BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - One of Uruguay’s best-known writers, Mario Benedetti, whose poems on love and politics became popular songs and whose muse was the unassuming Uruguayan capital Montevideo, died on Sunday, his brother said. He was 88.
Benedetti lived in exile from 1973-1983 during Uruguay’s military regime and dubbed his return to the South American country the “unexile.”
The injustices of the dictatorship and his re-adaptation to Uruguay — which he said had become petty and materialistic — were major themes in his prolific six-decade body of novels, short stories, poems, essays and articles.
In the short stories that launched his fame in the 1950s and 1960s, Benedetti wrote affectionate descriptions of the low-key pleasantness of Montevideo but also despaired of its bureaucratic drabness.
“Montevideo is a city whose climate and lifestyle are almost provincial, where strangers feel comfortable,” he said in an interview in the late 1990s.
With his white mustache and friendly round eyes, Benedetti remained beloved in Uruguay into his old age.
Well into his 80s, he performed sold-out readings in Montevideo. He sat in a rocking chair on stage reading from a big book, while his long-time friend and collaborator, singer-songwriter Daniel Viglietti, sang and played guitar.
Spanish romantic pop-star Joan Manuel Serrat turned Benedetti poems into hit songs — most notably “The South Also Exists,” an anti-U.S. polemic.
Benedetti had been hospitalized several times in the past two years with respiratory and intestinal problems. But his brother, Raul Benedetti, told local television that he had been improving in recent weeks, so his death came as something of a surprise.
Benedetti’s late poems, such as the collection “The World I Breathe,” mused on old age and the cacophony of world politics.
But he often quipped that his pessimism was merely “informed optimism” and said that youth was his hope for the future.
Adolescents in South America still share his love poems with each other, reading his work in home videos posted on YouTube — especially “Don’t Hold Back,” which urges people to take risks, and “Let’s Make a Deal,” about unconditional friendship.
For years Benedetti shuttled between Madrid and Montevideo to avoid winter, because of his chronic asthma. But he had recently moved to Montevideo year-round. He won Spain’s prestigious Reina Sofia Poetry award in 1999.
One of his early novels, “The Truce,” written as the diary of a middle-aged man’s boring routines, was made into a movie.
His story, “Left Wing,” about a soccer player who takes a bribe to throw a game but just cannot help scoring a goal, has been called the foundation of Latin American sports literature.
Born to Italian immigrants on September 14, 1920, in northern Uruguay, Benedetti was educated in Montevideo and worked as a stenographer and journalist. Luz Lopez, his wife of 60 years, died in 2006.
He was active in a leftist movement in the early 1970s and wrote political editorials. His politics put his life in danger after the 1973 military coup in Uruguay, so he went into exile and lived in Argentina, Peru, Cuba and Spain.
“An intellectual’s weapon is writing, but sometimes people react as if it were a firearm. A writer can do a lot to change the situation, but as far as I know, no dictatorship has fallen because of a sonnet,” he said at a conference in 1997.
Additional reporting by Patricia Avila in Montevideo; Editing by Chris Wilson