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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 18, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    Dictators and sonnets

    Fiona McCann

    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.”

    • kynos says:

      Well, if you’re of the opinion that the Glorious Revolution and the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim that presaged it were a good thing, then Lilleburlero, not quite a sonnet more a song, was the tune that whistled a King (James II) out of 3 kingdoms as it was said. James was a tyrant, certainly if you were not Catholic. To this day the BBC World Service use it as their signature tune in memory.

    • kynos says:

      Years ago, I read a great science fiction writer and quirky philosopher named Philip K Dick and he said “How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empre of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?
      Not through the old-fashioned ways of writing in the bathroom, but how does one do that in a truly future technological state? Is it possible for freedom and independence to arise in new ways under new conditions? That is, will new tyrannies abolish these protests? Or will there be new responses by the spirit that we can’t anticipate?”
      Mr Dick was writing in 1974, before the rise of the interwebs, wi-fi and laptops. Suppose he’d have loved bulleting boards. One can try and do all the fashioning of books of resistance and truth and rectitude right in the face of the enemy and write in one’s bathroom all at the same time! :)

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