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LITERATURE: Mario Benedetti, the Most Beloved of Uruguayan Writers

MONTEVIDEO, May 19 2009 (IPS) - The literary oeuvre of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti, who died Sunday night, is enormous and diverse, comprising dozens of books of poetry, songs, novels, short stories, chronicles, essays, plays and humour. As he himself used to joke: “The only thing I never wrote is an opera.”

On his long journey through the world of letters, he enjoyed commercial success, the praise of many colleagues, translations into dozens of languages, prizes and the unconditional affection of his readers. But he also had to face harsh critics, writers and professors who did not appreciate his work, or condemned his political positions.

No one questions, however, that Benedetti was the most Montevidean of Uruguayan writers, and the most beloved. He was perhaps the most distinguished member of the “Generation of ‘45,” which also included Ángel Rama, Carlos Martínez Moreno and Idea Vilariño, and was a group of intellectuals with a strong critical focus and a marked interest in political and social affairs.

Benedetti’s writing in those early years was marked by his extraordinary capacity for observing social behaviour and his affinity with the city and urban themes.

His first significant book was “Poemas de la oficina” (Office Poems – 1956), a handful of texts in which he portrayed the existential drama of an entire social class – the urban petit bourgeoisie – trapped in the bureaucratic routines of a benevolent and omnipresent state.

That was during the boom years in Uruguay, or as Benedetti described in one of his poems, “the green country with its tramcars,” so different in appearance to the Latin America of indigenous people, strongmen and dictators.

From today’s vantage point, that country, known as the “Switzerland of the Americas”, seems make-believe: a creditor of the great European powers, with solid democratic foundations, leading exponents of culture and sports, and a capital city like Montevideo which prided itself on being “one hundred percent European.”

This was the Uruguay that still celebrated its poet Juana de Ibarbourou as “Juana de América”, and that also celebrated its World Cup football victory at the Brazilian stadium of Maracaná, in 1950.

The country’s social fabric, however, was starting to unravel. Benedetti was not only able to detect the early signs of this collapse, but also to describe it simply and clearly, relinquishing stylistic flourishes in order to gain in directness and in communication with his readers.

If the “Poemas de la oficina” were a remarkable letter of introduction into the national literary scene, his novel “La tregua” (The Truce), published in 1960, made his reputation both as a writer and public figure.

The book had a modest first print run, but became an immediate best-seller. It was quickly translated into several languages, winning its author international fame that had previously been almost unheard of for a Uruguayan writer.

“La tregua” tells the story of an office worker called Martín Santomé, who in later life falls in love with his co-worker Laura Avellaneda. Dramatic tension is achieved by resorting to something as simple and true as life itself: the heroine’s illness and death.

Written in the style of the main character’s diary, the novel easily awakens the reader’s empathy for the characters, as well as reflections about the grey routine of day-to-day life. Emotions are accurately conveyed and words are kept to a bare minimum.

Many have wondered about the secret of this book’s success. The novel has even been translated into Chinese and is in its 175th official edition (not counting the dozens of pirate editions that have circulated in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and other countries).

The key to understanding the popularity of the novel, which was made into a film by Sergio Renán in 1974, is the simplicity and depth of the urban plot that nearly everyone can identify with.

Another novel by Benedetti was “Gracias por el fuego” (Thanks for the Light), published in 1965, a story of domestic misery with a shocking ending. The main character, Ramón Budiño, is the son of a powerful magnate with business and media interests and strong connections in the political world.

Ramón refuses to take part in the family’s dirty dealing and plots the murder of his father, but finally throws himself from the roof of a building.

The novel was a finalist for the 1963 Biblioteca Breve prize, awarded by the publisher Seix Barral, in Spain. However, the book was censored by the Spanish dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975) and was not published in that country until 1974.

Benedetti told how, before the novel was published in Uruguay, he gave it to some of his writer and critic friends to read (Martínez Moreno, Rama, and Juan Carlos Onetti), and several of them raised objections to the ending, which they found too far-fetched.

“In Montevideo people do not kill themselves by jumping off buildings,” they said. But a few weeks later, on the day the book was launched, a man jumped from the 20th floor of a building in downtown Montevideo. Benedetti, straight-faced, would joke: “I swear I didn’t hire him.”

Having earned his place as a prestigious leftwing writer and intellectual, Benedetti risked everything on a bold political move in 1971: he joined the leadership of the Movimiento 26 de Marzo, an organisation linked to the leftwing Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party.

This and his sustained public support for the Cuban Revolution led him to write articles, features, poems, plays and even a novel in verse (“El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel” or Juan Ángel’s Birthday, published in 1971 and dedicated to Uruguayan guerrilla leader Raúl Sendic) marked by strong activist commitment.

Thus he came to be in the cross-hairs of the most reactionary rightwing sectors of the country. And thus, in 1973, he went into exile. “Either you leave or you’ll be thrown in jail,” he was told.

His 12 years abroad were an enriching period, but also very complex and painful for him. First in Buenos Aires, then Lima, and later in Havana and Madrid, Benedetti’s militancy deepened and he continued to write and publish. His fame spread wider, and his work attained universal recognition.

The years in exile are reflected in his works with strong social and political commitment, such as the novel “Primavera con una esquina rota” (Spring with a Broken Corner), the collection of stories in “Geografías”, the drama in “Pedro y el capitán” (Peter and the Captain). And the poetry which was responsible for his greatest popularity.

When his period of exile came to an end, it was Uruguayan singer-songwriter Daniel Viglietti and Argentine singer Nacha Guevara who set some of his poems to music. To say in Uruguay today “somos muchos más que dos” (we are many more than two) is to refer to Benedetti, the author of these lines sung by Guevara.

But it was his work with Catalonian singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat that catapulted him to stardom as an icon of popular culture throughout Latin America.

Their collaboration resulted in the recording of an album, “El Sur también existe” (The South Also Exists – 1985) which in a sense is a good summary of Benedetti’s key themes and writing styles: love, struggle, anti-imperialism, irony and a remarkable capacity to put into poetry what ordinary people say and think. The title itself is an apt summary.

His death and the reactions to it across the planet, beyond the sense of grief – or perhaps because of it – give a sense of what Benedetti meant to so many people around the world.

I was often with him at gatherings, literary forums, a table in some bar, or out walking. And people would appear out of nowhere. Dozens of young people, women, kids would ask him for autographs, for a photo, or to dedicate a book for them. They would hug him, kiss him, squeeze him tightly.

Once in Madrid, by the gates of the Palacio de Linares, they almost ripped his tie, and my head, off. In Buenos Aires, at the 1997 Book Fair, we didn’t know what to do to get him safely out of the room where he had just given a talk, because hundreds of enthusiastic readers were waiting to hug him. “Tell them I have asthma,” he muttered, only half in jest.

He always established a state of grace when he was with people, a communion of goodness and discretion, a friendship born of his writing, that ended like a warm hug which everyone felt was just for them.

It can be said that Benedetti’s work and his tenderness, his shyness and at the same time his decisiveness, embraced the whole of humanity. That is why his books are universal: because of the human stature of their writer.

* Writer Fernando Butazzoni is director of communications for the Montevideo city government.

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