Title: Who Among Us?
Author: Mario Benedetti (translated by Nick Caistor).
Genre: Fiction, literature, romance.
Publication Date: 1953 (translated in 2019).
Summary: Miguel and Alicia fall quietly in love as teenagers, walking back from school together. When Lucas – enigmatic, charismatic – arrives, everything changes, and Miguel is certain he has lost Alicia. Yet, against the odds, she marries him. Now, eleven years later, their marriage has begun to fray, and Alicia sets out to see Lucas again. As each member of this strange love triangle tells their side of what happened, an unforgettable story of desire, deception, and tragic misunderstanding unfolds.
My rating: 9/10.
♥ At night, after supper, when we chat about the office, the children or the new maid, I know she's thinking: "Instead of this, I could have Lucas here next to me, and there'd be no need for talking."
The truth is, the two of them were always so similar, had so much in common – whether they were arguing fiercely, at each other's throats, or locked in long, prowling silences, ready to pounce – that their behaviour always reflected that unlikely coincidence, with everything else (objects, friends, the whole world) cast out of their magic circle, left at a loss. And yet, there's no doubt that she and I connect in a different way, and what we need is to talk. For us, the protective cloak of silence doesn't exist. I'd almost say that the moment we engage in conversation about our own and others' trivial concerns, our chatter protects us from those ghastly blank interludes when we tend to glance at one another while avoiding each other's gaze: moments when neither of us knows what to do with the other's silence.
..When I look at Adelia and Martin playing peacefully on the carpet, and she looks at them, too, and sees, as I do, a shadow of brutishness that spoils their otherwise perfect faces, I know she is speculating more or else consciously about the inner glow, the intellectual spark those faces would have if they were Lucas's children rather than mine. And yet I like my children's coarseness: I like it that they don't recite poems they can't understand and don't ask questions about things that don't concern them, that they're only excited about what's immediate, that to them things like death or the spirit or sophisticated forms of emotion don't yet mean anything. At worst, they'll turn out to be practical, crude (especially Martin) individuals, neither pretentious nor spectacularly original. And that pleases me, even though I do, of course, acknowledge how ham-fisted, how cowardly, this timid, unspoken revenge of mine may be.
♥ There was also a time when I thought I was capable of great suffering, of enjoying one of those overwhelming passions that justify an entire existence. I imagined myself to be experiencing this with two or three women – all of whom were older than me, and who, as was only to be expected, treated me like a kid and couldn't care less about my grand theory of human passion. This made me so furious that I completely withdrew, with the aim of attracting and annoying them. Of course, for them this was no big deal; nor was it for me, because I soon forgot them. Only long afterwards did I realize that I had been utterly overwhelmed by this supposed passion long before anything had actually happened, before any of the women had demanded it.
..So, having given up any hope in the belief that I am an intelligent or passionate man, I'm left now with the less presumptuous notion that I am, at least, sincere.
♥ It's true the world is full of second-rate people, but not many of those can admit that that's what they are. I do. I also acknowledge that this absurd sense of pride isn't getting me anywhere, other than making me embarrassed and annoyed at myself.
Why do I think I'm so second-rate? Against what or whom am I to measure or compare myself? The fact that I can recognize the mediocrity of my actions, my intentions, even my failings, doesn't mean my character is intrinsically to blame for them. Most other people – apart from a few ambiguous exceptions – don't see to me so brilliant, either. Yes, the whole world seems second-rate to me, but that doesn't prove anything, apart from the fact that my idea of the sublime, the extraordinary, is not second-rate, because I know it is entirely unattainable. So what then? So, nothing, I suppose.
♥ The grey, lowering sky outside my window is also mediocre, a godless, sunless sky, of an unrelenting drabness that never impresses me. That other brilliant, luminous sky – the sky of joie de vivre, of Technicolor movies – is an illusion. This is my sky, and I have to make the most of it.
♥ Maybe all this began a long time ago, when I was a tiny child beyond the reach of memory. I'm profoundly envious of that little boy, stowed away in terrible oblivion, lost for ever, even if I'm shown sweet photos where I'm playing with the dog or stiff in a bright sailor's suit or cling tight to a teddy bear, a girl cousin, or chair.
