Between Walls (Tonight I’m Alone)
Tonight I’m alone. My cellmate (you’ll know his name some day) is in the infirmary. He’s a nice guy but once in a while being alone has its advantages. I can think more clearly. I don’t have to set up a screen around me to think about you. You might say that four years, five months, and fourteen days is too long for mulling things over. And you’re right. But not too long to spend them thinking of you. I’m writing to you now that the moon is out. The moon always works on me like a charm and comforts me. What’s more, it sends light down onto the paper, a little indirectly perhaps, but it’s still important because lights are all out at this hour. During my first two years, I didn’t even have moonlight, so I won’t complain. According to Aesop, there’s always someone worse off than you. And I’d say even a lot worse off.
How funny. When you’re on the outside and imagine that, for one reason or another, you may have to spend several years inside four walls, you think you wouldn’t be able to stand it, it would be just too hard to put up with. And yet, you see, it can be done. At least I’ve been able to do it. I don’t deny having been through moments of despair, without counting those in which physical suffering also played a part. But I’m talking now about despair pure and simple, when you start checking figures and it adds up to today’s confinement multiplied by thousands of other days. Still, the body adjusts better than the mind. The body is the first to grow accustomed to the new schedule, new habits, new rhythm of its needs, new exhaustions, new respites, new activities, and no activities. When you have a cellmate, at first you may think he’s an intruder. But he gradually starts turning into someone to talk to. This one with me now is my eighth. I believe I’ve gotten along pretty well with all of them. What’s rough is when his and your despair don’t coincide and his despair infects you or yours infects him. Or else one of the two may stubbornly resist being affected and this brings on a verbal clash, a confrontation, and then the four walls are no help; instead they grate on your minds, making you (and your cellmate) spit out insults and sometimes even say things that can’t be unsaid, things that quickly take on a harsher meaning simply because your cellmate’s company is forced on you and there’s no getting around it. And if things get so bad that the two dwellers of the small space don’t speak to each other, then this embarrassing, strained company makes the situation go from bad to worse faster even than solitary confinement. Fortunately, throughout this long story there’s been only one chapter like this and it lasted a short time. We were so rotten-sick of this duet of silence that one afternoon we looked at each other and started talking almost at the same time. It was simple after that.
You don’t know how important a letter is to every one of us. When we go out to exercise, you can tell right away who received a letter and who didn’t.
It’s been almost two months since I last heard from you. I’m not asking you what’s wrong because I know what is. And what is not. They say things will be back to normal after a week. Let’s hope so. You don’t know how important a letter is to every one of us. When we go out to exercise, you can tell right away who received a letter and who didn’t. An unusual glow lights up the faces of the first, even if they often try to keep from showing how happy they are, so as not to depress those who weren’t as lucky. During the last few weeks, for obvious reasons, we all had long faces and that’s not good either. So I have no answer to any of your questions simply because I’ve had no questions from you. But I have some for you. Not the kind you can readily guess without my having to ask them, and I don’t like to ask anyway, so as not to tempt you into telling me (in a joking or, even worse, in a serious tone): “Not anymore.” I just wanted to ask about the Old Man. He hasn’t written to me for quite some time. And in this case I’m under the impression that there’s no special reason for not receiving letters. It’s just that he hasn’t written in a long time. And I don’t know why. Sometimes I go over (only in my mind, of course) the things I remember writing to him in some of my short notes but I don’t believe I’ve said anything in them to hurt his feelings. Do you see him often? Another question: how is Beatriz doing in school? In her last letter, I seemed to detect something vague about some things she said. Do you realize how much I miss you? Despite my ability—and it’s considerable—to adjust, being without you is one of those things neither my mind nor my body has been able to grow used to. At least not so far. Will I get used to this? I don’t think so. Have you?
The Wounded and the Bruised (Political Knowledge)
“Graciela,” the small girl said, holding a glass in one hand, “would you like some lemonade?”
