Authors: Mario Benedetti
PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
Mario Benedetti (1920â2009) was a Uruguayan novelist, poet and journalist and is considered to be one of the most important Latin American writers of the twentieth century. He was the author of more than ninety books and his work has been translated into twenty-six languages, including Braille. After becoming active in left-wing circles he was exiled from Uruguay following the military coup d'Ã©tat of 1973, only returning following the restoration of democracy in 1985. He eventually settled in Montevideo, continuing to write until his death in 2009.
Harry Morales is a Spanish literary translator whose translations include the work of the late Mario Benedetti, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Eugenio MarÃa de Hostos, Emir RodrÃguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Alberto Ruy-SÃ¡nchez, Ilan Stavans and Francisco ProaÃ±o Arandi, among many other distinguished Latin American writers. His work has been widely published in numerous anthologies and has appeared in various journals. He has translated two verse collections by Mario Benedetti,
SÃ³lo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948â1950
Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948â1950
Poemas de la Oficina: 1953â1956
Office Poems: 1953â1956
), and a volume of stories,
El Resto Es Selva y Otros Cuentos
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories
Mi mano derecha es una golondrina
Mi mano izquierda es un ciprÃ©s
Mi cabeza por delante es un seÃ±or vivo
Y por detrÃ¡s es un seÃ±or muerto.
â Vicente Huidobro
In only six months and twenty-eight days I'll be in a position to retire. I've been doing this daily calculation of the time remaining for at least the past five years. Do I really need leisure so much? I tell myself no, that it's not leisure that I need, but the right to work at what I love. For example? The garden, perhaps. It's good as a relaxing activity on Sundays, for counteracting a sedentary life, and also as a secret defence against my future and guaranteed arthritis. But I fear I couldn't bear it every day. The guitar, perhaps. I think I would like it. But it must be lonely to start studying music at forty-nine. Writing? Perhaps I wouldn't be too bad at it, at least people usually enjoy my letters. And so what? I can imagine a short bibliographical note about âthe considerable merits of this author who is nearing fifty' and the mere possibility of it repulses me. That I should still feel naÃ¯ve and immature (with only the defects of youth and almost none of its virtues, that is) doesn't mean that I have the right to display that naivety and immaturity. I once had a spinster cousin who, when she made a dessert, would show it to everyone with a sad and childish smile. She had worn that smile since the time when she had striven to impress her motorcyclist-boyfriend, who later killed himself on one of our many very dangerous âDeath Curves'. She dressed appropriately, suitable to her fifty-three years; in that and everything else she was discreet, and poised, but that smile lay claim, on the other hand, to a
twenty-year-old's lips, magnificent skin and shapely legs. It was merely a pathetic gesture, a gesture that could never appear ridiculous, because in that face there was also kindness. So many words just to say I don't want to seem pathetic.
In order to do passable work in the office, I have to force myself not to think that my retirement is relatively near. Otherwise, my fingers twitch and the round letters that should be used for the main headings turn out broken and inelegant. Round letters are one of my best distinctions as a public servant. I should confess, furthermore, that I am moved by the design of certain letters like the capital letter âM' or the lower-case âb', in which I have allowed myself several innovations. What I hate the least is the routine, mechanical part of my job: going back to review an entry that I've written thousands of times, arriving at a sales balance, and finding that everything is in order and that there are no discrepancies to look for. That kind of work doesn't tire me because it allows me to think about other things and also even (why not admit it to myself?) to dream. It's as if I were divided into two different entities; contradictory, independent: one who knows his work by heart, expertly handles its variations and surprises, and is always sure of what he is doing, and another: a feverish dreamer, frustratingly passionate, a sad man, who nevertheless had, has and will have a happy calling; an absent-minded man who doesn't care about where his pen writes or what is written by that blue ink which will end up black in eight months.
In my job, the routine isn't what is unbearable; it's the new problem, the unexpected request of that ghostly Board of Directors who hide behind records, provisions and Christmas
bonuses; the urgency with which one requests a report, an analytical statement, or a financial forecast. Then yes, because it's about more than routine, my two halves should work for the same thing. I can no longer think about what I want, and fatigue settles on to my back and neck, like porous plaster. What do I care about the probable gains of the Pernos de PistÃ³n account in the second half of the fiscal year before last? What do I care about the most practical way of lowering overhead expenses?
Today was a happy day; just routine.