I think that's where the secret lies: in that young gaze so completely at odds with the man I am now. It shows (together with its tremendous innocence, or rather, ignorance) another attitude towards the trials of life. What other person might I have been? I know questions like this will get me nowhere, but I sincerely believe, without knowing exactly why, that the only thing more pronounced in me than being second-rate is precisely that other self I might have been, and yet am not.
The mere possibility of this other self – even if, in my case, it's now moot – is enough to lend everyday life a different aspect. It's curious that I should for no particular reason believe I could have been better than I am, and that this belief suffices to make me feel both resentful and content. It's a kind of belated pleasure to imagine the likely continuation of certain past doubts, and to work out what the present would have been like if on various occasions I had chosen to take another path. But does that other path really exist? In fact, only the path we take exists. What might have been is worthless. No one accepts that currency, and nor do I.
♥ All of a sudden, my father raised his head, and his wild eyes began to pour out curses even before the words came. His hands were still clasped on the tabletop, but two fingers on the right hand rose and fell in unison. I suddenly realized something terrible was about to happen, and a dreadful, paralysing fear took hold of me. ..I'll never forget that moment, for two reasons: first, the sensation that, right then, I didn't exist for my father; and second, the certainty, as profound as it was inexplicable, that he was right to be insulting her. My father despised her weakness, the way she simply sat waiting; her passive, almost inert attitude. It was as though my father were attacking her to goad her and arouse her defences, and yet she remained voiceless, lacking any self-awareness, paralysed by terror.'
My entire childhood and part of my adolescence were nothing more than a prolongation of that scene: my father crushing my mother, defeated from the start; I the captive witness neither of them took into account. And yet the real conflict was happening inside me, because I understood and shared with equal intensity my father's wrathful logic and my mother's fearful paralysis.
♥ Just as in relationships between men and women, desire and raw sexual energy confuse and distort true affection, so the relations between a child and his parents frequently become twisted by the awkward feeling of dependence, the inevitably generational gulf in their understanding of the way things are, with self-glorifying experience on one side and no less arrogant naivety on the other.
♥ The fact is that life – how indecent to call it that, as though it were god given, as though it held some esoteric meaning and wasn't what we all know it to be: a sterile monotony of dilemmas, faces, desires! – the fact is that, from the outset, life always had a start on me, and I've never been able to catch up with it. Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can't even avoid being witness to my own life, considering just how far I lag behind in the feelings and esteem of those who expected something else from me
♥ There has always been a grey area where our gestures, silences and what we said could just as well have meant hatred or love, pity or indifference. When Alicia smiles, I never know if it's a real smile or a grimace, if it's spontaneous or comes from a fleeting, deliberate attempt to show compassion. It's obvious that there is in her, or in me, or in both of us, some impossibility, some misunderstanding, that spoils our love for one another. Because even though I've always been a failure, though I've always faced life anxiously and reluctantly, there was a time when I enjoyed the bitterness I felt, when I at least appreciated complementary contrasts, like colours cancelling each other out; there was a time when I confused hope with daydreams. This timid acceptance was easy to mistake for happiness, and perhaps justified the reputation I had back then (a lad who knows how to live, someone who has fun) that today seems almost a mythical memory.
♥ Only on rare occasions did we – ever so gingerly – bring up the topic of love as it related to others. We refused to fall into that insipid, repetitive dialogue, the verbal smooching of adolescents in love, and yet we stalked round it, in an area peopled by the smugly abolished past, our parents' inevitable lack of understanding, everything we thought so deeply about before falling asleep, and the future – the hidden, unfathomable, desperately makeshift future in front of us.
♥ Yet I've never wanted – and of course would never have found it possible – to be like him. I understand this may be merely a symptom of the most pronounced of my many shortcomings: my lack not only of ambition but also of envy. An envious person has willpower, the drive to make an effort, or at worst the impulse to do something, and indirectly this makes him distinguished, hard-working, tireless. Envy is the only vice nourished by virtues, that lives thanks to them.
