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

Friday 12 June 2009 00:00 BST

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.

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