None of my children is like me. In the first place, they all have more energy than I do, always appear to be more decisive, and they are not accustomed to having doubts. Esteban is the most aloof. I still don't know whom his resentment is directed at, but he truly appears resentful. I think he respects me, but you never know. Jaime is probably my favourite, although I can almost never understand him. I think he's sensible and intelligent, but I don't think he is fundamentally honest. It's apparent that there is a barrier between us. Sometimes I think he hates me and at other times I think he admires me. At least Blanca and I have something in common: she, too, is a sad person with a calling for happiness. But in regards to everything else, she is much too suspicious about her proper, inexchangeable life to share her most difficult problems with me. She's the one who spends the most time at home and perhaps she feels enslaved by our untidiness, our diet, our dirty laundry. Her relationship with her brothers is often on the brink of hysteria, but she knows how to control herself and, furthermore, she knows how to control them. Perhaps deep down they love each other very much,
although this kind of love between siblings carries with it the quota of mutual exasperation which makes this custom possible. No, they're not like me. Not even physically. Esteban and Blanca have Isabel's eyes. Jaime inherited Isabel's mouth and forehead. What would Isabel think if she could see them today, preoccupied, active and grown up? And I have a better question: what would I think if I could see Isabel today? Death is a tedious experience; for everyone else, especially for everyone else. I should feel proud about being a widower with three children and having come out ahead. But I don't feel proud, I feel tired. Pride is for when one is twenty or thirty years old. Doing well with my children was a duty, my only escape from coming face to face with society and the unyielding look that is reserved for heartless fathers. There was no other option, and so I did well. But everything was always too overly demanding to allow me to feel happy.
At four o'clock in the afternoon I suddenly felt unbearably empty. I had to hang up my satin smock and tell the Personnel Department that I had to go to the Banco RepÃºblica to solve that money order problem. That's a lie. What I could no longer bear was the wall in front of my desk; the horrible wall completely covered by that enormous calendar with February dedicated to Goya. What is Goya doing on the wall of this old company that imports automobile spare parts? I don't know what would have happened if I had continued looking at that calendar like an imbecile. Perhaps I would have screamed or initiated one of my habitual series of allergic sneezes, or I simply would have immersed myself in the neat pages of the
cash-book. This is because I have already learned that pre-outburst stages don't always lead up to an actual outburst. Sometimes they end in splendid humiliation, an irremediable acceptance of the circumstances and their diverse and offensive pressures. Nevertheless, I like to convince myself that I shouldn't allow myself any outbursts, that I should radically restrain them if I don't want to lose my poise. Then, I leave like I left today, in an enraged search for fresh air, for the horizon, and who knows what else. Well, sometimes I don't reach the horizon, so I find contentment in sitting at the window of some cafÃ© observing a few pretty legs go past.
I am convinced that the city is different during office hours. I recognize the Montevideo of men by their schedule, those who arrive at eight-thirty and leave at noon, and those who return at two-thirty and leave without fail at seven. With those tense and sweating faces, with those rushed and stumbling footsteps; with those, we are old acquaintances. But there is the other city, the city of fresh, well-bred girls, recently bathed, who come out in mid-afternoon â perfumed, scornful, optimistic and witty; of mummy's boys who wake up at noon and who by six in the evening haven't yet soiled the impeccably white collars of their imported silk shirts; of the old men who ride the bus to the customs house and return without ever getting off, thereby reducing their moderate spree to the lone comforting look with which they traverse the Old City of their memories; of the young mothers who never come out at night and who, with a guilty look on their faces, go to the three-thirty film matinee; of the babysitters who badmouth their female bosses while the flies feast on the children; of the many retired and bored people who think they are finally going to gain their entrance to heaven by feeding crumbs to the pigeons in the plaza. Those are the ones who are unfamiliar to me, at least for now. They are settled
much too comfortably in life while I become nervous and weak in the presence of an enormous calendar with its February dedicated to Goya.
Coming from the office this afternoon, I was stopped in the street by a drunk. He didn't protest against the government, didn't say he and I were brothers, and didn't touch upon any of the innumerable topics of universal drunkenness. He was a strange drunk, with a special light in his eyes. He grabbed me by the arm and, practically leaning on me, said: âDo you know what's wrong with you? You're going nowhere.' Another man who was passing by at that moment looked at me with some cheery understanding and even winked at me in solidarity. But it's already been four hours and I'm still uneasy, as if I were really going nowhere and I'd only just now realized it.
When I retire, I don't think I'll continue to write this diary. By then, there is no doubt that far fewer things will happen to me, and then it will be unbearable for me to feel so bored and, furthermore, to leave a record of it. When I retire, perhaps it would be best to give myself up to leisure, a kind of drowsy compensation, in order for my nerves, muscles and willpower to slowly relax and become accustomed to dying well. But no. There are moments when I have and maintain the luxurious hope that retirement will be something full, rich; the last opportunity to find myself. And that would really be worth writing down.
