Inevitability postponed

Mario Benedetti’s La Tregua stands the test of time because of the way in which it holds out the promise of hope through love and transgression


La Tregua
Mario Benedetti
2006, Seix Barral (first published in 1960)
190 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

THERE COMES a time in life when all of us have to have to declare a truce in the middle-aged struggles that push us wearily and inevitably towards the grave.

La Tregua (The Truce) speaks in frank terms about the life of Martín Santomé, an ordinary man with a dull and mundane job who has spent the last 20 years of his existence as a widower and the devoted father of two warring sons and a gentle daughter, now all adults.

At 49, the only highlights of Martín’s life are his vivid memories of sex with his departed wife and the fact that he is about to retire. He pens a diary, while religiously going to the daily grind and making plans about how he will spend his time as the master of his own destiny.

But an accidental encounter on the way back from lunch with Mario Vignale, a friend of his youth, and meeting Laura Avellaneda, a young office recruit, transform Martín’s fate in a question of months.

The story is brief, yet well constructed and full of quirky meditations: “She died’ I said, while pulling the most inscrutable face in my repertoire. The word sounded like a bullet and he – at least – seemed disconcerted. He hurried finishing his third coffee and suddenly glanced at his watch. There is a kind of automatic reaction when someone’s talking about death and immediately you look at your watch”; or “What have I done with my life? A question that sounds like Gardel, Women’s magazine or a feature in the Reader’s Digest”.

‘Dear diary’ style

The “dear diary” narrative style of La Tregua is, importantly, the main strength of a novel that was first published in 1960 and gave Mario Benedetti, an established poet before this work, international recognition.

Yet although the book has been translated into 19 languages and has been edited 100 times, it has not yet entered English. It was influential in its time because it broke taboos dealing with homosexuality, loneliness, God, denial, the nature of memories, and growing old but feeling young.

Moreover, it developed the theme of the office as an analogy of life in Uruguay (then “a reasonable world apart”, as Benedetti would say): bureaucratic, suffocating, mediocre, slow, alien to irrational changes and sudden and unusual turns.

Even though this novel came at a stage in Benedetti’s writing classified as “pessimistic”, the clear, underlying message of this story is one of hope through love and transgression, a “truce” of new actions and dilemmas achieved against one’s expiry date. It is for this reason that this novel stands the test of time, capturing our efforts to confront the inevitable march towards death.

Benedetti is considered one of Latin America’s most important living writers and is best known for his poetry and political stances. From 1973-85, when his native Uruguay was under the rule of the military dictatorship, he lived in exile in Buenos Aires, Lima, Havana, and Spain.

In 2006 he joined the Latin American and Caribbean Congress for the Independence of Puerto Rico alongside Gabriel García Márquez, Thiago de Mello, Ernesto Sábato, Carlos Monsiváis, Pablo Armando Fernández, Eduardo Galeano, Jorge Enrique Adoum, Mayra Montero, Pablo Milanés, Luis Rafael Sánchez and Ana Lydia Vega.

Benedetti has published a number of influential works of poetry (La víspera indeleble (1945), Poemas de oficina (1956), La casa y el ladrillo (1977), Noción de Patria (1963), El amor, las mujeres y la vida. Poemas de amor (1996) , La vida ese parentesis (1997), Insomnios y Duermevelas (2002), Defensa propia (2004)), and his poems have been included within prominent international collections such as Che in Verse (2007).

His other novels are Gracias por el fuego (1965), El cumpleaños de Juan Angel (1971), Quién de Nosotros (1976), Primavera con una esquina rota (1982, Amnesty International Golden Llama prize 1987), Vientos del exilio (1982), Geografías (1984), Las soledades de Babel (1991), La borra del café (1993), Perplejidades de fin de siglo (1993), Andamios (1996) and El porvenir de mi pasado (2003), and he has also written short stories, essays and works for theatre.

The author has been honoured by universities in Uruguay and Spain, and in 2005 was awarded the prestigious Premio Internacional Menéndez Pelayo for his contribution to literature.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer