La paz de los vencidos
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated to Santa Cruz from La Laguna, our lonely diarist supports his frugal existence by reporting to a dead-end job at a slot machine parlor. The diary’s dates span October 5 to May 2 of the following spring of a nameless year(s) that seems to be the late 1990s near the end of the Fujimori presidency.
In a series of moving, artfully crafted entries that impressively synthesize the emotional spontaneity of self-reflection and metatextual associations, the narrator explores his life, friendships, and love affairs past and present. Benavides’s limpid narration smoothly fuses memories, hopes, and the familiar anguish of the lovelorn bachelor with keen, critical observations––alternately piercing, touching, scathing, hilarious, and mordant––of contemporary life, and the perennial struggle involved in retaining one’s dignity while trying to remain true to intellectual attitudes and artistic aspirations. Like the narration, the dialogue––either reported or quoted––is also clear, straightforward, and plausible, never feeling contrived or artificial.
The novel is intriguing from start to finish, skillfully braiding numerous storylines into a satisfying, surprising, open-ended finish. The narrator focuses on a range of relationships that seem familiar but not predictable: his ex-girlfriend Carolina; his old friend Arturo from Lima, who fled to London after his parents’ assassination; a local couple: Enzo and Elena; the brilliant but seemingly washed-up novelist Capote; and a retired professor who tutors students at a local bar. His passing friendship with the professor, and his brief, melancholy interaction with a pretty young woman whose mother has a gambling problem, are also memorably touching. Sometimes the reader suspects, or hopes for, some particular outcome but each situation is resolved in an unexpected, realistic, and gratifying way through Benavides’ expert plotting and lovely, thoughtful turns of phrase; and all of them purposefully contribute, to a greater or lesser degree, to the narrator’s concluding sentiments and actions.
In some ways, Benavides’ novel echoes the leaner, meaner moments of Hopscotch––smart, touching, and funny without Cortázar’s voluminous obscurities. From all external appearances, and often by his own account, the lonely narrator seems merely a glib loser as he smokes, drinks whiskey (often a lot of it), contemplates women, and floats away on jazz, but through his clever, artful, perfectly paced diary he manages to be more immediately and artistically successful than Capote, who dreams of a prestigious Canary Islands literary prize, and Enzo whose jazz piano playing portends neither fame or fortune.
La paz de los vencidos combines the hook of popular novels and the robust intellectual reflection of the best literature; it’s sad, funny, and moving, never flat or monotonous––a territorial risk with diary narration. The story is urban, intellectual, and emotional, the humanity abundant and universal. Thanks to the narrator’s deft, amusing, and trenchant thoughts and speculations about his circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances, the reader is likely to sustain an authentic interest in the whole lot of them.
Jorge Eduardo Benavides has published nine novels or short story collections to date. He has received widespread recognition, and some literary prizes, for his work, including the XII Premio de Novela Julio Ramón Ribeyro for La paz de los vencidos. This is an excellent, memorable post-modern novel laced with an inviting dose of wry skepticism. Reminiscent of some famous examples of diary fiction such as Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and, for its humorous twists, V.S.Naipaul’s story “The Nightwatchman’s Occurrence Book,” Benavide’s writing displays a high level of literary craftsmanship comparable to the work of contemporary Latin American authors like Álvaro Enrigue, Ana María Shúa, Guadalupe Nettel, Juan Villoro, and Benavides’ own compatriot Santiago Roncagliolo. .
A good literary translator will find this novel a satisfying challenge but no headache: the prose is clear, smooth, and flowing, not overly Latinate; it is highly translatable and deserves to appear in English. If done well it will make a superb literary experience for many more readers, and add Beniavides’ name to the brief list of Peruvian writers known in the U.S.A.