Today I lunched alone in town. As I was walking along Mercedes, I came across a man dressed in brown. At first he feigned a wave. I should have looked at him suspiciously, because the man stopped and, with some indecision, extended his hand. His face wasn't an unfamiliar face. It was like a caricature of someone whom I, in the past, would have seen often. I shook his hand, mumbling my apologies, and somehow managed to admit my confusion. âMartÃn SantomÃ©?' he said, displaying a ruined set of teeth in his smile. Sure, I'm MartÃn SantomÃ©, I thought, as I was becoming more and more confused. âDon't you remember Brandzen Street?' Well, not very well, I thought. It's been about thirty years and I'm not famous for my memory. Naturally, as a bachelor I lived on Brandzen Street, but even if I were given a thrashing I couldn't say what the front of the house looked like, how many balconies it had, or who lived next door. âAnd the cafÃ© on Defensa Street?' Now the fog cleared a bit and for a moment I saw the belly and wide belt of the
Alvarez. âOf course, of course,' I exclaimed, enlightened. âWell, I'm Mario Vignale,' he said. Mario Vignale? I don't remember, I swear I don't remember, I continued thinking. But I didn't have the courage to tell him. After all, the man seemed so enthusiastic about the encounter â¦ So I told him I remembered him, to please forgive me, that I was terrible with faces; so much so that last week I had bumped into a cousin and had not recognized him (a lie). Naturally, we had to have coffee, and so my Saturday siesta was spoiled. For two hours and fifteen minutes he persisted in reconstructing details to convince me he had
been a part of my life. âI even remember that sensational artichoke omelette your mother used to make. I always came by at eleven-thirty to see if she would invite me to eat.' And he let out a big laugh. âAlways?' I asked him, still suspicious. Then he was suddenly embarrassed and said: âWell, I went three or four times.' Now, which part was true? I asked silently. âAnd your mother, is she all right?' âShe died fifteen years ago,' I replied. âDamn, and your father?' âHe died two years ago, in TacuarembÃ³,' I replied. âHe was staying at my Aunt Leonor's house.' âHe must have been old.' Of course he was old, I thought. My God, how dull. Only then did he ask the most logical question: âHey, did you finally marry Isabel?' âYes, and I have three children,' I replied, being brief. He has five. What luck. âAnd how is Isabel? Still attractive?' âShe died,' I said, assuming the most inscrutable facial expression in my repertory. The words sounded like a gunshot and he â thank goodness â became confused. He rushed to finish his third coffee and immediately looked at his watch. There is a sort of automatic reflex which makes one talk about death and then immediately look at one's watch.
It's hopeless. My encounter with Vignale left me obsessed with the memory of Isabel. It's no longer about discovering her image through the familiar anecdotes, the photographs, or through some gesture made by Esteban or Blanca. I know all of her characteristics, but I don't want to know them second-hand but rather to remember them directly, see them before me in every detail, just like I see my face in the mirror now. And I can't find it. I know she had green eyes, but I can't feel her gaze on me.
I don't see my children very often. Our schedules don't always coincide and our plans and interests even less. They are polite to me, but because they are tremendously reserved, their politeness always appears to be merely the fulfilment of a duty. Esteban, for example, always holds back in order to avoid discussing my opinions. Could it simply be the generation gap that separates us? Or could I do more to try to reach them? Generally, I view them as being more incredulous than they are foolish, and more engrossed in thought than I was at their age.
This evening we had dinner together. It had probably been two months since we all had a meal together as a family. I asked jokingly what we were celebrating, but there was no reply. Blanca looked at me and smiled, as if to inform me she understood my good intentions and nothing more. I then began to listen to the scarce interruptions of the sacred silence. Jaime said the soup was tasteless. âThe salt is four inches away from your right hand,' replied Blanca, and scathingly added: âWould you like me to pass it to you?' The soup was tasteless. It's true, but what difference did it make? Esteban reported that starting in six months our rent would be raised by eighty pesos. Since we all contribute, the situation isn't too serious. Jaime began to read the newspaper. I think it's rude when people read the newspaper while dining with their family, and I told him so. Jaime stopped reading the newspaper, but it was as if he hadn't, because he continued being sullen and angry. I related my encounter with Vignale, trying to make light of it in an attempt to introduce a little levity to our meal. But Jaime asked: âWhich Vignale is it?' âMario Vignale,' I replied. âIs he partly bald and has a moustache?' âThe same,' I replied. âI know him,' said Jaime. âHe's a piece of work, a friend of Ferreira's. Well known for
accepting bribes.' Deep down I'm glad that Vignale is a worthless piece of filth, and therefore have no qualms about brushing him off. Then Blanca asked: âSo, did he remember Mum?' I thought Jaime was going to say something, that he had moved his lips, but he decided to remain quiet. âLucky him,' Blanca added. âI don't.' âI do,' said Esteban. How does he remember? Is it like me, with memories of memories, or directly, like someone who sees their own face in the mirror? Is it possible that Esteban, who was only four years old at the time, can possess her image, and that I, on the other hand, who has logged so many, many, many nights, am left with nothing? We would make love in the dark. Perhaps that's the reason. I'm sure that's the reason. I have a tangible memory of those nights, and it's indeed direct. But what about the daytime? During the day we weren't in the dark. I would arrive home tired, full of problems, perhaps even furious with the injustice of that week, that month.