Last fall, Uruguayan readers celebrated the birth centenary of Mario Benedetti (September 14, 1920 – May 17, 2009), the prolific Uruguayan novelist, poet, journalist and activist. Benedetti established his popular reputation in Uruguay with Montevideanos in 1959, a collection of short stories that invites comparisons to Joyce’s Dubliners, in the sense of offering a portrait of a place through its people. My translation of “War and Peace,” an adolescent’s casually searing account of the battle that breaks up his parents’ failing marriage appeared in Dreaming Machine n 7. “The Clowns,” another story depicting the intersecting worlds of children and adults, appears in this issue.
During the year that Montevideanos appeared, Benedetti spent five months in the U.S. at the invitation of the American Council on Education. According to his biographer, Hortensia Campanella, he lectured on contemporary Uruguayan theatre, culture and politics at several U.S. universities and spent time in New York and San Francisco. Campanella doesn’t provide much further detail about what Benedetti did, saw, and experienced while in the U.S, although he certainly met a number of Beat writers in either New York or San Francisco.
The 1961 edition of Montevideanos contains a longer story called “The Rest is Wilderness” (“El Resto es Selva”). More of an assemblage of “scenes” than a story, “The Rest is Wilderness” depicts an Uruguayan writer named Orlando Farías interacting with U.S.-Americans in New York, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C.  Although it’s risky to make direct parallels between works of fiction and the events of an author’s life, there don’t seem to be many degrees of separation between Benedetti and Señor Farías. Campanella calls the character of Farías a “clear self-reference” (“diáfana autoreferencia”).
In this essay, I suggest how the Farías character reflects Benedetti’s impressions and feelings about the U.S. as he encountered it in 1959. For the most part, I leave the task of identifying which, if any, of the events depicted in “El Resto es Selva” actually took place to a future critic or Benedetti biographer.
“The Rest is Wilderness” consists of four numbered fragments: 1 and 2 are set in New York, 3 in Albuquerque, and 4 in the Washington, DC. They’re properly called fragments because they’re almost completely disconnected in a narrative sense. Benedetti attempts to tie them together around the theme of escape or flight, but the passages where he emphasizes this theme are forced. I’ve organized my commentary around these numbered fragments, adding the location of the scenes in parentheses.
Rather than translating the story in its entirety, I’ve translated just those passages that provide Benedetti’s more trenchant or amusing observations about the U.S, summarizing other elements of the story as needed to provide context. The translated excerpts are my own translations.
Finally, I need to acknowledge the contributions of my wife, Maria Cristina Echavarren, to this essay. As a fluent speaker of English and Spanish and a native Uruguayan, she was able to help me decode quite a few unfamiliar idiomatic Spanish constructions so I could stay grounded in Benedetti’s intent.
1 (New York)
The day after his arrival from Uruguay, Farías roams the streets of New York alone for a few hours, absorbing the breath-taking anonymity of the city. We see him on a street corner, waiting for the light to change:
Farías himself absorbed the crowd’s frustrated energy, and he suppressed his Montevidean tendency toward contrarianism. During the wait, Farías felt a bead of sweat gathering on his left nipple, and he swore in a loud voice. At his side, a freckled woman, blonde, loaded with packages, smiled at him affably, as if he had only made a comment about the weather.
He was about to feel ashamed, when the crowd pulled away from the sidewalk, parting around him like a river.
Most Uruguayans would be very resistant to cursing on a crowded street corner; in Montevideo, there’s always a chance that someone in that crowd would know someone who knows an aunt, a cousin or someone else in your family. Context and community are as critical to Uruguayan life as anonymity is to life in New York.
2 (New York, Greenwich Village)
In the evening, Farías is invited to the basement apartment of a critic who has arranged a gathering of Beat writers. Mid-way though the affair, Benedetti comments that Farías had never been to a party as desolate. Not one of the presumably cosmopolitan guests knows anything about Uruguay or shows any desire to learn. Instead, he is exoticized. His host nicknames him “Orlie” because he is unable to pronounce “Orlando.”
Benedetti’s description of the character Jim Blumenthal, a character who bears more than a little resemblance to the young Allen Ginsburg, captures the amoral charisma of the Beats:
He liked Blumenthal’s face: A very young guy, not over twenty-five, glasses and a beard, but no moustache. Also, he had eyes of rare vivacity, eyes that you couldn’t break away from easily. But, it was hard to know if you were dealing with a genius, or someone capable of strangling a child with a beatific smile.
As the party devolves, the behavior going on around the baffled, increasingly inebriated Farías becomes both comic and pathetic.
“Attention, please” said someone from behind deep, black sofa, using the global summons of the airport waiting areas. But here it was only a thin thread of a voice. The someone was a “muchachito”, skinny and fragile, like a sketch of a person, with pointy ears like wings and fidgety hands.
“Who has felt natural ecstasy this week,” asked a chubby, barefoot woman, languidly scratching a downy, varicose ankle.
“I did!” said an ethereal voice from the sofa.
Farías imagined that this must be a prepared dialogue, a kind of script for foreign visitors. “I felt a natural ecstasy,” continued the voice. “It was last Wednesday, and it lasted 15 minutes.”
Here, as at various points in “El Resto es Selva,” Farías, like many travelers, reflects on whether or not he feels happy in this environment.
Now Farías could decide: No, he didn’t feel happy – only provincial. He couldn’t avoid feeling a sense of mild shame about not having felt this natural ecstasy. But, after all, what would it be? A new physical sensation or bodily reflex, like a cough or an allergy? He remembered a distant drinking bout at the Aguada, but quickly decided that it couldn’t be that.
It couldn’t be! It couldn’t be that the sensation of wetness that he was feeling near the back of his neck was a tongue! He turned around slowly, not so much to avoid spilling his glass of that awful bourbon but to give himself a moment to take in whatever it was he was going to find. It was a tongue, after all. It’s proprietor: a tall, slender woman with a scattering of scars from a virus or something similar. Farías must have been on his tenth bourbon, and he would have had no problem in supplying himself with the eleventh. A small fan behind him had heightened the disagreeable sensation of coldness where the nape of his neck was still wet with saliva.
“Orlie,” said the slender woman, “after Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold, your name is the most beautiful that I’ve ever heard. May I kiss you?”
Farías smiled mechanically, without knowing why, but said nothing.
“Not on the mouth. That’s very square. Behind the ear. Like this.”
Again, he felt that wetness, and again the little fan made him shudder.
After fending off some unwanted attention from the Blumenthal character, Farías finally extricates himself the party at 2am.
He got out into the fresh air. He breathed; even better, he enjoyed breathing.
Benedetti’s dark portrait of the Beats appears to reflect both what he saw in the U.S. and who he was as a Uruguayan. Coming from a culture that valued the intimate connections between the individual, the family and the larger community, the Beats’ posture of “alienation” or “mystical disaffiliation,” made no sense to him. After all, “alienation” is about separation, and sooner or later, one has to decide what to embrace. The Beats portrayed in the New York fragments of “The Rest is Wilderness” had not found an answer to that question.
In contrast to the dark aimlessness of the New York segment, the Albuquerque segment of “The Rest is Wilderness” is funny, luminous and life-affirming. After landing in Albuquerque for a pre-arranged meeting with two poets he has never met, Farías finds two elderly women waiting for him at the airport, both of whom seek a kind of validation from Farías for their rather undistinguished poetry.
Next to the TWA display stood a skinny woman – extremely skinny – about 70 or 75 with metallic glasses and a horrifying hat full of little points going in all directions “Mr. Farías? I am Miss Agnes Paine. I’ve come to receive you on behalf of the poetesses of Albuquerque.” … Farías inquired if she herself wrote poems. “Yes, certainly,” she said, taking a skinny hard cover volume from a black bag. “This is my latest book – I have three – it has thirty-nine poems.”
