Introduction by Clark Bouwman
One of Benedetti’s gifts is his ability to portray the world of children sensitively, realistically, and without sentimentality. “The Clowns,” (“Esa Boca”) from Montevideanos is a good example. A bright, imaginative boy of seven prevails on his parents to let him go to the circus so he can see the clowns perform. “The Clowns” is about the inevitable disillusionment of growing up and about seeing and not seeing
The Clowns, by Mario Benedetti
His fascination with the circus had been building for some time – maybe, two months before the event. But when seven years is your whole life and the whole adult world is something you see at a slight remove, like a crowd seen through frosted window, then two months is an unfathomably long period of time.
His older brothers had gone two or three times. They recreated, in minute detail, the pretty pratfalls of the clowns and the grimaces and balancing of the strongmen. His schoolmates too had seen it and they amused themselves by performing stylized, theatrical versions of this blow or that pirouette. But Carlos didn’t know that they were exaggerating for his benefit, for him, the one who couldn’t go to the circus. He couldn’t go because his father knew that he was very impressionable and wanted to avoid the risk of Carlos trying to imitate the trapezists. Nevertheless, Carlos always felt an ache in his chest whenever he thought about the clowns. Every day, it became harder to contain his curiosity.
So, he prepared his case, and when the time was right said to his father, “Is there not a way that I could some day go to the circus?”
At seven, any well-formed, substantial-sounding sentence earned adult sympathy, so his father found himself obliged to first smile, and then to explain himself: “I don’t want you to see the trapezists.” When Carlos heard this, he felt he was almost home free – he had no interest in the trapezists! “And what if we leave when that act starts?” ”Well,” answered his father,” that would be OK.”
His mother bought two tickets and took him on Saturday night. A woman in a bathing suit appeared, balancing on a white horse. He watched and waited for the clowns. Everyone applauded. Later, some monkeys came out riding bicycles, but still he waited for the clowns. Again, everyone applauded, and a juggler came out. Carlos watched with eyes wide open, but soon he found himself yawning. Everyone applauded once more and out came – now, yes, finally – the clowns!
His excitement was now almost at the breaking point. There were four — two of them dwarfs. One of the big ones capered about, in the style his older brother had demonstrated. A dwarf snuck between the big clown’s legs and the big clown smacked him on the backside sonorously. Almost all of the audience laughed – some of the little boys had begun to pantomime the trick even before it was executed. The two dwarfs re-enacted the thousandth version of this absurd combat, while the less comical of the other two egged them on.
Then, the second big clown, who was definitely the funnier of the two, approached the edge of the grass, and Carlos got to see him up close, so close that he could make out the man’s tired mouth beneath the painted smile. For a moment, the poor devil saw that astonished little face and smiled, almost imperceptibly, with his own, real lips. But the other three had finished and the the funnier of the two big clowns joined them again for their final pratfalls, and everyone applauded, even Carlos’s mother. Then, since the trapeze artists came next, his mother led him by the arm and they exited together to the street, as they had agreed.
Now he had seen the circus, like his brothers and his schoolmates. But he felt empty, and what he was going to say to his siblings tomorrow somehow didn’t matter anymore. It would be 11pm before they got home, but his mother sensed something was wrong and pulled him into a square of light from a shop window. It slowly dawned on him: he held his hand over his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d seen back there at the edge of the grass. She asked if he was crying, but he said nothing. “Is it because of the trapezists? Was your heart set on seeing them?”
That was too much. He had no interest in the trapeze artists. So, to prevent further misunderstanding, he explained that he was crying because the clowns had not made him laugh.
Cover image: courtesy of Pixabay.