She had on a white blouse, blue jeans, and sandals. Her shoulder length black hair was tied at the nape of the neck with a yellow ribbon. Her skin, very white. Nine, maybe ten years old.
“I’ve told you not to call me Graciela.”
“Why not? That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s my name. But I’d like you to call me mama.”
“All right, but I don’t see why. You don’t call me daughter, just Beatriz.”
“Okay. So would you like some lemonade?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Graciela looks between thirty-two and thirty five and maybe she is. She’s wearing a gray skirt and a red top. Chestnut brown hair, large expressive eyes. Warm lips, with just a touch of lipstick. She had removed her glasses to talk to her daughter, but now she puts them on again to go on reading.
Leaving the lemonade on a small table next to two ashtrays, Beatriz goes out of the room. But she comes in again five minutes later.
“Yesterday at school I had a fight with Lucila.”
“Don’t you care?”
“You’re always fighting with Lucila. It must be a way you two have of showing you like each other. You’re friends, aren’t you?”
“Sometimes we play fight but it was serious yesterday.”
“She said something about daddy.”
Graciela takes her glasses off again, showing interest this time. She drinks the lemonade in one gulp.
“She said daddy must be a criminal if he’s in jail.”
“And what did you answer her?”
“I told her no, that he was a political prisoner. But afterward, I realized I wasn’t sure what that was. I’m always hearing it but I’m not sure what it is.”
“And that’s why you had a fight?”
“That’s why, and also because she told me that her father says political exiles come here to take jobs away from local people.”
“And what did you answer?”
“I didn’t know what to say then, so I punched her.”
“So now her father can say that the kids of exiles like to beat up his little girl.”
“It wasn’t a real punch, just a little slap. But she carried on like I’d really hurt her.”
Graciela leans down to pull a stocking straight and maybe also to give herself a chance to think.
“It was wrong of you to hit her.”
“I guess so. But what could I do?”
“It’s also not right for her father to say things like that. He of all people should know better.”
“Why he of all people?”
“Because he is a man with political ideas.”
“Are you a woman with political ideas?”
Graciela laughs, relaxes a little, and strokes the girl’s hair.
“Kind of. But I need to learn a lot more.”
“To be like your father, for instance.”
“Is he in jail because of his political ideas?”
“Not exactly. More for his political activity.”
“Do you mean that he killed somebody?”
“No, Beatriz, he didn’t kill anybody. There are other political acts.”
Beatriz checks herself. She seems ready to cry but instead she just smiles.
“Go on, bring me some more lemonade.”
Beatriz (The Seasons)
There are at least three seasons: winter, spring, and summer. Winter is famous for scarves and snow. When little old men and little old ladies tremble in winter we say they shiver. I don’t shiver because I’m just a little girl not an old lady and also because I sit near the heater. In books and movies they have sleds in winter but not here. There’s no snow here either. Winter is so boring. Still there’s an awfully strong wind that mostly stings your ears. Sometimes my grandfather Rafael says he’s going to retire to his winter quarters. I wonder why he won’t retire to his summer quarters, and I have a feeling he’s going to shiver in the other ones because he’s pretty elderly. You should never say old but elderly. A boy in my class says his grandmother is an old shit. I pointed out that at least he ought to say she’s an elderly shit.
Spring is also an important season. Mamá doesn’t like spring because it’s the season when daddy was arrested.
Spring is also an important season. Mamá doesn’t like spring because it’s the season when daddy was arrested. Arrested without the letters ar is like when you’re not tired. But with ar it’s like going to the police station. They arrested my daddy with an ar and since it was in spring he had on a green sweater. In spring, beautiful things happen too like when my friend Arnaldo lends me his skateboard. He’d lend it to me in winter too but Graciela says I have a tendency to catch a cold. Nobody else in my class has a tendency. Graciela is my mommy. Another real good thing about spring is its flowers.