Farías noticed the surprising title: Annihilation of Moon and Carnival. “Thank you,” he said, “Thank you very much.” But Miss Paine now added: “Really though, the truly important one is Miss Folwell.” “Ah…” “Yes, her work has even appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.” Farías reflected that everything is relative; apart from print runs and typographic finishes, this would be something like appearing in Mundo Uruguayo…
“There she is,” exclaimed Miss Paine, suddenly animated. On the stairway that passed to the lobby, Farías could make out the figure of a tiny lady, incredibly old (she could be 80, or 105 – it wouldn’t have mattered), slightly shaky but not a bit hunched… “Mr. Farías”, introduced Miss Paine, “Miss Rose Folwell, distinguished poetess of Albuquerque, contributor to the Saturday Evening Post.” Miss Folwell took a moment to suppress her tremor and then aimed her best 19th century smile on Farías.
“Let’s try Mexican food,” she said to Miss Paine. “Yes, sure,” replied her acquiescent colleague.
At the Mexican restaurant, Miss Folwell bravely recites the twenty-five stanzas of her poem “Divine Serenade of the Navajo,” which Farías inadvertently interrupts, thinking her recitation complete. After the food arrives, Miss Paine is persuaded to take a turn reading from her work. At the moment that she begins to recite her poem, Farías takes his first bite of Mexican food.
[He] felt the stinging heat invade his throat, esophagus, brain, nose, heart, his entire being. “Take a swallow of tequila” whispered Miss Folwell sympathetically, while Miss Paine rhymed “muzzle” with “puzzle” and “troubles” with “bubbles”…
As Farías continues to drink the tequila following Miss Folwell’s apparently expert guidance, a change begins to come over him:
Between the spicy heat and the alcohol, his heart and mind were transformed into something malleable, without a boundary or definition, something that could be open to all. He felt a powerful wave of sympathy toward the two tiny old women who, with each shot of tequila, with each chili pepper, were proffering up their odes and serenades for him, their prayers and their sadnesses. He was living a story, a story that didn’t need to be developed because the tiny, old women themselves were giving it form, a form that was already polished and complete. He felt himself invaded by a kind of love, generous and splendid, in the light generated by those two sensibilities, who had survived the long series of tequilas unshaken. He, in contrast, was quite shaken, and, as often happened when he was aflame with alcohol, he had started to stutter.
With reckless sincerity, Farías exhorts Miss Folwell to recite the poem that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. After a predictable cycle of demurrals and insistence from Farías, she agrees and recites the four words that comprise the poem in its entirety: “Now clever, or never.” Farías barely gets over his shock at the tiny scope of Miss Folwell’s poem in time to provide the socially appropriate praise. “Tre-tremendous,” he stutters.
Benedetti’s respect for the indomitable spirit of the two elderly poets, a respect that easily transcends the mediocrity of their poetry, gives the Albuquerque segment a buoyant lightness, a quality that allows it to stand nearly on its own.
4 (Washington, DC)
The last fragment of “The Rest is Wilderness” most directly approaches the theme of trust and friendship alluded to by the title. Harry, a genial American, and his wife Flo arrange an American-style picnic for Farías and three other Central and South American ex pats at Great Falls, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. Although Harry’s line of work is unspecified, he plays the role of cultural ambassador of the U.S for his Latin-American guests in a manner reminiscent of a State Department employee.
In much of the episode, we see Farías trying to assess how well he likes Harry and whether he trusts Harry enough to support an authentic friendship. These questions of trust and friendship play out against the backdrop of U.S. policy toward Latin America. The arrogance of that policy, which tended to treat the countries of the region as pawns in the U.S’s global competition with the Soviet Union, is an unspoken element that colors the way Farías views Harry and the possibilities of their friendship.
After hosting a hyper efficient, thoroughly US- American style picnic, Harry extracts a Polaroid camera and has Flora take a photo of himself surrounded by the four Latin-Americans.
“This is civilization,” said Harry, responding to the glow of Nereida’s applause. Farías couldn’t be sure whether the Yankee was showing pride in national culture or poking fun at it. Perhaps, it was a little of both. Farías found him likeable and genuine.
