Mario Benedetti: Writer in the vanguard of South America's literary boom in the second half of the 20th century

A child of Italian immigrants who became one of Uruguay's best-loved writers, Mario Benedetti was part of the "Generation of '45," a group of Uruguayan poets and novelists who helped create the boom in Latin American literature during the latter half of the 20th century. Although a best-seller throughout the Spanish-speaking world, he never achieved the global fame of his "magical realist" contemporary, the Colombian Gabriel García Marquez, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes or Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa.

Although he came to respect and admire the more famous trio, Benedetti, a committed leftist who spent a dozen years in exile during Uruguay's military dictatorships, was initially critical of all three, believing they were élitist. "They represent a privileged class that had access to universal culture and were thus utterly unrepresentative of average people in Latin America," he once said. He himself wrote of the human condition – love, the passage of time, death, misery, injustice, loneliness and hope – but in a simple, direct language that made his readers feel complicit.

He was squarely middle-class in a Latin America largely polarised between privilege and poverty, and it was the lives of Uruguay's middle class that dominated his more than 80 novels, short stories, plays and poems. He considered the capital, Montevideo, his muse and, taking the idea but not the style from James Joyce's Dubliners, wrote the short story collection Montevideanos [Montevidians] in 1959, the product of 18 years' work.

Many of his poems became songs, put to music by the Uruguayan writer and musician Daniel Viglietti and the Catalan singer/songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, notably on Serrat's album El sur tambien existe ("The south also exists"), a passionate indictment of US foreign policy.

Benedetti always considered himself "a poet who writes novels." His poetry readings packed out halls throughout Latin America and Spain and he was known to Spanish speakers around the world as something of a cupid, his love poems stolen by many a young man to impress his girlfriend. But it was his novels that made his name. His best-known was perhaps La Tregua ("The Truce", 1960), the intimate diary of a close-to-retirement, widower bureaucrat, Martí*Santome, whose humdrum life is transformed by the arrival of a young woman worker, Laura. The 1974 movie based on the book, directed by the Argentinian Sergio Rénan, was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars.

Mario Orlando Hamlet Hardy Brenno Benedetti was born in Paso de los Toros, in the northern Uruguayan province of Tacuarembó, in 1920, son of an Italian immigrant couple whose choice of his names reflected their love of English literature and particularly the Bard. He jokingly signed himself Mario Etcetera Benedetti and once wrote a poem to what he hoped would be his future son, promising to give him "a single, solitary, preferably monosyllabic name that can be said without taking a breath."

His father was a pharmacist but not well-off and he recalled his mother having to sell her wedding china and other household effects after the family moved to the capital when he was four. He left secondary school early and sold automobile parts before turning his hand to writing. "My first two books did nada," he once told an interviewer. "I ended up paying the publishers." He wrote articles for the weekly magazine Marcha before books such as La Tregua and El Cumpleaños de Juan Angel ("Juan Angel's Birthday", 1971) brought success.

When Uruguay was shaken by a military coup in 1973, after the army had defeated the leftist Tupamaro guerrillas, Benedetti, who had sympathised with the guerrillas, fled Montevideo. He went first to Argentina, which he in turn had to flee after its own military coup in 1976, later to Peru, then to Cuba, where he became a close friend and staunch supporter of Fidel Castro, and finally to Spain. He continued to write feverishly throughout, usually exploring the psyche of the exile and vehemently supporting leftist causes, although he later admitted: "We had the answers, but they changed the questions." He scuttled any suggestion that his writing made any difference against military regimes. "We can't change anything. I don't recall any revolution that was won by a sonnet."

In what he called his desexilio (de-exile), he went back to Uruguay after its return to civilian rule in 1985. Because of his asthma, he and his wife split their time between Montevideo and Puerto Pollensa, Mallorca. In one of his last interviews, Benedetti said: "I believe life is a parenthesis between two nothings. I'm an atheist. I believe in a personal God, which is conscience, and that's what we must be accountable to every day."

Phil Davison

Mario Orlando Hamlet Hardy Brenno Benedetti, poet and novelist: born Paso de los Toros, Uruguay 14 September 1920; married 1946 Luz López Alegre (died 2006); died Montevideo 17 May 2009.

Suggested Topics
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam