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Mario Benedetti: Gracias por el fuego [Thanks for the Light]

Here we have another wonderful Latin American book that is not available in English (but is available in German, Italian and Polish). There is no magic realism which might partially explain the reason but a good Latin American novel does not have to have magic realism to be good. The opening is brilliant. It consists of a group of Uruguayans – seven men and six women – who meet for meal in a relatively upscale restaurant in a relatively poor Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York. Most of them are strangers to one another and spend a certain amount of time determining whether to use the familiar tu or the polite usted. The matter is never fully resolved. The participants – several of whom we will meet again during he course of the novel – talk about various matters but are often critical of Uruguay. During the meal, the host receives an urgent phone call, from which he learns that there has been a devastating tidal wave and earthquake in Uruguay, causing massive destruction and loss of live. Immediately, those that criticised the country are full of remorse. One woman even tears up a hundred dollar bill to show that she no longer cares about material things. The host then receives another phone call. It turns out that the previous news had been exaggerated. There had been a small flood but it only affected a small area and damage and loss of life had been minimal. It is back to business as usual.

One of the participants at the meal was Ramón Budiño, the owner of a travel agency. More particularly he is the son of Edmundo Budiño, a highly successful Uruguayan who owns various businesses, including factories and a major newspaper, and is very well connected politically. Indeed, he is so well-known that Ramón is often known not as Ramón Budiño but as the son of Edmundo Budiño. Ramón is the narrator of the novel and much of the novel concerns his uneasy relationship with his father. Ramón feels that his father has changed since he and his brother, Hugo, were children and, particularly, since his father ceased to be Daddy and became The Old Man. Ramón prides himself on being a man of integrity while his father clearly is not, though this integrity is challenged. We see Edmundo’s lack of integrity as he hits his wife, keeps a mistress for twenty years and is involved in shady deals. In one case, Ramón learns about a shady deal that his father is involved in and that is likely to be exposed by a journalist. Ramón mentions it to his father who is indifferent. He quickly guesses who the journalist is and then tells Ramón that he has information on three of the journalist’s relatives which will keep the journalist quiet. If he does not keep quiet, Edmundo will get him fired. Ramón later learns that the journalist has, indeed, been fired.

Ramón’s integrity is called into question by his father. The father points out that Ramón’s travel agency was financed by money he, the father, had lent Ramón. Even though Ramón intends paying it back, Ramón has taken advantage of the loan and used dirty money. Ramón cannot argue with this. He is also no saint when it comes to women. He has a somewhat priggish wife and has had affairs with other women. During the course of the book, he starts an affair with his brother’s wife. He does not like his brother, who is too much like their father, and he seems to have no qualms about it. He also bumps into one of the women he met at the New York dinner and they soon end up in bed, using a flat a group of his friends uses for such purposes and to which he has a key.

Clearly, one of the themes of the novel is a criticism of Uruguay, both its corrupt politics but also how it is seen from the outside, particularly by the United States. Ramón makes frequent references to this, such as an article by Time magazine which calls Uruguay the Switzerland of Latin America, at the same time as his father is involved in his shady deals. Another telling example is given by one of Ramón’s clients at the travel agency. This man complains that high-level US visitors want high-class prostitutes, particularly French ones, but that these are not just not available in Uruguay. For the US visitors local women are seen as the equivalent of Puerto Ricans back in New York and are not acceptable.

Ramón gradually come to the view that his father’s behaviour is just not acceptable though, as he admits to himself, it is because he is no longer Daddy but the Old Man. He sees his father as a corrupting influence, particularly when the story of the fired journalist comes to light. He gradually comes to the view that the only solution is to kill his father. He discusses this with Dolores, his mistress and brother’s wife, and she is at first horrified but then accepts it, even if she does not agree. The day of his decision is wonderfully handled. It is on that day that he meets the woman he had met at the dinner in New York and, prior to going to his father, has sex with her, thinking that she will remember having had sex, things do not quite work out as planned.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1965 by Alfa
No English translation
Translated into German as Danke für das Feuer (Rotpunktverlag, 1987)
Translated into Italian as Grazie per il fuoco (Club degli editori, 1973)
Translated into Polish as Dziękuje za ogień (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1974)