A bit later, one of the other Latin Americans approaches Farías while the rest of the picnickers are scattered exploring the falls.
“Harry’s a pretty good sort, don’t you think? At least, he’s a regular guy.”
“Yes, I like him.”
“You know, he promotes the American Way of Life, but he does it with a certain irony, and that’s his saving grace. I’m not going to say that he understands us – that would be very tough here – but you can talk with him about Guatemala or Bolivia or even Cuba without making him hysterical. That’s a lot.”
A few hours later, while being driven back to his hotel by Harry and Flora, Farías reflects: “He was happy. ‘Good people’ he thought to himself.”
Then, he asks what appears to him to be a harmless question of his new-found friends.
“’Why do you all live outside of Washington?’ he asked just to say something. ‘It seems like a nice city.’
In an instant, the superficial bonhomie of the day dissolves like the fizz on a Coke left out on a summer day.
“’How can you expect us, as human beings, to live in Washington, a city that is at least 65 % black!’ Farías gulped.
“And that means…?”
Flora looked at Farías sweetly, her expression unchanged, completely sympathetic in the face of his incomprehension.
“What? Don’t you get it, Orlando? 65% black!” Farías kept silent, but he felt terrible doing so. Finally, he had to say something: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Harry’s face became more choleric by the minute.
A few minutes after Harry’s outburst, a black family happens to cross in front of them while they’re waiting for the light to change.
The last two little black boys pointed at Harry and laughed. They laughed as they always do, with their whole mouths, showing everything up to the uvula.
This was too much for Harry. He punched the steering wheel, shouting at Farías: “And you ask me why we don’t live in Washington! Look – that is our reality! Our reality! Do you understand now?” “Take it easy, Harry,” said Flora. Farías murmured “Yes, now I understand,” and he thought of the party in Greenwich Village and the aged, unvanquished poetesses of Albuquerque.
Benedetti’s descriptive phrase “..as they always do” is unfortunate; it provides support to an interpretation of this episode in which Farías appears to sympathize with his host’s racism. Of course, racism existed and still exists in Uruguay, and we can’t suppose Benedetti’s politics would make him immune. However, Benedetti’s intent in the Washington, DC episode is to depict the fear behind Harry and Flora’s racism, not to excuse it.
Harry’s sudden fury reveals the depth of his racism and the fear behind it. He and his wife’s choice to flee the city in order to avoid contact with African Americans is classic “white flight.” Benedetti portrays that fear as another aspect of the theme of escape, the thematic framework within which his impressions of the U.S. are organized. For the Beats, “escape” is a drug and alcohol-fueled flight from normal consciousness. For the elderly middle-class poets of Albuquerque, it is an escape from the quotidian aspects of daily life, and perhaps also from the knowledge of their relative proximity to death. Harry and Flora’s escape has already been completed; they have a home in the Maryland suburbs, safely distant from their fellow African American citizens.
For me, the theme of escape doesn’t quite pull the pieces of “The Rest is Wilderness” into a satisfying whole, but it does provide a framework for how Benedetti seems to have seen the U.S: a nation of people in flight from the aspects of life they find unpleasant. As literature, it isn’t Benedetti at his best. Still, the Albuquerque segment glows with the kind of life-affirming humor that’s typical of Benedetti’s better work. And, for dyed-in-the-wool Benedetti fans like myself, future biographers, or just curious US-Americans who want to know what it was like for Benedetti to be in the U.S. in 1959, the whole of “The Rest is Wilderness” need not be greater than the sum of its parts.
“El Resto es Selva”, from Mario Benedetti: Cuentos Completos, Seix Barral, 2003
“Los Amigos”, from Guillén on Guillén, by Jorge Guillén, translated by Reginald Gibbons
Un Mito Discretísimo, Hortensia Campanella, Alfaguara, 2009
 I have used of the hyphenated term “U.S-American” to refer to the characters or people native to the United States rather than the more common but inaccurate term “American.” I’d like to think that Benedetti, were he alive, would appreciate this effort at precision.