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Mario Benedetti: La tregua (The Truce)
Though the story is relatively simple, it is superbly told by Benedetti and this book really deserves to be much better known. Though it has been translated into English, it is long since out of print and not too cheap to purchase second-hand. It is the diary of Martín Santomé, a Uruguayan government official on the brink of retirement (though only aged forty-nine, fifty being the standard age for government officials to retire in Uruguay), widower of long standing and father of three adult children, though they all live with him. The diary recounts the period leading up to his retirement but, more particularly, recounts his love affairs with Laura Avellaneda, a twenty-seven year old woman who comes to work in his department.
Santomé’s wife Isabel had died giving birth to their third child. The three children are Blanca, Esteban and Jaime, the youngest, whose birth had led to his mother’s premature death. Blanca has a boyfriend, Diego, though during the course of the novel, the pair fall out, Esteban manages to get a job in the civil service through political influence, which his father strongly disapproves of. Jaime is gay, though Martín does not find out till later in the novel and we have seen him making disparaging remarks about gays. When he finds out that his son is gay, he asks to speak to him but Jaime walks out of the house and is not seen again. Martín has, by his own admission, relatively little contact with his children, though they do live together. However, he does have some contact with Blanca during the course of the novel, particularly when she finds out about her father’s affair.
Martín had not been sexually abstinent since his wife’s death but had merely had a few affairs and visited prostitutes. When there is a new intake of recruits into his office, including Laura Avellaneda, the only woman of the group, his initial reaction is to treat her as he treats all his staff – formally, with some distance but keeping a watchful eye. Benedetti’s great skill is showing how he gradually modifies his perspective, from disinterested employer to a man who notices a pretty woman to a man who is seriously interested in having a relationship with an employee, something which, as he himself says, he would never contemplate doing. He conspires to arrange to be where she goes to have her coffee and once she agrees to meet him there again, he tells her that he loves her. To his surprise, she says that she knows. They soon start an affair and he even buys a flat for the purpose. The affair seems to be relatively low key and though they clearly do have sex, much of his pleasure (and, apparently, hers) is just to be together and talk. It is his son Jaime, who finds out more or less at the same time that his father finds out that he is gay and he tells Blanca, before disappearing. Blanca and Laura meet and, initially unbeknownst to Martín, become friends. In his farewell letter, Jaime is very bitter about his father’s affair, feeling that it is a betrayal of his mother but Blanca is far more accepting.
Martín moves towards retirement, even though he is offered a promotion if he stays on but he declines. It is clear that he wishes to spend time with Laura, even though both are still working. More importantly, it is clear that he really loves her, admitting that she is far more important to him than his children, late wife and (male) friends. Sadly, things do not work out as expected and the diary ends the day of his retirement – alone. Benedetti, however, has left us with a wonderful description of a man who has a dull, routine life who suddenly finds his life transformed, gradually but definitively.
First published in Spanish 1960 by Alfa
First published in English 1969 by Harper & Row