sábado, 4 de julio de 2009

Farewell to Mario Benedetti

Published in June issue of Panorama magazine:

He died on a Sunday in May, a little after five in the afternoon. What happened next was incredible. There were phone calls, strings of e-mails and text messages. International news channels showed special programs. The presidents of several countries sent condolences. On Monday, the news was on the first page of almost every Spanish-language newspaper, and over the next few days was echoed by newspapers like the New York Times, The Guardian, La Repubblica and many others.

Commentaries ran into the hundreds on Internet sites, in blogs, on Facebook and in You- Tube videos. There were messages from people of all ages, from everywhere: emotional messages full of feeling and sincere grief.
Who had died was neither a president nor a young sports star. Who had died was neither a European princess nor an actor at the height of fame. Who had died was neither the hit singer of the moment nor a scientist about to discover a vaccine for AIDS? No. The deceased was a writer, or more specifically an 88-year-old poet in a small country in South America, a timid and tenacious man, debilitated by asthma and recent widowhood.
Benedetti (Uruguay, 1920- 2009) was the cause of this unusual occurrence of many days of poetry circulating through all of the many possible channels. Portuguese author José Saramago, Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in his blog: “We see a sudden surge of poetic traffic that has baffled the keepers of official statistics; strange messages jump from continent to continent, original messages of short lines that say so much more than it seems at first glance.”
These days when it is said that people do not read, when it is said that literature is not highly valued, how could sales of books of poetry —a style that does not sell— shoot up? How could thousands of impromptu poets emerge to write farewell verses?
Benedetti had tackled all genres. He authored novels, stories, essays, theater works, literary criticism and newspaper articles, and his works were translated into more than twenty languages.
Forty singers have sung his poetry. He collaborated with Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat to set ten of his own poems to music on the album “The South Also Exists.” Along with singer Daniel Viglietti, he toured the Spanish-speaking world with his song and poetry shows “Two Voices.” He made a brief appearance as a supporting actor in Argentinean director Eliseo Susbiela’s film “The Dark Side of the Heart,” in which he spoke his lines in German while the principal actors spoke theirs in Spanish. His novel “The Truce” was made into a movie of the same name in 1974 and became the first Argentinean film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Mario Benedetti’s work was not always well received by literary critics, but even during the last solitary years spent in his Montevideo apartment, he was popular among a public ranging from people who were young during the 1960s to the young people of today. Openly and militantly committed to the left, the poet was loved by people of all political persuasions. What was the secret? Perhaps his involvement with the reader, which he achieved through colloquial poetic language and an underlying familiarity with the everyday universals of life: love, boredom, joy, sorrow, the search for meaning, loneliness, rebellion and death.


Mario Benedetti was born to a middle-class family in Paso de los Toros, in the geographical center of Uruguay. His father was a pharmacist who had to sell everything and move to Montevideo, owing to a business failure when Mario was four. The family suffered economic hardship in the capital until Mario’s father attained what was then the Uruguayan epitome of economic stability: a government job. The future writer’s parents then had a second son, eight years younger than the first.
Mario attended the German School, but his parents pulled him out and put him in a public school the day the students had to do the Nazi salute. An outstanding student, he left school to practice several trades before being able to earn a living as a writer. He was a salesman, an accountant, a translator, a bookseller and a civil servant.
Benedetti lived in Buenos Aires between the ages of 18 and 21. He began a career in journalism after returning to Montevideo in 1941. A few years later, he published his first book of poetry and joined the weekly “Marcha,” which had attracted a constellation of intellectuals known as “The Generation of 1945.”
He achieved widespread public recognition in 1956 with the publication of “Office Poems.” In 1960 he published the novel “The Truce,” whose fame transcended borders and was translated into nineteen languages and made into a movie as iconic as the novel.
At the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, he was extremely active in politics as the founder of one of the groups forming the Broad Front leftist coalition. Social commitment was a constant in his poetry. This commitment forced him into exile during Uruguay’s military dictatorship. He lived in Argentina, Peru, Cuba and Spain, and his homesickness showed in his works.
He returned to his “ little country” —as he called it— after ten years, and from then on he split his time between Spain and Uruguay, always arranging to live where it was summer. He returned to his country permanently in 2006 after losing his wife Luz, his partner of sixty years.
His writing was rewarded with the Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana, Iberoamericano José Martí and Menéndez y Pelayo prizes, but above all with the support of hundreds of thousands of people who read and admired his work generation after generation.
The Uruguayan government decreed a day of national mourning when he died. Thousands of Montevideo residents came to bid farewell as he lay in state at the Congress building. They left flowers and pens, because the poet had written: “When you bury me, please don’t forget my pen.” Thousands of people went to the cemetery on a sunny autumn morning to witness the highest cultural authorities pay tribute to him at the National Pantheon.

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