Summer is the most super of the seasons because it’s sunny and all and there’s no school. In summer, only the stars shiver. In summer, everybody perspires. Perspiring makes you feel kind of damp and when you perspire in winter it’s because you have bronchitis for instance. My forehead always feels damp in summer. When convicts escape in summer, they go to the beach because nobody can recognize them in swimming trunks. I’m not scared of them at the beach but I am scared of dogs and big waves. My friend Teresita never used to be scared of waves, she was very brave but she almost drowned once. A man had to pull her out of the water and now she’s scared of waves too but not of dogs.
Graciela, I mean mommy, goes on and on about a fourth season called th’ autumn. I tell her maybe so but I’ve never seen it. Graciela says in th’ autumn there’s an awful lot of dry leaves. It’s always nice when there’s an awful lot of anything even if it’s in th’ autumn. Th’ autumn is the most mysterious of the seasons because it’s not cold or hot and so you don’t know what clothes to wear. Maybe that’s why I never know when I’m in th’ autumn. If it’s not cold I think it’s summer and if it’s not warm I think it’s winter. But it happens to be th’ autumn. I’ve got clothes for winter, summer, and spring but I don’t think they’ll be any good for th’ autumn. It’s th’ autumn now where papa is and he wrote to me that he was very happy because the dry leaves fly in through the bars and he can make believe they’re letters I write to him.
Between Walls (How Are Your Ghosts Holding Up?)
I was watching the stains on the wall very closely today. It’s a habit I’ve had since I was a kid. At first I’d imagine faces, animals, objects in those stains: then I’d turn them into things that scared me and even made me panic. So that now turning them into objects and faces without feeling fear is a good thing. Still that far-off age also stirs up some nostalgia in me for the time when the ghosts I imagined in the stains on the walls scared me so much. The adult reasons or perhaps the adult excuses for being scared that come later are not imaginary but only too real. Yet we sometimes throw in ghosts of our own making, don’t you think? By the way, how are your ghosts holding up? Give them some vitamins so they don’t grow weaker. A life without ghosts, a life where the ghosts are only flesh and blood is not really healthy. Well, let’s get back to the stains. My companion was absorbed reading his Pedro Páramo, but I interrupted him anyway to ask if he had ever noticed a stain, probably a damp spot, over by the door. “Not really, but now that you mention it I see you’re right, there is a stain. Why do you ask?” An expression of surprise, but also of curiosity, showed on his face. You must realize that in this place anything can become interesting. I don’t have to tell you what it means to suddenly see a bird through the bars or—it happened to me in a former cell—for a little mouse to turn into someone to talk to during the hour of the angelus or of the demonius, as Sonia used to put it, remember? Well, I told my cellmate I was asking him that because I was interested in knowing if he could distinguish any figure—human, animal, or just inanimate—in that spot. He stared at it for a minute and said: “It’s De Gaulle’s profile.” Amazing. It reminded me, however, of an umbrella. When I told him that he laughed for a whole ten minutes. That’s another good thing about this place: to be able to laugh. I don’t know, if you laugh and really enjoy it, it’s as if your insides suddenly came to life again, as if you suddenly had good reason to be optimistic and everything made sense. We should prescribe laughter for ourselves as a psychological prophylaxis, but the problem, as you must know, is that there aren’t many motives for laughter here. For example: when I consider how long it’s been since I last saw you: you, Beatriz, and the Old Man. And especially when I think of how much time may pass before I see all of you again. When I measure time by those values, it’s nothing to laugh or, I believe, cry about. At least I don’t cry. But I’m not proud of this emotional constipation. I know a lot of people here who suddenly turn on the waterworks and cry like a baby for half an hour and come out feeling better in body and spirit. As if letting themselves go renewed their strength. And sometimes I’m sorry I haven’t learned that trick. But maybe I’m just afraid that in my case, if I let myself go, for me the result would not be renewed strength but a breakdown. And I’ve always had, ever since I can remember, too many little loose screws to risk making things worse than they are now. Anyway, to be completely honest with