I believe good fiction can provide insights about reality, so I like to read and review novels when I have time.
Quarantine has been a hard time—no classes, no socializing, no fresh air, and not many things to do apart from studying—but I have found some time to re-read a few beloved books, something that can be difficult to find time for in my busy everyday life during the school year.
Today, I want to share with you another of my favorite novels. Even though I enjoy British and American books a great deal, I also have a deep admiration for Latin American writers. After all, the realities of these persons are closer to mine.
I spent many hours during my teenage years reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also some bits of Isabel Allende, Julio Cortazar, and Laura Esquivel at school, but I did not come across Mario Benedetti until my late teens. It might be the only book I read at school that I actually liked.
Published in 1960, The Truce is the most celebrated of Benedetti's novels.
The story is written as the diary of the main character, telling the tales of his daily life over a year.
Martin Santome is an accountant who lives in Montevideo. He is a widow and has three kids, now grown-ups, who he raised on his own. His wife died many years ago while giving birth to their youngest child, Jaime. Santome has not had a stable relationship since then. Now, at almost fifty, he is about to retire and starts to wonder about the path he has chosen in life.
A new flock of young accountants starts in the office, among them a 25-year-old woman, Laura Avellaneda. Almost at once, she attracts Santome's attention, though he does not know exactly why. She is not decidedly pretty, nor does she show much passion for her job, even though she is a capable worker. She feels slightly intimidated by Santome, probably because she notices his glances and his kindness to her. His observations make him want to know her better.
A clandestine relationship begins that starts as something undefined and secret but ends up becoming a real love story and giving Santome happiness he has never known before. But when tragedy strikes Santome's life again, he tries to understand the meaning of that brief period of happiness—the truce life offered him—before returning him to his usual empty existence.
Perhaps there's a reason for this and it's that I'm obsessed with details, with gradations. So that if I were always displaying a maximum effort, what would I have in reserve for those moments (there are four or five per lifetime) when one should appeal to the heart in full? I also feel a slight resentment towards pretentiousness, and, to me walking around with one's heart in one's sleeve is just that: Pretentious.
— Mario Benedetti
Why Should You Be Reading It?
I have always been fascinated with books written in a diary or letter format. The writing feels so personal this way, as if the characters are telling the stories of their lives just for you to hear. Also, I write a diary, so when I read another person's, I wonder if mine is as clear? As interesting? As engaging? Am I able to capture everything I am feeling when I write?
This love story is one of my favorites in literature. I think that we have become used to very charged and passionate romances full of all the adornments and worn-out phrases that media sells us today.
Cinema, books, music—nowadays, everything seems to point at informality and put most of the light on the sexual side of a relationship, giving emotions second place. I suspect that it causes a lot of people to not appreciate books like this in which the key is simplicity and honesty.
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We see a couple that starts clandestinity with a lot of prejudices in their minds that keep them from feeling free—the difference in age, the working relationship, his family situation. We then see them work their way through those. We get to see companionship, support, and communication.
It is a relationship based on confidence. As Santome says at one point, what they like the most is to talk—to explore everything that happened before they met. For Santome, her presence is what pushes him to look at things in a different light—to remember. After many years of loneliness, he finds a person to share his life with.
She would place her hand in mine and nothing else was necessary. It was enough to make me feel that I was quite welcome. More than kissing her, sleeping together, more than anything else, she would place her hand in mine, and that was love.
— Mario Benedetti
Happiness and Regret
This book, as in other Benedetti's works, goes deep into the meaning of happiness. Is happiness something big and perpetual or a tiny and modest flicker of time? How long can it last, and how can we recognize it? Avellaneda's theory of happiness, created by her mother and mentioned by the characters on some occasions during the story, voices one of Santome's concerns.
The topic of God's existence is also recurrent. Santome comments in his diary how easy it is for other people to believe in Him and to make their own definition of God. As much as he wants to believe, he cannot find it in himself to do so, and it is a frustration for him because he feels a deep need to believe in something.
I think the key to understanding this character's uneasiness is his fear of mediocrity. He is almost fifty years old, and he realizes that he has settled for a certain life, even though he knows that he could have been something better. In his youth, he felt that he was meant for higher things, but he has achieved none.
Knowing that you could have done something does not really make up for not doing it. I think that it is a very human fear and one that has no age. There are so many things going on every day that require our attention that we tend to neglect others that we consider equally important. But occasionally, when we have the time to stop and consider our lives, we, like Santome, realize that we are not doing as much as we expected of ourselves.
I sometimes fear waking up someday and realizing I am in my mid-seventies, and I have not made any of my dreams come true—not because I could not, but because I kept postponing them. Even though I still have some decades before reaching my fifties, I can understand and empathize with this character's restlessness over this particular matter.
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. Hence, my routine never had character of definition; it was always been temporary [...] to be followed only as long as my procrastination lasted, and only to endure the onus of the work day during the period of preparation I aparently considered indispensable before finally launching into my destiny. What nonsense, huh?"
— Mario Benedetti
Apart from all these things, I think that my love for this book comes from a very personal place. When I first read the story, I was going through a difficult time. Somedays I felt painfully involved in my reality, but for some periods, I felt totally detached from it. Sometimes I felt as if I could not feel anything at all.
There is a particular part of the story when Santome feels moved by an episode that occurred in the office, and he writes: "I'm not dried up!" And this book made me remember just that—I am not dried up. It broke my heart in a way that very few books have managed, but I felt that at the moment, I needed it.
Santome's loneliness moved me, mostly because I was feeling very lonely myself.
The Truce came to me at the right time. That is what I call the magic of literature. The story and the characters are memorable, and Benedetti's beautiful prose makes the journey through the pages as delightful as it can be. All of this makes The Truce a book I will never stop recommending.
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