» Book Review
Before & After the Pinnacle of Happiness
The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé by Mario Benedetti
Translated by Harry Morales
Paperback, Penguin UK, 2015
“In only six months and twenty-eight days I’ll be in a position to retire.” So begins Mario Benedetti’s The Truce—a novel that takes the form of the brief and intimate diary of the forty-nine-year-old Martín Santomé, a Uruguayan widower living in Montevideo in the 1960s. Martín’s attention to life’s mundane details, like the shapes of strangers’ legs and his coworkers’ nervous sneezes, combined with his frequent accounts of exhaustion, are what make him feel real and familiar right away. Although his world is small and provincial, his reflections are universal.
The novel was originally published in Spanish (Editorial Nueva Imagen, Montevideo, Uruguay ,1960) and was published in English by Penguin UK Modern Classics in Harry Morales’s English translation in 2015. Readers should be grateful to Morales for not only capturing the contradictory nuances of Benedetti’s resigned-yet-open voice so perfectly in English—but also for inviting a wider audience to enjoy this timeless story of love and sorrow. The translation in today’s context gives the novel a fresh, new meaning. The novel is about learning to appreciate the present, but the way in which it approaches the present is charmingly old-fashioned.
Early on in the novel the protagonist’s daughter, Blanca, laments to her father, “Sometimes I feel sad, over nothing more than not knowing what I’m missing.” The girl’s sentiment is one that hardly exists today. On the contrary, modern readers tend to be acutely aware of what we are missing; we are inundated with online images and texts that remind us of what-could-be on a daily basis. It’s amusing to think that the very reality we have now is what Blanca might have been yearning for. Yet it’s precisely this feeling of Blanca’s desire—a desire her father also shares—that serves as the emotional premise for the entire novel.
The novel embodies the thrill one feels when finding something he never even knew could happen. It’s about the retrospective discovery of a hole—a discovery made only after that hole has been unexpectedly filled. In the case of our protagonist, this hole is romance. Romantic love is the last thing Martín Santomé expects or even wants to find. He is tired. He seeks only leisure and some rest, yet at the same time is depressed by the prospect of a blank agenda. The love affair he begins with his twenty-three-year-old assistant, Laura Avellaneda, just before he enters his retirement, is hardly original. But it’s the way in which this experience moves and reinvigorates him, that is so potent and inexplicably memorable.
Martín’s celebration of his own surprising happiness is made all the more intense by his keen acknowledgement and understanding of the fragility of life and its transcendence. In a small moment midway through the novel he narrates:
She had got out of bed, just like that, wrapped in a blanket, and was standing near the window watching the rain. I approached, also looking at the rain, and we didn’t say anything for a while. All of a sudden, I realized that that moment, that slice of everyday life, was the highest degree of well-being, it was Happiness. Never before had I been so completely happy than at that moment, but still I had the cutting sensation that I would never feel that way again, at least at that level, with that intensity. The pinnacle of happiness is like that, surely it’s like that.
Martín Santomé’s unexpected bliss is poignantly balanced with an underlying fear of loss: “Are we burning?” he asks his lover. The novel beautifully explores the frightening contradictions that are inherent in love, and it’s easy to see why the book still stands as such a revered classic in Latin America, and why it deserves to be read everywhere else. Harry Morales’s translation of La Tregua is a novel you will read without stopping and will never forget. It will be a physical experience that marks you, twists you, and pulls something out of you. It will make you weep and narrow your eyes at details you’d never before noticed: the wood of a table, a dog outside a window. It will make you think about your own emotional life like a chart on paper: where do the peaks and the valleys lie? And, most importantly, what happens in between them?