The Truce (“La tregua”) by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Gary Gautier
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS
It takes a while to realize who the “truce” is between in this fine 1960 Uruguayan novel. I read it in Spanish so I may have missed something (and my native Spanish readers can comment), but the spoilers are definitely real, so best not to read this if you’re considering reading the book for the first time.
You don’t often see true love and existentialism as bedfellows in the arts. Even Shakespeare reserves his proto-existentialist threads for King Lear and Macbeth. Such threads are not for the romantic comedies, nor even for the love tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But although it isn’t clear until the end of the novel, Benedetti has masterfully woven those two themes together in The Truce. Martín Santomé, whose diary forms the novel, is an accountant on the verge of retiring. The diary of an accountant seems a subject for the mock-heroic form if ever there was one, but there is nothing mock-epic about The Truce. The quotidian nature of Martín’s daily life is indeed humorous at times, but it is a credit to Benedetti that we feel so bonded to the protagonist so quickly that the otherwise boring tableaus of his daily life engage us fully, even if it is a close-in engagement rather than the panoramic one we might get in a true epic. I, at least, loved my glimpses of his office routines, the casual friends that pop in and out, etc.
Martín is an aging widower who has very responsibly raised his kids, even though he does not know them very deeply. When he falls in love with Avellaneda, 25 years his junior, he suddenly realizes that he had been “dead” in inside for many years and now feels a spark of life that he did not even realize was missing. His diary account of falling in love is both funny and moving. Although classical versus romantic approaches to love and life is a perennial theme, I think it best to consider three options here: classic, romantic, and sentimental. The classical form is rational, balanced, stable (think of the pairings that work best in Jane Austen novels). The romantic is full of overflowing passion. For example, in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Coppola’s Dracula is as much a romantic hero as he is a gothic villain, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. The sentimental form is not rational like the classic and is not full of wild passion like the romantic but is something else – it is a matter of feeling, not of reason nor of wild romantic passions but of the simple affections that bind people in domestic bliss.
At first, Martín seems rather classical in his love. The emotions are real but maintaining balance and a rational discretion is important. Ultimately, though, I think his love proves the truest form, the sentimental in the case of this novel. Romantic love, in the specific sense of excessive/unbounded/dangerous, does not get much play in the novel. For better or worse, the characters are too grounded for that. Avellaneda’s parents perhaps demonstrate the shallowness of classical love, which tends to erode into a purely practical function, into something less than love. “They love each other, I’m sure of that,” Avellaneda says of her parents, “but I don’t know if that’s the way of loving each other that I like.”
BIG SPOILER: The existentialist undercurrent of the novel comes to the surface after Avellaneda’s sudden death. Martín realizes that any offer of meaning in life is a mirage. He reflects back on his few months of love with Avellaneda as a flashing moment of truce between God and himself, in which the dark world of the existentialists was temporarily put on hold. And in another flash all goes dark again, and the full weight of a meaningless universe descends like an inevitable curtain.
From the point of view of the final sequence, one can retrospectively see the veins of existentialism running through the novel. The quirky side characters are not pointers to some grand symbolic scheme, some ground of meaning, as they would be in a Charles Dickens novel. They are random, all surface and no depth in terms of the economy of meaning. Martín ’s relationship to his kids, loving, living up to one’s daily responsibilities, but without depth, the same. Even the sudden revelation of Avellaneda’s death – a casual, dashed-off note that she had died – emphasizes the irrational, empty “thrownness” of the world, as existentialists in the Heidegger line might put it.
Also in the manner of Albert Camus and the existentialists, The Truce mentions suicide several times. So I expected a suicide. But Benedetti, in true existentialist manner, knew that after a “truce” such as Martín’s, suicide would be too easy, a mere evasion. The prospect of extending indefinitely into the future a life totally void of meaning or joy or value – this prospect is more frightening, more powerful, and more telling philosophically, than death.
But something is different in The Truce, some excess that existentialism cannot contain. Yes, the final world is dark and meaningless, and Martín feels the full weight of it, but for the reader the novel is also a response to the existentialists. The end is sad, but the reader remembers the love between Martín and Avellaneda, and that love, although temporary, gives a deep value to the world that does not simply vanish, that is timeless, no matter what happens next. The beauty of this moment fills the universe, and even God cannot deny it. Maybe Avellaneda’s mother was right (although Martín himself cannot see it) when she said there is something sweet about our sorrows, something the darkness fails to snuff out.
So perhaps the truce that Martín reflects upon, the truce between God and himself that temporarily holds the absolute darkness at bay, is on another level a truce between these two economies of meaning – the economy of existentialism, in which all meanings cancel out, and the economy of human love, where human connection reaches such a joyous depth that the eternal darkness of the indifferent universe itself becomes trivial in comparison. Whereas the truce between God and Martín ends with Avellaneda’s death, and the darkness rushes back in, the truce between these two economies of meaning is less settled at the end. Which takes precedence? The darkness at the end that promises to extend indefinitely, or the light of the short-lived love, which belies the efforts of that darkness? Whereas Benedetti settles the first level of the truce, perhaps it is the up to the reader to settle the second.
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