Mario Benedetti: Primavera con una esquina rota (Springtime in a Broken Mirror)
Because of a world wide drop in demand for Uruguayan agricultural products in the late 1950s, the Uruguayan economy fared badly and standards of living dropped. This led to to student uprisings, labour agitation and to the activities of the Tupamaros, an urban terrorist/guerilla group. This resulted in a crackdown and the military partially took over, closing down Congress. Many people were arrested, tortured and killed. Many more went into exile – in neighbouring Argentina (where many Uruguayans were killed both by Uruguayan agents and by right-wing Argentinian groups), but also elsewhere in Latin America, in North America and in Europe. Benedetti himself was one of these exiles, living in Buenos Aires, Madrid and elsewhere. Indeed, he appears as a character in this book.
The crackdown and this book started coming to an end when the military proposed a change to the constitution in November 1980. A referendum was held and the military lost the vote. There was then a gradual return to civilian rule.
While this book does deal with the political issues, it is mainly concerned with the effect of the crackdown. We follow a small family and associated friends and the effect on them. The friends are four young men. Silvio was killed, Manolo is in exile in Gothenburg, Rolando is in exile in Buenos Aires, while Santiago is in prison in Montevideo (in a prison called Liberty).
We mainly follow Santiago and his family. His family – his wife,Graciela, his young daughter, Beatriz, and his father, Rafael (his mother Mercedes is long since dead) are all in exile in Buenos Aires. Benedettri’s technique is short chapters describing, individually, the feelings of the main characters: Santiago, Graciela, Beatriz, Rafael and Benedetti himself (as a character).
Santiago has somewhat over four years to go to complete his sentence. He is able to write to Graciela, Beatriz and Rafael, though, at times, as a collective punishment, no letters are allowed in or out. As he says, more than once, letters are the lifeblood of the prisoners.
He has had eight cellmates and has being fortunate in getting on with them all. They do talk but we learn little of their conversations, apart from a discussion as to what the various patches on the wall remind them of. His letters invariably state how much he misses Graciela and Beatriz and longs to see them again. He also ruminates on what he did and has come to accept that he did the right thing in resisting. Indeed, we learn a little bit about his activities and those of his comrades, including a confrontation with a police officer, who turns out to be his cousin.
It seems, if anything, more difficult for the exiles. Graciela has been fortunate enough to find a job as a secretary. It is very boring but at least is reasonably well paid. However, she is struggling with a problem – she is falling out of love with Santiago and in love with Rolando. Naturally, both – Rolando was his best friend – are highly conflicted about this. She’s becoming increasingly dispirited, greyer. In the past she was always so pretty, so lively, so sharp.
Beatriz has her own problems. She wonders what nationality she really is, in that she barely remembers Uruguay but is familiar with a foreign country, i.e. Argentina. She misses her father but barely remembers him.
Rafael also has his problems. He is having an affair with Lydia but is also struggling with what to say to his son. He is a teacher in Buenos Aires (one student asks him Sir, why did your country, a well-established liberal democracy, turn so quickly into a military dictatorship? He struggles to give an answer.
As mentioned, the other key character is Benedetti himself. We see him in exile in Peru (he is thrown out or, rather, firmly asked to leave) and in Buenos Aires. More particularly, he meets or tells us about various people in exile in various countries. He meets a Uruguayan who has been living in Australia but is now going to Cuba, as is Benedetti. We learn of others in exile and Benedetti recounts the exile experience and its effect, both practical and psychological, on himself and the other exiles.
The book ends with the amnesty given after the November 1980 referendum and with Santiago heading for Buenos Aires, where we know but he does not, that his wife and Rolando are having an affair.
Those of us who lives in countries where arbitrary arrests for political reasons, routine torture and involuntary exile are relatively rare, can only sympathise with the plight of those whose countries carry out these practices as standard. Benedetti skilfully portrays both the practical effect and, more importantly, the psychological effect of exile, especially for those who are separated from family and friends, as several of these characters are. But we do see the practical side, from problems with the local authorities to abuse from the locals.
Benedetti is one of the foremost Latin American novelists but, including this one, only three of his novels have appeared in English. The exile experience is not an uncommon theme for the Latin American writer but this is certainly one of the better ones, getting to the heart of the issue. It is to be hoped that Penguin will be publishing more of his work in English.
First published in Spanish 1982 by Alfaguara
First published in English 2018 by Penguin