♥ Despite this, I was determined to finish the book. Simply to please Alicia, I tried to formulate a judgment on it, and substantiate my view. I reread the book, filling the margins with marks, innocuous comments designed to show my interest. But when, handing it back to her, I started detailing my impressions, Alicia stopped me with an equivocal, revealing remark: "Oh, don't worry about it." This is a trivial detail, but it left me feeling both sad and relieved. Her discouragement put an end to my awkwardness, to my crazy attempt to be for her something I never was for myself.
♥ For him to one day write a story about me is the only chance I have of becoming someone brilliant. Yes, maybe if Lucas turned me into a character I would be brilliant, someone who only stays in the background out of modesty, and not because they can't do anything else; someone who lets others act out of generosity, and not impotence. I'm sure that in such a portrayal not even I would recognize the impenetrable egotist, the incurable coward that I really am. The fact is, art never ceases to be a lie; when it's true it's no longer art, and so it's boring, because reality is nothing more than irreparable, absurd tedium. But this turns everything into a blind alley for me. Real reality bores me, and art often strikes me as clever, but never effective or legitimate. Simply a naive means employed by certain disillusioned people, who are either shameless or melancholic, to lie to themselves, or worse still, to lie to me. And I don't want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.
♥ I've never been able to anchor myself to any one person in particular; I've never needed – I don't know if for good or ill – to be the reflection of other people's affections. And yet at first I felt a certain annoyance (albeit tinged with a certain pleasure) at finding myself alone. Alicia's absence, and the melancholy this absence produced, was for me a kind of falling in love, maybe the only kind that was (and still is) permitted to me.
♥ And so gradually I grew used to doing without them, and the effort it now costs me to reconstruct that earlier world shows that the past had also been stripped of its images, that I learned to do without my own memory of it.
♥ I'm convinced that if Lucas said it so brutally it was because of his lack of practice at instigating conversation, because he was unfamiliar with certain tricks or ruses that clever conversationalists employ to say the most insulting things with the greatest show of politeness. That's to say, it wasn't the words in themselves that hurt me, but the truth they contained. Usually we lie and flatter one another so brazenly that any truth always wounds us deeply: it forces us out of the time and atmosphere in which we are vegetating so comfortably.
♥ So that when I asked: "And when are you getting married?" thinking of her and Lucas, and Alicia replied: "Whenever you like," referring to her and me, the mere possibility that she wasn't joking, that everything depended on me alone – that mere possibility was enough to bewilder me, to undermine my reasoning, make me forget my displays of sincerity, my long-held policy of remaining indifferent towards life. For a fleeting moment I had the sense of holding that power in my hands, that the decisions was down to me. And that's how I spoke and behaved, as if I were master of Alicia and the situation. And yet my power didn't belong to me; nor did the decision, and nor did Alicia. I wasn't even the master of myself.
♥ I think Adelia is the only person in the world who sometimes understands me, even if she will no longer do so the day she loses her problematic innocence and starts to believe in her own originality. That's the crucial point at which we all turn into idiots.
♥ Martin never disconcerts me in that way. He's not very intelligent or sensitive, and will sail through life: he'll exist without having any inkling of his own insignificance, and this is a variant (maybe the only possible one) of happiness.
♥ I said something affectionate about her preganncy or the child, or about her. She smiled without much conviction, as though she found it hard to tolerate my interest and affability. All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced, and that deep down I couldn't care less about her or her condition. I decided to go the whole hog: I decided to give way – for that instant at least – to what my body, my feelings or possibly only my nerves were spontaneously pushing me towards, that is, not to impose any intellectual corrective, any urgent reasoning onto that moment. We stayed there in silence, me lying back, staring up at the damp patches in the ceiling, and Alicia propped up on the pillows on her side of the bed. I wasn't looking at her, and yet I was aware she was no longer smiling, that she was studying me as if I were a photograph in an album, the way we look at a face that was once important but no longer is, or simply has disappeared from our life but is still a useful reminder of some tiresome lesson that no longer applies. The fact that she didn't move wasn't aggressive, it simply meant she had suddenly come to a worthless, belated lucidity. There was no reason to retreat into worrying about it, because everything had become clear. I didn't move: not my head or my arm or a single finger. No part of my body was yearning to get closer to that woman, even though she was well on the way to assuming the rather corny yet moving dignity of becoming the mother of my children. I was on the point of telling her as much, about to indulge in a faint-hearted cruelty, but I realized that wouldn't have been any better. Then the circle closed and I returned to my cowardice, the cowardice of friendly words, affectionate gestures, the role of a proper husband. But by the time I started to run my fingers through her hair, and she once more adopted her unconvinced smile as an uneasy, problematic means of defence, I had again discovered that my tenderness was fake, forged again and again on the hollow prospect of a love that couldn't be meant for me, and which anyway I never did receive.
♥ "To anyone who doesn't have religion there is nothing particularly frightening about hopelessness. Just think, the whole of life is hopeless, the whole of life is despair." The house was silent: as on any other night, good or bad, the only noises to be heard were trams in the distance, the pharmacy's buzzing neon sign. Really, nothing had changed. Adelita on here deathbed and my despair were simply the confirmation that the world is a blind alley, a trap with no escape, a tremendous, brutal chaos. "The only consolation is to enter into the chaos, to become chaotic as well," Alicia was saying, and I raised my eyes. It was only at that moment that I recognized my own words. She was repeating things I always said. It was only then I understood how often I must have wearied her with my uninspired, sterile axioms. She was wreaking her revenge as she consoled me, as, of course, she was perfectly entitled to do.
♥ When there is faith, or when there is doubt, tedium arrives like sleep: at the moment when our will relaxes its grip. But when faith and doubt reveal themselves in their simple but profound relation they soon give way to astonishment at thew absurdity of existence, at God's marvellous indifference, and calm is restored for ever, and this endless calm is tedium.
♥ The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas. I don't think she was guilty of any kind of manipulation when she apparently chose me. She was terribly confused, that's all. She couldn't see clearly. I am the one who was responsible from the start. Even then I knew it wasn't right; and yet I closed my eyes and pretended to believer in the unbelievable; it was a form of self-harm.
♥ I've fulfilled my aim: to be the most sincere of second-rate beings, the only one of us aware of his ordinariness.
♥ The truth is that with her I feel protected against myself, my cowardice, my fear. Whenever someone convinces me that what I have to say is of value, that my opinions mean some thing, I'm unable to avoid a strong sensation of well-being. It's amazing, the effect of discovering that somebody depends on me, that somebody is on the alert for my reactions, anxious for my advice. Alicia, on the other hand, doesn't depend on me; that is, except when my presence exposes her limitations, she depends only on whatever bumps up against them; but within the boundaries this imposes on her, she lives her own life, in which I have no part to platy. The greatest (and only) reproach I have is the dreadful alienation she condemns me to, the conviction that, when it really comes down to it, I am irrelevant to her.
♥ I can't stop mentally linking Alicia with my view of the world. At least, she is the world I wanted to conquer and where I've always been an outsider. Teresa belongs to me, but Teresa is a body, not a world.
♥ Maybe it was good to write it all down. This seems like hatred. At last.
♥ I wonder whether I haven't finally found my vocation, my raison d'être. Because (I'm the first to be amazed) I'm not perturbed to feel that I'm a fool.
♥ Maybe it's no longer possible to bring ourselves up to date, and we are doomed to maintain a false memory of the other, to loathe and long for what we never were, or possibly only the worst of what we were. I'm sure you don't know me, just as I don't know you. Who can say how much there was in you and me that was good and worthy of love? Was there happiness within our reach that we were never aware of? But it's too late now.
♥ To me, our love was always a given (the first grave mistake, the original guilty silence over something we should have said out loud, disregarding our private sense of the ridiculous: since then I've become convinced that love always, inevitably, has something ridiculous about it). I always felt there was no reason to cast words onto a budding joy that was still uncertain, still on the verge of collapse.
♥ I've sometimes wondered who or what is responsible for you living such a sideways life, what makes you so attractive and despicable at the same time. You don't just accept things, and yet you don't set yourself against them. You always choose the most uncomfortable path, that of the implicated witness.
♥ My dearest, our marriage has not been a failure, but something far more terrible: a misspent success. All our happiness, which was more subtle than the usual kind, all our love, which was more honest than our fear, proved unable to prevail over all your pent-up rancour, all those compromises of pride and apathy, all that rigid, silent shame.
♥ It's so absurd that we're the same and yet have lost the courage, the ability to feel disgust or sympathy for the destiny, the fate of the other. That's because we're not the same, we are simply rough copies. Smudged copies.
