Mario Benedetti’s Montevideanos on his Birth Centenary
Mario Benedetti (September 14, 1920 – May 17, 2009)
This September 14 marked the birth centenary of Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan fiction writer and poet. Benedetti’s poetry, short stories and novels are widely read in his home country and in much of South America; in the English-speaking world, he is almost unknown. This may have something to do with the timing of Benedetti’s career, his home country’s small population and its remoteness from the larger cities of Europe, North America and Asia. Whatever the reason, it is a shame. Benedetti’s well-observed, character-driven stories are a pleasure to read and deserve recognition beyond the Rio de Plata and the continent of South America.
Benedetti established his popular reputation in Uruguay with Montevideanos in 1959, a collection of short stories in the realist tradition portraying the everyday struggles of Uruguay’s middle class. Montevideanos invites immediate comparisons to Joyce’s Dubliners. Benedetti’s characters – struggling office workers, humiliated servants, unfaithful spouses – create a kind of composite portrait of Uruguay’s sophisticated and earthy capital city. As more of Benedetti’s work becomes available in English translation, perhaps his eye for detail and deep human sympathy can earn him a broader reputation.
The short story, “La Guerra y La Paz” (“War and Peace”) is one of the small tragi-comic gems of Montevideanos. In two and a half unsettling pages, an adolescent boy narrates the pivotal battle that breaks up his parents’ marriage. As the fly-on-the-wall narrator, the boy registers for us the tragic absurdity of his parents’ determination to wound each other.
A few notes: Benedetti’s original is written as a single paragraph, but I’ve used paragraph breaks to accentuate the subtle shifts in mood throughout the piece.
Many thanks to Dick Goodyear and Cristina Echavarren for their assistance with this translation.
War and Peace
When I opened the door to the study, I saw that the windows were open, as always, and the typewriter uncovered. Yet, something made me ask, “What’s going on?” My father had an imperious look about him, but it was different from the look I had known from my failed exams. My mother was being assailed by spasms of anger that were draining her of will and volition. I went over toward the bookcase and threw myself into the green sofa. I felt disoriented but, at the same time, strangely drawn to their least attractive traits.
They didn’t answer my question, but they kept answering each other. Even without questions to trigger them, their answers burst and shattered, exploded, before my very eyes, next to my very ears. I was a war correspondent.
She was telling him how much the other woman upset her. What did it matter that he was pig enough to wallow around with that slut, that he would go and forget all about his dysfunctional marriage, about appearances and all-important family protocol? No, it wasn’t all that, nor his brazen flagrance, his showing up at the Botanical Gardens with her on his arm, nor their assignations at the movies and cafés. What really galled her was Amelia — yes, she, the hot little number! — lecturing her with snide piety about the limits she set on certain liberties. And her brother — yes, he the serial cuckold — reminding her of his long-ago prenuptial advice about my father’s complete lack of decorum.
At this point, the subject had become clearer and I understood more or less what was happening. My adolescent sensibilities made me slightly uneasy about being in the way, and I thought I’d get up. I think I had started leaving the sofa. But, without looking at me, my father said: “Stay!” Yes, of course I’ll stay, and I sank deeper into the green Pullman.
Looking to the right, I was able to make out the feather of my mother’s hat; on the left, my father’s broad forehead and familiar bald spot. These wrinkled and smoothed themselves in turns, paled and reddened according to the force of the answers received, yet another answer without a question.
He began by saying that she shouldn’t be so hypocritical. That if he hadn’t grumbled when she courted Ricardo, it wasn’t for the shame of being cuckolded, or out of discretion, but rather because he believed that their marriage was more important than that, and one has to swallow certain indignities with a bit of forbearance in order for a marriage to survive.
My mother shot back: don’t talk nonsense, she said, she knew where his tolerance came from. “From where?” asked my father. She responded that it came from his not knowing. Of course, he had thought she was only flirting with Ricardo, when actually she was sleeping with him. The feather swayed ponderously, because she evidently believed she’d delivered a tremendous blow. But my father let loose a little snicker and his forehead relaxed, looking almost happy. And with this response, she realized she had failed, that he had lain in wait for this to one-up her, that he may have always known. All she could do was emit several hysterical sobs, and the feather disappeared from view.
Slowly, peace came. He said that now he’d agree to the divorce. She said no.
Her religion wouldn’t allow it. She’d rather have a friendly, unofficial separation, and a division of possessions. My father said that there had been other things her religion wouldn’t allow, but she ended up going along. There was no more talk of Ricardo and the other woman. Just of separation and divvying up; particularly divvying up.
My mother said she would prefer the house in Prado. My father agreed: he preferred it, too. (I like the house in Pocitos better – anybody would like the house in Pocitos better.) But they wanted to have their shouts, their chance to insult each other. The house in Prado changed hands six or seven times in twenty minutes. Finally, my mother’s choice prevailed. Automatically, the house in Pocitos went to my father. Then, the two cars came into play. He would like to have the Chrysler. She would, too, naturally. Here, too, my mother prevailed. But this didn’t appear to faze him; it was just a tactical defeat.
They went back to fighting over the farm, over the shares of stock, over the mortgage, and the cache of firewood. Now, darkness crept into the study. My mother’s feather, which had reappeared, was just a silhouette against the big window. My father’s bald spot no longer shone. The voices went at each other hoarsely, sounding tired of fighting. The insults, the hurtful memories, broke out again, but without passion, as if they were trying to live up to some official standard of marital conflict. All that remained were numbers, accounts in the air, orders to be given. They came together, absolutely exhausted, almost smiling. They now saw the whole thing with complete clarity.
They also saw me, transformed into a lifeless object on the sofa. They finally acknowledged my presence, and my father murmured, without much enthusiasm, “Ah, there’s also this one.” But I was immobile, far away, without will or desire, like the other valuable properties.
English translation by Clark Bouwman.