throughout the novel such as: "The security of knowing that I'm capable of something better has allowed me to procrastinate, which, when all is said and done, is a terrible and suicidal weapon." Or, after he tells an old friend that his wife has died and that friend looks at his wrist: "There is a sort of automatic reflex which makes one talk about death and then immediately look at one's watch."
Putting these reflections aside, there's plenty of ammunition in these pages that might cause us to think the main character is simply crude when it comes to his opinions of women. The novel is written in the form of diary entries that take place over the course of three months and because of this, we're rarely inside particular scenes, though we're always privy to Santomé's thoughts on the goings-on in his life. These entries are mostly centered around his job, his grumpy children, his deceased wife, and eventually his romantic interest, Avellaneda.
Before they fall in love, here is Santomé's reaction to Avellaneda starting work in his office: "So now I'm truly a boss: I have no less than six employees working under me. And for the first time, a woman. I've never trusted women with numbers. Furthermore, there is another drawback: during their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly, they become complete imbeciles."
It's hard to know whether or not, at the time, Benedetti thought that these comments made Santomé somehow more relatable or witty, or if there is a fair amount of ironic distance between author and narrator, but these kinds of comments persist throughout much of the novel. For example, after sitting in a café for over an hour, Santomé notes: "exactly thirty-five attractive women passed by. To help pass the time, I made up a list on a paper napkin of what I liked best about each of them. This is the result: two had faces I liked; four, the hair; six, the bust-line; eight, the legs; and fifteen, the buttocks. It was a broad victory for the buttocks."
Then there are Santomé's feelings about his self-anointed favorite son who comes out to his family a little more than halfway through the novel. When his daughter tells Santomé that Jaime is gay and that he doesn't have a guilt complex about this, Santomé says, "'If I smash his head in with a few punches, you'll see how fast he gets a guilt complex.'" And then later: "I like the Tupín at this hour, very early, when it hasn't been invaded by the queers (I had forgotten about Jaime, what a nightmare)."
But if readers spend some time with Santomé, then I think they will find themselves rewarded by the unsuspecting final quarter of the novel, because there is probably a more generous reading to be had here, one that firmly registers Santomé's eventual plight at the novel's close. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the narrator makes it to his retirement day but stares into the rest of his life and isn't sure what to do with all of the time he has been greatly anticipating.
It's this perpetual self-doubt, coupled with Santomé's lack of extremity, that makes him all the more powerful. He isn't Patrick Bateman or Humbert Humbert or Alexander Portnoy. It's Santomé's everyday, casual chauvinism, along with his social conservatism, that makes him the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity—though even masculinity seems too strong of a word for Santomé—one that is still common today, of course, but perhaps fading into obscurity.
Novels should be allowed to transform and be transformed by time, and it seems obvious by this novel's end that Santomé's tale isn't a happy one and that Benedetti has been waiting throughout the previous one-hundred-and-seventy-five pages to give his character and readers this figurative gut punch that turns the main character's future inside-out.
In one of the many tender moments of the novel, Avellaneda claims that she loves Santomé because he is a good man, and Santomé responds by saying, "I believe that it's true; I want to believe that I am a good man." For me, the search for whether Santomé is a good man is the engine that drives this book, and although some readers might find this to be an undesirable task, this interrogation for many men is crucial and can perhaps be more effectively inspired through fictional forms than on the internet or in the media.