Book review: 'Who Among Us?' is a bittersweet masterpiece about love

The original book by Mario Benedetti, one of the most significant Latin American writers of the twentieth century, is his third to be translated into English

Mario Benedetti. (Uruguay, 1920), one of Latin America?s most renowned writers.  (Photo by Mariana Silvia Eliano/Cover/Getty Images)
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Much of Mario Benedetti's life was a waiting game.

Born in 1920 in Uruguay to a family of Italian immigrants, he set out to be a writer at an early age. But success eluded him: despite publishing seven books over the course of four years he failed to sell a single copy. After juggling a series of menial office jobs to get by, he eventually made his name as a poet.

It wasn't until 1960 that his breakthrough novel, The Truce, appeared, from which point his reputation began to spread throughout the whole of Latin America.

But it wasn’t only literary recognition Benedetti waited for. An outspoken critic of military violence and political oppression, he was forced into exile from Uruguay following the brutal coup in 1973 and had to wait 12 long years to return to both his country and his wife. A decade on from his death and Benedetti is still regarded as one of the most significant Latin American writers of the 20th century. And yet it is only in the last couple of years that his novels have started to be translated into English.

First came The Truce, a tender tale that chronicled a year in the life of a widower on the cusp of retirement. Last year saw the publication of Springtime in a Broken Mirror, a late work about a family wrenched apart and scattered wide by political turmoil. Now Penguin Books has added another Benedetti title to its Modern Classics range.

Originally published in 1953, Who Among Us? revolves around three people and their fraught friendships and relationships. It is more a novella than a novel, but it punches above its weight and provides a deeper insight into human connections than most books twice its length.

Like The Truce, which unfolds by way of a series of diary entries, the first and main section of Who Among Us? comprises a sequence of notebook jottings.

Our narrator, Miguel, has recently said goodbye to his wife Alicia, and is now filling pages with an assortment of musings and recollections. Miguel remembers childhood incidents such as the arguments between his meek mother and aggressive father.

But what stands out, and what remains a constant source of joy, are the fond adolescent memories of walking home from school with Alicia. On the way they trade gossip, secrets and confessions, and slowly but surely fall in love.The dynamic changes when new boy Lucas arrives on the scene.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti published by Penguin Classics. Courtesy Penguin UK
Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti published by Penguin Classics. Courtesy Penguin UK

We learn that although both boys look similar, Lucas turns out to be everything Miguel isn't: assertive, straight-talking, in control of his feelings, and satisfied with his lot and the people around him – "as if he had never been affected by their egotism or life's incoherence".

Initially, Alicia refuses to accept this “intruder” as a friend, but soon they become an item. But later Miguel wins her over and they settle down, get married and start a family.

In the book’s second part, which switches the perspective and takes the form of a remarkably candid letter, Alicia explains to Miguel that they are incompatible, “simply rough copies”. For her, she believes their 11-year marriage was not so much a failure as “a misspent success”. As a result, she has left him for Lucas in Buenos Aires.

The third and final section sees Lucas, a writer and journalist, changing the names of the three key players and presenting this singular love triangle as a work of fiction. All of which could have amounted to a simple yet quietly effective tale of nostalgia and romance. But Benedetti’s unique characters help elevate a straightforward yarn into a complex drama. Alicia and Lucas prove compelling as they utilise their differences, enjoy stimulating debates and “spark off each other’s provocations”.

But Benedetti's unique characters help elevate a straightforward yarn into a complex drama.

But this is predominantly Miguel’s story, and it is his mindset and his version of events we find ourselves in thrall to. Benedetti paints an intriguing portrait of an apathetic, unambitious man, one who views himself as “second-rate” and considers life to be nothing more than “a sterile monotony of dilemmas, faces, desires”.

Alicia has become infuriated by his lack of emotion, chiefly his inability to feel jealous or display anger. Lucas, on the other hand, realised long ago that he has little in common with him.

However, Miguel is more interesting than he or his detractors think he is. His sincerity is as appealing as his self-deprecation. At unexpected junctures he casually drops in and enlarges upon a momentous event, be it a suicide attempt or an extramarital affair. And for a mediocre man who has led "a sideways life", he has a winning turn of phrase – skillfully rendered by translator Nick Caistor.

Intimate and intense, this bittersweet masterpiece is long overdue in English, but it is also clear proof that good things often come to those who wait.