In the hour of his death
The most to which one can aspire
is to leave two or three phrases in orbit.
As far as I know, Don Mario left at least one:
“death and other surprises.”
My God, what a phrase!
--poem composed by Chilean antipoet Nicanor Parra commemorating Mario Benedetti
This Sunday, the Uruguayan poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and journalist Mario Benedetti died in Montevideo at the age of 88. He wrote more than 80 works, many of which reflect his political convictions. Benedetti was an avid supporter of the Cuban Revolution and in 1971 joined the leadership of the Movimiento 26 de Marzo, an organization linked to the leftwing Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party.
After a military coup in 1973, the front was outlawed and Benedetti’s magazine, Marcha, was shut down. This began a long period of exile. He first lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but threats from right-wing death squads forced him to escape to Lima, Peru, where he was later detained and deported. He moved to Havana, Cuba, and then to Madrid, where he lived for 12 years before returning to Uruguay.
According to Uruguayan poet Cristina Peri Rossi, “Benedetti became the loudspeaker of the Revolution, for better or for worse.” His unquestioning support for the Castro regime provoked conflict with other intellectuals, especially during his residence in Spain. At the same time, he “managed to connect with a public that wanted political and social changes in Latin America, and he did so through literature.”
For instance, his 1971 novel in verse El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel (Juan Ángel's Birthday) was dedicated to Uruguayan guerrilla leader Raúl Sendic.
Many of his other works reveal his political beliefs, albeit more subtly. Many are set in offices, where life is humdrum, duty-bound and grim, at times even Kafkaesque. Benedetti himself held a series of office jobs as he worked to establish himself as a writer.
His first significant book, published in 1956, was Poemas de la oficina (Office Poems), a handful of texts in which he portrayed the existential drama of an urban middle class trapped in bureaucratic routines.
Another work that expresses his leftist inclinations is the 1965 novel Gracias por el fuego (Thanks for the Light). 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.
Regardless of Benedetti’s failures or accomplishments in the actual political arena, he experienced global success as a literary activist. As the author himself states in one of his last books, Songs of Someone Who Doesn’t Sing, what kept him going were the causes that he believed in. “Thanks to them,” he says, “I can sleep tranquilly.” Similarly, in another poem, he asks the reader, "When they bury me / please don't forget / about my pen." In this sense, Mario Benedetti truly believed in the power of literature to teach, reveal, and transcend time and space.
Red Poppy is dedicated to promoting the power of Latin American poetry to evoke emotions, shift social consciousness, and spark individual and collective change. Our multilingual anthology Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution will be released Sept 15. It is a book that goes to the heart of our mission as a non-profit. We're also developing a documentary on the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Come join us in all the experiences, and these discussions below.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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