♥ Don't disparage her, don't hurt her. Protect her. It will do you good. You need someone to protect, and I'm beyond it. (Despite appearances, I'm not being cynical writing to you in this way. Cynicism is no more than a residue of hatred, and I don't hate you, yet.)
♥ Eleven years have gone by with you dreaming of the moment when you could hand me back to Lucas, revelling in the advance at your sacrifice. And you were so clever that you never once mentioned it, as if our imperturbable life, our ineffable, loathsome idyll, were nourished solely by that ghastly complicity.
I have to admit you were right, right in the dreadful way you dreamed up. But I can't forgive you. I can't forgive you for making me prefer Lucas, when it was so much better to love you. I can't forgive you for the feeling of weariness and sordidness that inexorably accompanied my falling in love with Lucas. I can't even forgive you the simple fact of discovering I can't love him without utterly despising you. I can't forgive you for having become so much worse than I had hoped.
♥ Children unite, the most gullible happy couples say. Children tie you down, those who are unhappy say, those who are most demonstrably stupid. You and I are proof of the fact that they didn't unite us, and they don't even tie us down. They are witnesses, too.
♥ Besides, I know that with him I'm not going to stay silent. I no longer have any faith in implicit understanding, modesty or a sense of shame. This time I want everything to be said out loud, both the delightful and the repugnant, so that nothing is left to the imagination, so that nothing can betray us.
♥ You've spared me the anxiety of dignity, and that's already enough.
♥ If with her violent beatings my mother taught me not to have any illusions, I've learned for myself not to have any great hopes. Lucas is here, a limited, extraordinary but accessible source of happiness, and I, with the excusable feelings of guilt that both you and I are aware of – that only bother me like a minor ailment, a toothache or lumbago – I want to seize this opportunity, I want to offer myself to him, because he is the present, and I believe in the present. After all, it's the only religion I have to hand.
For now, allow me to believe that the children won't complicate your life, and that you will no longer complicate the life of the woman who can no longer be your
♥ Maybe the correct explanation has to do with the inability on my part to imagine in the abstract. I don't know how to tell myself stories; I know how to recognize the story in what I see or experience. Then I distort it, I add or subtract, I've always wanted (strictly for my own benefit) to register that distortion, but it's been a long while since a real story has happened to me.
♥ These footnotes (even if I find I am writing them with my reader in mind and employing a suitable tone) must always remain unpublished, strictly personal, for my eyes only. It's possible that as a result, the distortion my reality suffers when it becomes literature will be revealed: always supposing that when I write is literature.
♥ When it came down to it, what had she been to him? The mere fact of having her name echo in the present implied an allusion to "the life that ought to have been lived." But that proved nothing. People always transform history into legend. To begin with, the past is a series of perfectly ordinary pleasures and anxieties; it is the subsequent moments of tedium, of emptiness, that confer upon it a certain retroactive prestige. Would it be possible for him to make out, in his Claudia stage, how much she in fact had contributed by her attitudes, and how much was the product of unconscious ruses he had employed to convince himself of an image that was, most probably, completely false?
♥ But in later years everything became routine, altered only by the occasional day of hunger, or a woman who wafted nostalgia like cheap perfume, bu the grim sensation of being superfluous, or of not being truly alive.
♥ That other era of café-dwelling hadn't been bad, with Claudia sitting beside him as they listened to the idiots around them. In the midst of all the boredom, greasy lapels, visceral metaphors, there had been flashes of lucidity and a rancorous thick-skinned posturing that refused to be astonished by anything and was, after all, something to be experienced. You became rather giddy, but unlike the ones that came later, those nights didn't end up locked away as bad memories. They were perfectly balanced, because you could always imbibe the weary smell of clichés, droopy haircuts, half-stifled yawns.
♥ She's the only one, he thought. Then also thought that only a fool could think that.
♥ She held out her hand and he suddenly found he was indescribably dependent on this contact from the past. It was only a fleeting instant, but he was able to recognize her entirely. As if rather than her fingers, which seemed to him more fragile than ever, he had at the last possible moment grasped hold of a life-time sleeping away for ever.
