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The Passing of Mario Benedetti

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The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti died in Montevideo on May 17. A novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet and apologist for tango, Benedetti wrote more than 60 books and has long been considered a major figure in Latin American writing of the last half-century. He was also a political figure, having been pursued by the Uruguayan military junta in the 1970s for his indiscreet writings from the perspective of The Left. He lived for a time in Buenos Aires, then had to move on to Spain. Although he was able to return to Uruguay after the restoration of democratically-elected governments in that country in the 1980s, he continued spending a good deal of his time in Madrid as well.

Benedetti has not been much translated into English, which is a shame, given his enormous output and his importance to the literary boom of South America that also produced such luminaries as Gabriel García Márquez, Eduardo Galeano, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa and many others. Benedetti’s famous novel La tregua (The Truce) was published in an English edition in 1969, but the book is out of print and difficult to find. If you can find it, it’s well worth reading, a fine novel about middle-class urban angst in Montevideo in the middle of the 20th century. The film version of La tregua, which was made in Argentina, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 1975. I have long wished that someone would translate his book of stories Montevideanos, in all of which Montevideo serves as a kind of character in a way similar to how Dublin does in James Joyce’s work or London does in that of Charles Dickens. Currently you can read a collection of Benedetti’s short stories entitled Blood Pact and Other Stories as well as a selection of his poems entitled Little Stones At My Window

In an article that appeared Sunday, May 18, in the Mexican daily La Jornada (my translation of which follows) the Portuguese novelist José Saramago expressed his sadness at the passing of his friend Benedetti.

“‘Mario lost the battle, as did we his friends and readers. The memory will remain, as will the books, but at this moment the memory and the books seem so little to us,’ he wrote. The Portuguese writer added, in a brief message that appeared the following day, that ‘our head tells us that there are no miracles, but the heart insists upon believing that a miracle now and then — although not changing the order of the world — would come to us as compensation for the inevitable sadnesses of life. The pain and sadness of this will not be alleviated soon. Mario Benedetti was here, and now he is no longer.’

“Just this past May 4, Saramago, the author of An Essay Upon Blindness, had also posted a text message titled simply “Benedetti”, in which he expresses his worry over the health of the poet: ‘What could we do?. . . Offer up a prayer for his quick restoration, if with that we’d only be provoking Mario’s secular ire? What in truth was Mario Benedetti, who had all his life — so much much more than the multiple professions he pursued — been a poet? If that’s so, we drag his poems from the immobility of the page and make from them a cloud of words, of sounds, of music that set out across the Atlantic Ocean (the words, the sounds, the music), in a dream that abruptly stops, like some protective orchestra, just outside the window that it has been forbidden to open, and mints a new dream and causes it to smile upon awaking.’

“Separately, Eduardo Galeano, himself Uruguayan, said this Monday that ‘the world obliges us to distrust our fellow man; that our fellow man is a danger that threatens us.’ But, added the author of The Open Veins of Latin America ‘Mario Benedetti believed in another possible world, and was that rare case of a generous writer who celebrated the success of others.’

“Meanwhile the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and writer Sergio Ramirez respectively lamented the death of their friend and ‘brother’ Benedetti. Cardenal, a priest and the Minister of Culture of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, declared himself dismayed by the news because ‘I loved Mario a great deal, he was like a brother to me. I can’t say anything now, nothing more than that I am very grieved.’

“Cardenal and Benedetti met during the 1970‘s in Cuba. Cardenal affirmed that ‘Benedetti and I became quite bound together in a long friendship.’ ‘I wrote a lot about him, and he about me,’ the priest asserted in a statement to the Nicaraguan Daily La Prensa. He described Benedetti as a ‘simple, humble person, a supporter of the Sandinista revolution.’ Like many Latin American writers that were allied with that revolution, Benedetti visited Nicaragua after the Sandinistas defeated the right-wing government of Anastasio Somosa in 1979.

“Novelist as well as a Vice-president of Nicaraguga in the 1980‘s, Sergio Ramirez points out that he admired Benedetti’s capacity for attracting young people to his readings as though he were some sort of rock star, and ‘they demanded poems of him the way they would demand songs of some other person. The way poetry could come on in a massive way, the way he did that made a big impression on me. It’s the aspiration of every writer, to exist in the souls of the young and that they love him or that he be able to console them. He succeeded in his goal: to do something for others.’”

A recital by Mario Benedetti of his poem about The Disappeared (those who simply vanished at the hands of the military governments of Uruguay and Argentina during the 1970s and '80s), accompanied by a long-time friend and collaborator of his, the singer Daniel Viglieti, can be found on YouTube.

Here is another of Benedetti’s poems, followed by my translation to English, about the bandoneón, the large concertina-like instrument that is often thought of as the soul of tango.

Bandoneón
Mario Benedetti

Me jode confesarlo
pero la vida es también un bandoneón
hay quien sostiene que lo toca dios
pero yo estoy seguro de que es Troilo
ya que dios apenas toca el arpa
y mal

fuere quien fuere lo cierto es
que nos estira en un solo ademán purísimo
y luego nos reduce de a poco a casi nada
y claro nos arranca confesiones
quejas que son clamores
vértebras de alegría
esperanzas que vuelven
como los hijos pródigos
y sobre todo como los estribillos

me jode confesarlo
porque lo cierto es que hoy en día
pocos
quieren ser tango
la natural tendencia
es a ser rumba o mambo o chachachá
o merengue o bolero o tal vez casino
en último caso valsecito o milonga
pasodoble jamás
pero cuando dios o Pichuco o quien sea
toma entre sus manos la vida bandoneón
y le sugiere que llore o regocije
uno siente el tremendo decoro de ser tango
y se deja cantar y ni se acuerda
que allá espera
el estuche.

Bandoneón

I’m fucked, confessing it,
but life too is a bandoneón
there are some who hold that God plays it
but I’m sure that it’s Troilo
since God can hardly play the harp,
and that badly

whoever it is, the one sure thing is
that it stretches us out in a proper pure solo
and then brings us down to so little almost nothing
and for sure drags confessions from us
clamoring complaints
the vertebra of happiness
hopes that return like prodigal sons
and above all like refrains

I’m fucked confessing it
because for sure, right now, today
few
want to be tango
the natural tendency
is to be a rumba or mambo or chachachá
or merengue or bolero or maybe casino
and at the very last a little waltz or milonga,
and a pasadoble? never
but when God or Pichuco or whoever
takes in his hands the bandoneón life
and suggests to it that it weep or cheer
you feel the tremendous decorum of being tango
you just go ahead and sing and you would never agree
that there awaits
your casket.

Troilo: Anibal Troilo (1914 – 1975), a virtuoso Argentine bandoneonista.
Pichuco: one of Anibal Troilo’s nicknames.

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