Exiles (A Man in a Lobby)

by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales

I met Dr. Siles Zuazo in Montevideo twenty years ago, when he arrived in Uruguay as an exile (the word was pronounced differently then) following the triumph of one of the many military coups that have always corrupted the history of Bolivia. I had a few books published at the time and worked in the bookkeeping section of a large furniture company.

One afternoon, the phone on my desk rang and a serious voice said: “This is Siles Zuazo.” At first I thought it was a joke and nevertheless didn’t respond accordingly, weighing the slight possibility that it could be true. I couldn’t overcome my amazement, but he quickly relieved me of all my doubts. In reality, he was inviting me to come see him at the Nogaró Hotel. I thought he was going to talk to me about Bolivia and the military who had seized power, but at any rate, I couldn’t understand why he had chosen me in particular. But I was mistaken.

A few years earlier, I had published an essay on Marcel Proust and the meaning of guilt. Well, Siles Zuazo wanted to talk to me about Proust and other literary topics. I was faced with the fact that that politician without an outlet to the sea, that personage whose anecdotes about civic-mindedness had been recounted for me by various friends, was an exceptionally erudite man, an inveterate reader of contemporary literature.

We talked about Proust, of course, while we had tea with toast. The only thing missing were the madeleine cakes. The few times we discussed politics were because of questions of mine. He, on the other hand, wanted to talk about literature and certainly made intelligent and sagacious remarks.

After that first meeting, we had tea several times in the Nogaró, and I preserve a very placid and agreeable memory of those conversations. A short time later, he left Montevideo and returned to the political struggles and unsteadiness of his unexchangeable Bolivia.

I didn’t see him for many years, although I always followed his tireless political duties: legal, when it was possible, clandestine, when it wasn’t. One night in Buenos Aires, around 1974, I was walking along Paraguay Street, I think, trying to find shelter from a heavy downpour. All of a sudden, as I was practically running by the front of a lobby, I thought I recognized a man standing there who appeared to also be taking shelter from the rain.

I turned back. It was Dr. Siles. He had recognized me, too. “So it was your turn to become exiled.” “Yes, doctor. When we talked in Montevideo it seemed impossible, didn’t it?” “Yes, it seemed that way.” I couldn’t make out his smile in that semi-darkness, but I imagined it. “What stage are you currently in during this unexpected exile of yours?” A little embarrassed, I replied: “Number three.” “Then don’t be distressed. I’m up to number fourteen.”

That night we didn’t talk about Proust.

Contributors

Mario Benedetti

MARIO BENEDETTI was born on September 14, 1920 in Uruguay. He published his first book in 1945. Although a trained accountant, he went on to publish Peripecia y Novela (Literary Criticism) in 1948, and a year later, Esta Mañana, his first book of stories. In 1953, he published his first novel, Quien de Nosotros, but it was with the 1959 publication of Montevideanos: Cuentos (Stories) that the urban concept of his narrative style took shape. With the publication of La Tregua in 1960, Benedetti acquired international preeminence. While in Cuba, he founded the world famous Centro de Investigaciones Literarias at Casa de las Americas, which he directed from 1969 to 1971. Returning to Uruguay in 1971, he opposed increasing government repression through his writing and participation in the leftist coalition known as the Frente Amplio, which he helped organize. Following the coup of June 1973, his work was banned by the Uruguayan military. Between 1973 and the return of the civilian government in 1985, he lived in exile in Argentina, Peru, Cuba, and Spain. Writing for an international audience, he denounced the tragic events occurring in Uruguay at the time. From 1985 on, he lived in Montevideo, where he devoted his full time to writing. He passed away on May 17, 2009. Translator HARRY MORALES is also the author of the novel The Suit and Skirt Farm (Xlibris, 2002). He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico in 1962, and was raised in New York City. He has studied literary translation under Gregory Rabassa and translated stories by the novelist Mario Bendetti from various collections including Montevideanos: Cuentos, La Muerte y Otra Sorpresas: Cuentos, Esta Ma ñana: Cuentos, and Con y Sin Nostalgia: Cuentos among others. He has also translated the work of the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas as well as the works of Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rossi, Julia de Burgos, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez, and Ilan Stavans, among many other Latin American writers.

Harry Morales

Translator Harry Morales is also the author of The Suit and Skirt Farm, a novel.

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