Feature

Mario Benedetti

The Uruguayan writer who became a political activist

The Uruguayan writer who became a political activist
1920–2009

Mario Benedetti, who has died at 88 in his native Uruguay, was among Latin America’s most revered writers, with more than 80 novels, collections of stories and essays, plays, and especially volumes of poetry to his credit. A committed leftist, he was also one of the fiercest opponents of his country’s dictatorial government.

The son of Italian immigrants, Benedetti grew up poor, said the London Guardian. Working as an auto-parts salesman and then as a property developer, he began to write. In Poems From the Office (1956), his first poetry volume, and Montevideanos (1959), his first story collection, he displayed a “sympathetic understanding of the slow, unspectacular life of the Montevideo middle classes, caught up in their small world of everyday struggles and tensions.” Benedetti’s best-known work was his 1960 novel The Truce. Depicting a romance between a young woman and a widowed bureaucrat twice her age, it became a 1974 movie that was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Benedetti’s characters were “sensitively drawn,” and his language “direct and ungarnished,” said the Los Angeles Times. A typical poem was “Tactics and Strategy,” which begins: My tactic is to look at you/ To learn how you are / Love you as you are. It ends: My strategy is that someday / I don’t know how, nor with what pretext / That finally you need me. His poignant themes notwithstanding, Benedetti had a fierce political will. A polemicist for La Marcha magazine, he helped organize the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) movement, which tried to unify Uruguay’s various left-wing groups. In 1973, after a military coup, he was forced into exile and eventually landed in Cuba, where he worked for and became friends with Fidel Castro. He returned to Uruguay 12 years later, after democracy had been restored, and his public readings in the 1980s and ’90s attracted enormous crowds.

Benedetti’s body lay in state in a ceremony attended by Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez. In one of his final poems, he wrote, When I’m buried / Don’t forget to put a pen in my coffin.

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