you, it’s not that I’m afraid to let go but that I just never feel like crying, I mean tears aren’t my kind of thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t go through the miseries, anxieties, and other diversions. Under present conditions it wouldn’t be normal for me not to. But each of us has his own style. Mine is to try to rise above mini crises by using reason. I manage it most of the time but sometimes no amount of reasoning works. Misquoting the classic author (who was he?) a little, I’d say that sometimes reason hath hunches that the heart doesn’t understand. Tell me about yourself, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. How I wish I had walked at least once through the streets you walk along now, so that we’d have something in common there too. It’s what comes from having traveled so little. It’s possible that if it hadn’t been for this unexpected set of circumstances, you yourself would never have traveled to that city, that country. Perhaps if everything had followed its normal (what’s normal?) course in our lives, our marriage, our plans only seven years ago, some day we would have put together enough money to make a big trip—I don’t mean little trips to Buenos Aires, Asunción, or Santiago, remember those?—and we’d most likely have gone to Europe. Paris, Madrid, Rome, maybe London. How far away it all seems. This explosive situation has brought us down to earth, to this earth. And now if you have to get away, you go to some other country on the Continent. It’s logical. And those who, whatever the reason, are now in Stockholm or Paris or Brescia or Amsterdam or Barcelona, even they would no doubt like to be in one of our cities. After all, I’m out of the country too. I also miss the things you miss. Exile (interior, exterior) will be remembered as one of the key words of this decade. You know, someone will probably strike out this sentence. But whoever it is will have to think that perhaps, in some strange way, he is also an exile from the reality of our country. If the sentence has survived, you will notice how understanding I’ve become. I surprise myself. That’s life, girl, that’s life. If it has not survived, don’t worry. It was nothing important. Kisses and more kisses from me.
(This excerpt of Spring With a Broken Corner will continue in the next issue.)
Translated by Hardie St. Martin and David Unger.
Mario Benedetti (1920-2008) is considered Uruguay’s most important twentieth century author. Though his fiction and poetry have been translated into nineteen languages, he is hardly known in the U.S., possibly because of his protests of the U.S. incursion in Vietnam and its support of right wing dictatorships in Latin America during the seventies and eighties. In the last ten years, two collections of his poetry—Little Stones at My Window: Selected Poems and Only in the Meantime & Office Poems
—and a play, Pedro and the Captain, have appeared in English. Benedetti’s only fiction to appear in English translation is Blood Pact: and Other Stories. As of this date, none of his major novels (such as La Tregua, which was made into a 1974 Academy Award-nominated film in Argentina, starring Norma Aleandro) has been translated into English.
Hardie St. Martin died in 2007. He was a well-known editor and translator of Spanish poetry and prose. His translations include Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, The Garden Next Door by Jose Denoso, and Tierra del Fuego: An Historical Novel by Sylvia Iparraguirre. He was the lead translator of Roots & Wings: Poetry From Spain 1900-1975. St. Martin received the American Literary Translators Association award in 1997 for the “Outstanding Translation of the Year.” He was born in Monkey River, British Honduras.
David Unger was born in Guatemala and is the author of Life in the Damn Tropics: A Novel, Ni chicha, Ni limonada (2010), and two unpublished novels, In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful and The Price of Escape. He has translated sixteen books into English, including the work of Nicanor Parra, Silvia Molina, Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs, Mario Benedetti, and Rigoberta Menchu.
David Unger’s Recommendations:
Films: Though the following films are Argentine, they are quite useful in understanding what occurred in neighboring Uruguay in the seventies and eighties. El Secreto De Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), which was a 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Set primarily in contemporary Argentina with flashbacks to the nineteen seventies when the country descended into a military dictatorship; The Official Story (1985), with Norma Aleandro about the Dirty War in Argentina.