Obituary: Marco Denevi

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The Independent Culture
THE WRITER Marco Denevi was that rarest of creatures: an Argentine who was a master of understatement. Typically, although he won several prestigious literary prizes, and was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, his own definition of his literary ambitions was modest in the extreme: "In these times when people inflict so much pain and suffering on each other, it's enough to make someone a little happier. I have about 5,000 readers, and, if I can make them happy, that's fine by me."

Denevi was born in 1922 in a small town outside the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. Like many thousands of people, his father had emigrated to Argentina from Europe at the turn of the century. Marco always admired his father's outlook on life, which he once described as follows:

he had no relatives or friends in Argentina, but he had a mind of his own, an iron

will, and an incorruptible honesty. All he knew was to work. At the age of 50, not only married to an Argentine woman but with seven children, he decided to retire and live off his investments. He helped the development of a small town near Buenos Aires, and when he died in 1949 he still had no idea what being smart, being a speculator, or taking advantage of people meant.

As with many immigrant families, Denevi's father wanted something better for his children than mere work, so he sent Marco to university to study law. Afterwards Marco took employment as a legal clerk in the Postal Savings Bank, but his real enthusiasm was for writing. By the time he was in his twenties, Argentine society was changing rapidly around him, as the new generations, many of them like him the first born in Argentina, sought political and social values they could believe in.

Denevi began to describe these efforts in short stories and then in novels. His first published novel, Rosaura a las diez ("Rosaura at Ten in the Morning", 1954), used the police thriller genre to convey these processes at work in society. In 1955, the novel won what was then an important prize in Argentina, the Kraft award, which brought Denevi to the public's attention, and perhaps more importantly gave him an annuity for life, which allowed him to devote himself to writing.

In 1960, Denevi scored another notable triumph when his short story Ceremonia secreta was chosen from 3,000 submissions for a prize given by Life magazine. Published in English the following year as Secret Ceremony, the story was in 1969 made into a rather unfortunate film by Joseph Losey, starring Robert Mitchum and a sleepwalking Liz Taylor. In this as in his other works, ordinary people find themselves lost and bewildered in a world they no longer recognise or can find their place in.

Although the 1960s and 1970s were the time of the "boom" in Latin American literature internationally, Denevi was uninterested in conferences, campaigns or reading tours. He stayed in Buenos Aires, writing more books of short stories and novels: Un pequeno cafe ("A Small Cafe", 1967), Manuel de historia ("History Manual", 1985), Enciclopedia secreta de una familia argentina ("Secret Encyclopedia of an Argentine Family", 1986), El jardn de las delicias ("Garden of Delights", 1992) El amor es un pjaro rebelde ("Love is an Unruly Bird", 1993). His closeness with the milieu in which he had always lived also helped him write several successful plays, including Expedientes ("Dossiers"), and El emperador de la China ("The Emperor of China").

During these years, Denevi also worked as a journalist. Here too, he was preoccupied above all with the values - or the lack of them - in Argentine society as it evolved in the second half of this century. In 1990 he was one of the founders of the Citizens' Council, which sought to involve people in constructing a democratic civil society after years of military government and what he saw as the disastrous effects of Pernism.

In the image of his father, Marco Denevi valued honesty, perseverance, and loyalty above all. These are the positive values in his fiction as well, to which he added a sense of irony which he once explained as a way "of disguising the fact that I'm a real softie, someone who is easily moved by other people". A gentle man, who himself moved many others through his writing.

Marco Denevi, writer: born Saenz Pena, Argentina 12 May 1922; died Buenos Aires 12 December 1998.