Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (1953, tr. Nick Caistor, 2019)

My contribution to this year’s Spanish Lit Month is Who Among Us?, an intriguing, elusive novella from the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, who uses a variety of different forms to examine this timeless story of love and misunderstandings.

Miguel and Alicia have been married for eleven years, but over time their relationship has drifted and soured, partly due to another element in the frame – that of their childhood friend, Lucas, whose shadow hangs over the couple like a ghostly presence. Many years earlier, it seemed as if Alicia might marry Lucas, the pair arguing passionately together, with Miguel observing quietly from the sidelines. However, it wasn’t to be; in time, Alicia became convinced that Miguel was the better of the two men, prompting her to choose him over Lucas when deciding on her future.

Miguel’s side of the story is presented as a series of undated diary or journal entries – possibly a notebook that Alicia may well get to read at some point. Through these reflections, Miguel comes across as a passive, unambitious man – neither jealous nor envious of Lucas and his position in their relationship. Rather, Miguel views himself as somewhat subordinate or second-rate; a spectator as opposed to a participator. Possibly as a consequence of this, he now sees his marriage to Alicia as something of a mistake.

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 believe in the unbelievable; it was a form of self-harm. (p. 53)

The turning point comes when an opportunity arises for Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires on a family matter. Miguel takes full advantage of this event, encouraging his wife to meet with Lucas while she is in the city – Lucas having moved there following Miguel and Alicia’s wedding several years before. 

In the book’s second, relatively brief section, we see another side of the story through a letter Alicia has written to Miguel. By contrast with the reflective nature of Miguel’s journal, Alicia’s missive is somewhat barbed and emotional, laying much of the blame for the breakdown at Miguel’s door.

You and I have made lots of mistakes, but I sense now that our greatest single, our most unpardonable, error has been never to talk about them. We missed out on that chance for openness, the one most couples seize as they daily insult and curse each other, finding equal pleasure in these moments of hatred as they do in those of appeasement. (p. 63)

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. (p. 66)

The triangle is completed with Lucas’s perspective, presented as a fictional version of his meeting with Alicia. It is, in effect, a short story, complete with footnotes which explain certain aspects of the text and their relationship to actual events.

What I really liked about this book was how each of the two subsequent sections – those from Alicia and Lucas – cast a different light on the reflections from Miguel, reframing his perception of events, thereby questioning our understanding of them too. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail. We’re never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists – who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others?

It’s also an interesting way of presenting what some might consider a rather familiar narrative – a love triangle involving three closely-connected individuals, where the relationships between them change and develop over the years. While Benedetti flexes his style from one section to the next, certain aspects of the book – Miguel’s account in particular – reminded me of some of Javier Marias’s work with its focus on self-examination and self-reflection.

In writing this thoughtful, jewel-like novella, Benedetti has given us a multifaceted story of love, missed opportunities and mismatched emotions. Recommended for those who enjoy character-driven fiction, particularly in a variety of different styles.  

Grant (at 1streading) has also written about this book – you can read his review here.

Who Among Us? is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

13 thoughts on “Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (1953, tr. Nick Caistor, 2019)

  1. Brian Joseph

    Super review. Your description of the plot does make this sound unusual. It is not the typical love triangle for sure.

    Stories told from different perspectives are fairly common but can still be very good in the hands of a skilled writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think Benedetti handles this well. The technique could be seen as a bit gimmicky in the hands of a lesser writer, but luckily that’s not the case here.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. When we spoke about this I though how good it sounded, and the three different perspectives do, as you say, bring a different angle to the eternal triangle. It also calls into question memory and truth, in the way all three accounts would presumably be considered truthful by the protagonists. Makes you think that most history really *is* bunk!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. Memory can be a very slippery thing. It’s a theme that often interests me in literature – the selective nature of memory, how it changes and evolves over time, how our own perceptions of a situation become our personal ‘truths’. It’s a fascinating topic, one that Benedetti explores very effectively here.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Lovely review, Jacqui. It does sound that the love triangle here is explored differently and with some depth, over the three perspectives. I have read one book for Spanish lit month, but I have three other books to review before it, if I stick to the order I read them, which I may not.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I like how the style of each section reflects the personality of the person concerned. So Miguel’s journal entries are meditative and meandering while Alicia’s letter is more urgent and emotive. It’s very skilfully done, I think.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Thanks for the link. I do love this type of book where you have to read backwards as well as forwards!
    I wish more of his work was available, though I do have the short stories to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I wasn’t aware of the short stories. Will have to investigate at some point – maybe after Springtime in a Broken Mirror, which is the one I’d like to get hold of next…

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Thoroughly enjoyed the review and many thanks for putting this writer on my radar (I’m only beginning to read translated literature). I love character driven novels and am very fond of “showing situations from multiple angles” works. As for a love triangle — well, it never really gets old, does it? I’ll definitely put Benedetti on my list of writers to check out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. As you say, there’s probably a reason why the classic love triangle remains a stalwart of literary fiction, even to this day. Particularly when the author approaches the scenario from a different angle, as Benedetti does here. As a writer he’s well worth checking out. I think this is the third of his novels to be reissued by Penguin in the last 3 or 4 years, so he’ll clearly enjoying a mini-revival.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  7. buriedinprint

    Oh my…this ticks so many of my particular booklover’s boxes. The focus on relationships, the multiple perspectives, the slightly experimental approach to form (but in ways which I especially enjoy). Now I see that the library copy is in demand, which fits with your theory that he is having a bit of a “moment”, but I will keep an eye for this one. Thanks for making it sound so enticing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you like the sound of this. I found it fascinating from a structural point of view, almost like a puzzle that the reader has to piece together. And the use of different styles very much reflects the nature of each individual character’s personality. I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you do decide to read it. :)

      Reply

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