♥ But he didn't say it. That would have been to invent a fake nostalgia. This was the moment for creating nostalgia.
♥ "You're on the defensive."
He had no idea. There's a constantly renewed and vague defensiveness that is a clear symptom of indecision. A way of protecting oneself against an immense, but honest, mistake that might threaten whatever the future holds.
♥ "Before, you'd have admitted you'd been waiting for me to talk about Alicia."
"Now I'm the other man."
"Maybe I was nothing. But the other man was him."
♥ She was hatless, clinging on to her youth, as if she refused to enter another compartment of life,
..She wasn't carrying a bag, and her arms hung down by her sides like a young girl running an errand. Everything about her inspired a wary kind of trust.
♥ Now everything is different. It's not possible to go back or to recover that early innocence, in other words the gift of spouting nonsense without getting upset about it. It's not possible...
♥ And this was the present: him embarking on a search for motives, remorse and scruples, only half willing to take on the burden of another adventure, with the dead weight of his uneasy conscience as a friend..
♥ Claudia shook her head, not quite knowing what she was denying. In reality, this denial came from deep within her, a kind of disgust for an attitude that had been normal eleven years earlier, but which now couldn't even touch her with a distant glow, with that glimmer of self-pity that accompanies the attitudes of any past. For Oscar to have remained in this world while she was becoming hardened by life with Andres seemed to her such a flaring injustice, such a painful stagnation, like that of someone who, having been highly praised for sucking their thumb during their first year of existence, wanted similar recognition for doing so at thirty.
♥ He couldn't believe this was the room he had always had. Maybe because never before had he crossed the city to arrive home in mid-afternoon. Suddenly it was a different room, with more light, no cockroaches or cobwebs, with Claudia's almost familiar perfume and the past tamed at last, finally understood now, or perhaps never to be understood.
♥ This chapter makes or breaks the story. It reaches a point where the possibilities diverge. From the moment one of them is chosen, the story is established, not so much because of the direction taken, but because of those that are rejected. That is how reality validates the story poetically, because in it reality is no more than a rejected possibility.
♥ "That was the first time I went barefoot in public." She stared at the two small feet that were arched as high as possible to avoid contact with the paving stones. It was only then she realized this was a confession, that he was offering her a casual revelation of his past. She tried to fix in her memory the immense, frustrated, hope evident in that photo from a far-distant past. She tried to work out what still survived of that little boy in this man with eyes that had turned grey, a man no longer so young, who for a while now had been desiring her body and yet was constantly pulling himself back. She was aware that she had regarded this as an insult, as if she could blame him for his withdrawal. Yet she knew that for her it was no great achievement to have succumbed to this fleeting moment of nostalgia.*
* There was an unforgettable moment when we studied each other pitilessly, and the other person's faults became a reflection of our own. The worst of it (I can't remember if I say so in the story) was the feeling of irretrievability. Not only was it impossible to recover the other person as they had once been, but we couldn't retrieve our own former self, either.
♥ A man and a woman isolated in a room, half intoxicated by their growing desire for one another, necessarily need to harden and move beyond tenderness. The past became less and less meaningful, their expectant bodies increasingly important.
♥ Miserably irresolute, his stomach began to ache and he stood looking at himself in the centre of the room. Then he couldn't bear it any longer and threw himself on her. Taking her head in both hands, he gazed at her filled with desire and concern, as if he wanted to possess her madly while at the same time freeing his desire from all that was wretched, contemptible and ridiculous on that bed with its two weary bodies.
* But in fact she didn't cry. In the story the possibility I was hoping for exists, what I would sincerely have preferred to happen. If she had wept, if she had shown she was vulnerable and hesitant, I would have forgiven her this loathing aimed precisely at the person I also detested. But she shouldn't have read me the letter, she shouldn't have remained so cold, without desire, simply waiting for me to possess her once and for all, in order to add still more reasons to her hatred.
♥ I understand now just how much I wanted that ending. I wanted us to be rehabilitated, for us to be able to feel we were stupidly good, isolated by desire, without rancour, forgotten.
♥ Maybe Lucía is another guardian angel. It's true that this doesn't bother me much, but it is also true that I don't want to hurt her. And not wanting to hurt someone is the least dangerous interpretation of what love is.