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Mario Benedetti: Andamios [Scaffolds]

There are some novels you read which are superb but it is very difficult to explain why. This novel does, for example, have some sort of a plot but it certainly is not plot-driven. It has a main character who is the focus of the novel but the secondary characters, interesting though they may be, are nothing special. It certainly addresses key ideas, such as the issue of exile and returning from exile, the validity of political action and relationships, both love and family. But, as in many good novels, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And, of course, this novel has not, like most of Benedetti’s novels, been translated into English. The title is explained by Benedetti in an introduction. Every chapter – and the book consists of seventy-four small chapters – is part of a scaffold he is building to paint a picture of a returning exile.

Our hero is Javier, a Uruguayan who has returned to Uruguay after twelve years of exile in Spain, leaving behind his wife, Raquel, and his teenage daughter, Camila. Much of the theme is what in Spanish is called desexilio, which should be translated as unexile, if such a word existed in English but, as it doesn’t, has to be translated as return from exile, which certainly does not have the same resonance as the Spanish word. The question Benedetti and Javier pose is how does a returning exile reintegrate into the society he had left for a long time. Javier struggles with this throughout the book and really only comes close at the end and then only through a very unsatisfactory and artificial ending. His first problem is his old friends. They were all part of the political struggle, fighting against the dictatorship imposed to combat the Tupamaros. Javier had left the country. Others, however, had stayed and been imprisoned and tortured. Those that had survived naturally struggle not only with what they suffered (and what Javier did not suffer) but with the validity of what they did. We see this in particular with two people The first is Rócio who was arrested and tortured but did not talk. She now works doing surveys and she and Javier start an affair but she clearly has not come to terms with what happened to her and to the political struggle that she was part of. The second concerns both a friend, Fermín, who was arrested but more interestingly the colonel who interrogated Fermín. Colonel Bejarano is now retired and a widower and comes to visit Javier, saying that he wants Javier to act as intermediary with Fermín, as he would like to meet and talk to Fermín. He is not a Scilongo, the Argentinean officer who was responsible for throwing (living) prisoners out of a plane and who later confessed and was imprisoned. Indeed, Bejarano’s reason is not entirely clear, though we later learn a possible reason.

It is not, of course, only political issues that show up his exile. He feels disconnected from his friends and his family. His mother is still alive, though he finds out that she had had an affair while his father was still alive but, in the end, had given up the affair and stayed with his father. He has issues with his siblings and one of the themes is how he tries to re-establishes links with them or, at least, with his sister. His wife and daughter in Spain keep in touch. Both have affairs, which they tell him about, and he tells his wife about his affair, though you are left with the suspicion that they will get back together again. Of course, his exile is now from his exile or, at least, from his wife and daughter. He also feels disconnected from the city. Montevideo has, of course, changed in twelve years and he finds this naturally strange, from his apartment complex, called Nuevo Beach to the shops he used to know.

There is another aspect to his life in Uruguay – being Uruguayan. Benedetti cleverly addresses this by having Javier write an article for a Spanish magazine on this issue. We learn about Uruguay but also about the fact that its having won two World Cups in football (in the 1930s) seems to have been the highlight of the country’s life. Javier himself also mentions that he was often mistaken for an Argentinean in Spain and makes the remark that he is not sure whether an Argentinean is a Uruguayan with a superiority complex or a Uruguayan is an Argentinean with an inferiority complex. Benedetti tackles the whole range of exile and return from exile issues but he also shows us a complex man who cannot quite fit in with who he is and where he is. Sadly, the artificial ending spoils what might otherwise have been a great novel.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1996 by Seix Barral,
No English translation