Uruguay is a small country wedged between Argentina and Brazil, a country of pastureland, lovely beaches, and a large cosmopolitan city, Montevideo. Among its gifts to the world is the literary achievement of the late Mario Benedetti. Benedetti’s prodigious literary output was extraordinarily varied, encompassing poetry, fiction, plays, and literary criticism.
Benedetti published his first collection of short stories Esta Manaña (This Morning) in 1949, while working as a journalist for the weekly La Marcha. A popular collection of poetry, Poemas de la Oficina (Poems of the Office) followed in 1956. In 1959, he published Montevideanos, the best-selling collection of short stories that established his reputation as a chronicler of the Uruguayan middle-class.
In addition to his literary work, Benedetti was deeply engaged throughout his career in the debate about what kind of government and society best served his country’s interests. Benedetti was forced to pay a high personal price for his public advocacy. In 1973, after a military-civilian dictatorship took over Uruguay after years of increasing political repression and a guerilla insurgency, Benedetti was forced to flee the country, fearing for his safety. For twelve years, he lived, wrote, and published in exile, spending significant periods of time in Cuba and Spain. For most Uruguayans, family, community, and context are everything; it’s likely that the experience of exile and separation was painful and unsettling for Benedetti.
In 1985, Uruguay returned to an elected government, and Benedetti returned to his homeland, finally re-united with his wife of forty years. He continued to write and publish prolifically in multiple genres through the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Following his death in May of 2009, huge crowds deposited flowers, poems, and pencils at his wake and followed his coffin to the National Pantheon in Montevideo’s central cemetery. The country that had once forced him into exile and banned his work now honored him with a state funeral and several days of public mourning.
Benedetti’s experience of political repression and violence in Uruguay and the loneliness of his exile left its mark on the content and style of his writing. As the economic and political situation in Uruguay worsened during the 60s and early 70s, his work focused increasingly on the meaning of nationhood and the conflict between individual conscience and the power of the state. The novel Gracias por el fuego (Thanks for the Fire) examined the conflicting feelings of expats about their home country; the play Pedro y el capitán (Pedro and the Captain) dealt with the creepy intimacy between a torturer and his victim. Not surprisingly, Benedetti’s later work also dealt with the loneliness and disorientation of exile and the difficulty of re-integrating the self into a changed society. In style, Benedetti’s later work became more varied, shifting away from straightforward realism to embrace allegory and fractured chronology.
Throughout Benedetti’s fiction, there is a deep current of compassion and human sympathy; even in his most “political” work, he refuses to overlook or oversimplify the messy contradictions of human nature. Benedetti never reduces characters to caricature to make a political point.
In this essay, I’d like to turn to Benedetti’s early fiction and to discuss several themes and techniques relating to his portrayal of childhood: his treatment of the theme of disillusionment and his use of children and other types of “naïve” characters as narrators. It’s easiest to appreciate his deft touch for portraying children by examining several of the stories in his breakout collection from 1959, Montevideanos.
Thematically, Benedetti uses children in Montevideanos to express the relationship between growing up and disillusionment. The story “Esa Boca” (The Clown) provides a good example. During a performance of clowns at the circus, the seven-year-old Carlos catches a glimpse of the actual, tired mouth of a clown behind the lurid, elaborately painted grin. The image of that tired mouth forces an unwelcome knowledge on him—the knowledge that the clowns’ antics are part of a manufactured illusion, an illusion created and maintained for him, as part of the audience.
Carlos’ disillusionment in “Esa Boca” echoes the disillusionment of the boy in James Joyce’s classic coming-of-age story, “Araby” (Joyce’s influence on Benedetti is also evident in the overall scheme of Montevideanos, which so closely parallels the concept of Joyce’s Dubliners.)
The early adolescent narrator of “Inocencia” (Innocence) experiences a different kind of disillusionment. Some compatriots discover a passageway or tunnel that terminates at the ladies’ shower where the adolescent girls he likes will be showering. A buddy talks him into a risky plan that involves crawling through the narrow passage to watch the girls through a grate. At the moment the boys achieve their goal, the narrator realizes that this isn’t what he really wants.
Here’s the pivotal moment, as rendered in Harry Morales’ translation:
I look and see Carlota, the ping-pong runner-up champion wrapped in a towel. She turns on the shower and tests the water. She takes off the towel and we see what she looks like. Jordán says, “And?” I don’t reply and suddenly I’m ashamed. I wanted to see her naked, but not this way.
Watching the girls through a grating, crammed into a narrow, humid passageway with his buddy, he now knows that the girl’s naked body is not the apotheosis of her feminine beauty, as he’d imagined. The image of Carlota he really values was one not obtained by spying: “It’s better to imagine Carlota playing ping-pong in short pants than to see her the way she is now, really naked.”
Beyond these thematic considerations, the child characters in Montevideanos serve Benedetti’s purposes in other ways. The critic Catherine Rendón has commented perceptively on Benedetti’s deep respect for children and “their innate ability to make shrewd judgements of individuals and situations.” For all of their shrewdness, children usually operate without complete information about adult rules and habits. This mixture of shrewdness and naivete serves several purposes in Montevideanos: as adults, it helps us see the cruelty and perversity of the world we have created without our usual protective filters. On the level of reader engagement, adult readers can supply the information missing from the child narrator’s perspective and are thus drawn more deeply into the story.
There is a moment early in “Inocencia” that typifies the way Benedetti’s early fiction is enhanced by a child’s observational power. The young, adolescent narrator watches a man waiting on a street corner to meet a woman, who arrives late. The man shouts at the woman for a while, and then pauses, as if, in the words of the narrator, “to establish a suitable atmosphere for the slap that consumes the silence, . . .” Who but a child, with fresh, first-hand experience of corporal punishment, would notice that pause and intuitively grasp its purpose?
Benedetti’s penchant for “naïve” narrators is taken a step further in “Se Acabó la Rabia” (The Rage has Ended). It’s a story of a marriage in trouble, told from the point of view of the family dog. Benedetti creates Fido’s doggy perspective with humor and flair: he notes that although Fido feels little affection for the wife, he knows that she feeds him and changes his water, so, he “hypocritically licked her hands once a day, so as not to disrupt such vital services.” The unfortunate Fido manages, through no fault of his own, to provoke the resentment of both the husband and wife. The wife resents him for being a witness to her extramarital affair. The husband resents him for witnessing his vulnerability—his wailing and tears—at the moment he discovers his wife’s affair. When the Fido approaches to “lick him tenderly, as was his right . . .” the husband rewards his loyalty with a vicious kick that breaks his snout. Thus, Fido is abused because his presence triggers feelings of shame in the husband and wife. The narrator, like all dogs, is sensitive to human emotions but unable to grasp human motivations. By narrating the story from this partially informed perspective, Benedetti draws us into the story and highlights the baffling perversity of so much human behavior.
Benedetti’s crafty choices about narrators and his ability to portray different types of consciousness—adult, child, and even canine—are just part of what make the Montevideanos stories delightful reading. There’s much more to Benedetti’s work than Montevideanos, but if you’re new to his work, these stories are a good place to start.
Montevideanos, Mario Benedetti, Editorial Sudamericana, Buenas Aires, 1959
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories, Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales, Host Publications, Austin, TX, 2010
Mario Benedetti: A Voice from a Quiet South American Capital to the World, Catherine Rendón, La Voz Latina, 2010