Dictators and sonnets
Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti died yesterday, news which fills me with the kind of dangerous nostalgia he wrote so much about. Benedetti, a writer I read when I lived in Buenos Aires at a time that is already retreating too quickly into my past, lived in exile from his beloved Montevideo for ten years during Uruguay’s military dictatorship. Geografías, a story from the 1984 collection of the same name, was the one that stayed with me of Benedetti stories I read during the hot summer in my sweltering home on Mexico street. Rereading it now brings me back to that place in all its familiar detail, and I am heady with the heat of nostalgia.
It’s the story of two friends, exiled from Uruguay, who spend their time in a Paris cafe trying to recall the details of Montevideo in a game they call Geographies. Their game is interrupted by the appearance of one of the players’ former lover, Delia, who it emerges has been in jail all the time they have been in exile. Through her, the two men learn of how far their carefully tended memories of Montevideo are from the city’s changed reality. When Roberto is finally alone with his former lover, he talks to her of “la nostalgia como detergente, la nostalgia como corrosión, la nostalgia como consuelo” (nostalgia as cleaner, nostalgia as corrosion, nostalgia as comfort). In the end it is clear, as Roberto makes a vain attempt to recapture their youthful intimacy, that there is no going back.
It’s a theme that held particular resonance for Benedetti himself, whose own return to Uruguay after ten years in exile – “the unexile” as he called coming back – was complicated by his disappointment at the changes in his homeland.
Though Benedetti wrote often about the political situation that had driven him to exile at a time when military dictatorships were flourishing all over Latin America, and those who spoke against them were “disappeared”. “An intellectual’s weapon is writing, but sometimes people react as if it were a firearm,” he once said. “A writer can do a lot to change the situation, but as far as I know, no dictatorship has fallen because of a sonnet.”