Mario Benedetti’s Wise, Lonely Novel about Political Exile
The writer Mario Benedetti was born in 1920, in a Uruguay of peace and progressivism. The reformist President José Batlle y Ordóñez had just stepped down, leaving a legacy that included state secularism, divorce rights for women, and a wide range of workers’ protections. The country seemed on track for a calm, egalitarian future, and Benedetti’s apolitical early work, which included a collection called “Office Poems” and a response to Joyce’s “Dubliners” titled “Montevideans,” reflected the optimism of Uruguay’s burgeoning middle class.
But the Uruguayan economy tanked in the nineteen-fifties, sharpening class disparities and politicizing students and laborers. Soon, the country was alight with protest, and the government grew increasingly repressive. Marcha, the weekly magazine for which Benedetti worked and wrote, became the site of fierce leftist debate. Benedetti, too, grew more political, speaking against American neo-imperialism and taking a leading role in the 1971 creation of the Frente Amplio, a political coalition that unified Uruguay’s historic left-wing parties and provided a home for defectors from the right. When the Uruguayan military seized power, in 1973, the junta swiftly banned both Marcha and the Frente Amplio. Fearing for his safety, Benedetti left the country. He didn’t return for twelve years.
“Springtime in a Broken Mirror,” newly translated into English by Nick Caistor, is the only novel Benedetti published in exile. Its story is simple: Santiago, an imprisoned Uruguayan radical, longs for freedom, while his exiled wife, daughter, father, and friend struggle to make use of theirs. Benedetti rotates between characters, all of whom speak in monologue form. There are few dramatized scenes, and not much affection or warmth. Benedetti cuts out sensory detail, as if not only Santiago but his family were confined to a concrete cell. The result is profoundly lonely. In style and structure, “Springtime in a Broken Mirror” reproduces the isolation that its characters feel.
One of those characters, in a way, is Benedetti, who also has monologues in the book. In first-person interludes titled “Exiles,” the author describes his own period of dislocation and the fates of other Uruguayans forced to flee. In one, he meets a man who lives in Australia, but who dreams of moving to Cuba, “which has really been able to bring about change.” In another, he mourns a friend who had a stroke in his apartment and was found three days later, by which point “Intensive care could do nothing for him. Strictly speaking, he did not die of hemiplegia, but of solitude. The doctors said that, had he been found in time, he probably would have survived.”
In his “Exiles” chapters, Benedetti explicitly addresses the reader. His characters, on the other hand, seem to speak into the void. Santiago writes to Graciela, his wife, but, thanks to the army’s censors, he’s taught himself not to hope for replies. When Graciela does receive his letters, they provoke an intense pain that makes her withdraw from him and from her daughter Beatriz. Beatriz and her grandfather Don Rafael speak only to themselves, each trying to make sense of their new worlds. Nearly all their efforts to connect with each other fail. By the book’s end, even nine-year-old Beatriz has given up on her mother’s attention.
The novel’s only successful communication happens between Graciela and Rolando, Santiago’s friend and former comrade. In Montevideo, Rolando was a womanizer, but once he is exiled to Buenos Aires he longs for Graciela, who, it turns out, is longing right back. Their blossoming relationship provides the novel’s momentum, and its few moments of escape from isolation. Unlike Graciela and Don Rafael, Rolando tempers his grief over dead and imprisoned friends with gratitude for his own safety. He accepts his unhappiness—“Everyone knows how hard exile can be,” he thinks—rather than letting it become a source of guilt. This enables him to support Graciela, and to entertain her. It lets him treat her like a person, rather than like a political prisoner’s suffering wife.
Santiago, meanwhile, has entirely forgotten Graciela’s humanity. He idealizes her to a point that she finds intolerable. Benedetti’s characterization is particularly delicate here. We empathize with Santiago, who has been denied human touch for five years, but understand Graciela when she says that his letters read “as if they were addressed to someone else.” As her relationship with Rolando evolves, both she and the reader come to understand how badly she needs to be taken off her pedestal. The relief that comes when Rolando promises a relationship in which they “love each other as they really were, and not as they felt they had this overly scrupulous obligation to be,” is enormous.
That promise is the first of the novel’s two turning points. The next is the Uruguayan plebiscite of 1980, in which the military dictatorship put its own legitimacy to a vote. Benedetti describes it through Don Rafael, the family’s half-resigned patriarch. “I didn’t believe in the plebiscite,” he begins. “It seemed to me a ridiculous trap. But I woke up at three in the morning and had a feeling I should turn on the short-wave radio . . . and the ‘No’ vote had demolished the military’s proposal.” Suddenly, “Springtime in a Broken Mirror” fills with hope. Santiago will be freed from prison, and his family will get to go home.
But Benedetti doesn’t change the novel’s structure. Graciela and Rolando now speak in dialogue, but his other characters remain in isolation, as does Benedetti himself. In his last interlude, he celebrates the plebiscite’s results in Cuba, but he never imagines his own return to Uruguay, which took place a few years after “Springtime in a Broken Mirror” was published. Nor does he break the wall between himself and his characters. He never writes about them, or to them. The divide remains intact.
So does the divide between Santiago and the outside world. The dictatorship remained in place for five years after the plebiscite, releasing its grip on power as slowly as possible, but it began releasing political prisoners much sooner. Santiago receives amnesty and joins his family in Buenos Aires. He narrates his trip in a poem, his thoughts fractured and spiky. For the first time, he wonders whether Graciela still loves him, but quickly shakes off the thought. “After these five years of winter,” he declares, “no one is going to steal the spring from me.”
The irony here is heavy, but Benedetti balances it well. Santiago’s poem-monologue is equal parts funny and tragic, prosaic and mildly deranged. He thinks along five tracks at once, swinging without warning from Beatriz to Ronald Reagan to Saint Augustine. “I’m the same but am another person too,” he writes, and even this is a lonely thought. The rift between the past and present Santiago will never close, and the reader knows that the same holds for the rift between Santiago and his family.
In 1983, Benedetti wrote in El País that “dis-exile will be a challenge as arduous as exile was in its moment, and may prove even more complex.” The final chapters of “Springtime in a Broken Mirror” contain that knowledge, or fear. Benedetti’s characters will suffer through dis-exile, isolated from each other and perhaps from themselves. Santiago’s spring will be like a mirror with “a broken corner”—but, even then, both the mirror and the spring are “useful.” Benedetti’s honest reflection of exile is, too.