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Tenement Press is an occasional publisher of esoteric,
accidental, & interdisciplinary literatures.

‘My head is my only house unless it rains’

Don Glen Vliet

El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel /
Juan Ángel’s Birthday
Mario Benedetti

Translated from the Spanish
by Adam Feinstein

Tenement Press #11
310pp (Approx.)


£17.50 / Forthcoming April ‘24

We must be accountable to every day.

Mario Benedetti

Mario Orlando Hamlet Hardy Brenno Benedetti Farugia—otherwise known as Mario Benedetti (1920-2009)—was a Uruguayan novelist, journalist, activist, and poet. A key member of the Generación del 45, Benedetti is oft celebrated throughout Latin America for his ‘direct’ verse, his poetry and prose focusing on complicity, on the acuity of ‘love, anger, and resistance’ in moments of political and civil unrest and upheaval (The Guardian).

A frequent contributor to the Uruguayan weekly, Marcha, Benedetti was instrumental in the establishment of the Frente Amplio / Broad Front movement, which sought to unify left-wing groups in 1960s Uruguay, and his writing has been translated into over eighty languages. Awarded the Reina Sofía Prize for Poetry (1999) and the Ibero-American José Martí Prize (2000), his novels have been adapted for the cinema (see La tregua / The Truce, 1960) and his poetry set to music by such artists as Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat (notably on Serrat’s album El sur tambien existe / The south also exists, a passionate indictment of US foreign policy).

El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel / Juan Angel's birthday, published by Tenement Press in a first-time English language edition by Adam Feinstein, crystallises its author’s life-long efforts to explore the pluralist politics of complicity, care, and individual experience via a monologic study of the quickening of childhood, of innocence, and of adolescence against the backdrop of revolution and Uruguay’s Tupamaro guerrilla movement.

A march (Montevideo, Uruguay), 
‘Esperando al guerrillero,’ Época (1965)

Written in 1971—three years prior to Uruguay’s descent into dictatorship—we follow our protagonist, Osvaldo Puente, as he adopts a nom de guerre, Juan Ángel, and joins the guerrilla on the front line. It is Puente’s birthday, and he is eight years old. As the hours shuttle by, the minutes turn to months, and—over the course of a single day—we see Puente sprint toward adulthood at pace. Cue a kaleidoscope of familial bonds stretched to breaking point, fractal agency, a curt dismantling of class, a weather system of love affairs and a withering of friendships, as Puente changes his name as evening draws in, aged thirty-three, with his commitment to the guerrilla’s cause ossified.

A single monologue in verse—thatching politics, pop culture, and a child’s eye on a world requiring a constant decipherment—Feinstein’s translation of Bededetti’s El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel is a brutal and searing rendition of this study of the sophistication of a political outlook and an ideological id in times of strife, need, and change.

Benedetti, the reluctant optimist
& his ‘strange beast’ 

Adam Feinstein

(An excerpt from the translator’s afterword.)

Benedetti always considered himself ‘a poet who happens to write novels’. He said that poetry offered the writer freedom and independence. Novels were harder to write, because he was constantly interrupted by travelling, by the need to attend meetings or judge competitions ... 

You can’t write ten pages of a novel today and the next ten pages in six months’ time. You have to enter the world of the novel and stay there … Perhaps it was to compensate for my lack of time that I ended up writing a novel in verse, Juan Ángel’s Birthday, which is a very strange beast.

This ‘strange beast,’ written in Cuba in 1970 and published the following year, depicts the reality of a nation (Uruguay) convulsed by the urban guerrilla movement and the transformation of Osvaldo Puente, an eight-year-old middle-class bureaucrat, into the thirty-three-year-old guerrilla, Juan Ángel. But the journey is over a single day. One of the central themes of Juan Ángel’s Birthday is the passage of time.

(Left) Mario Benedetti, El cumpleaños de Juan Angel,
Argentinian First Ediiton, Siglo veintiuno editores, 1971
(Right) Benedetti, photographed in his study
by Pablo Bielli, 2014

As Giaconda Marún has astutely noted, ‘Added to the irony of the despotism to which the clock subjects us is the idea of just how absurd it is, at times, to measure time chronologically.’

Osvaldo / Juan himself expresses this absurdity apophantically.

… os digo que el candor que / me arde a la seis y cuarto no es el mismo de / esta mañana cuando apenas tenía once años

I tell you that the honesty burning / inside me at 6.15 is not the same as it was / this morning when I was only eleven

In one of his essays, Benedetti wrote— 

A man going through a transition is rather like a drawbridge:  if he allows his inhibitions and fears to take control of him and isolate him, this will certainly contribute to restraining the natural impulse of history, but if he permits his civic values and his innate sense of justice to connect him with the other side, the revolutionary side, from which we always seem to be separated by a chasm, that will help to bring the future closer.

Osvaldo Puente / Juan Ángel undergoes this transition and he is ‘both the subject and the object of salvation by a bridging metamorphosis: his second forename (‘puente’ means bridge in Spanish) confirms this, according to José Otilio Umaña Chaverri. He turns his back on his former self, his former world, by going underground. There’s no way back. And yet Osvaldo has not vanished. As George Orwell affirmed, shedding your roots is no easy task. Juan Angel feels the need to lock up his bourgeois self ‘under lock and key.’ 

For Umaña Chaverri, the dilemma facing the middle classes is their position within ‘a binary relationship of exclusive opposites ... in other words, their problem consists in being a non-disjunction in a disjunctive world. As a class, the middle strata reject one pole and aspire to the other. That’s why they suffer from a clearly delineated identity ... Prey to the patriarchal thought blueprints which will later offer Osvaldo space to exert his male authority, his life as a child has been oriented towards what the law and order of exclusive heterosexual ethics promulgate as “normal” and “natural.”  He vegetates within his little family domain, ignorant of the fact that other people’s worlds, outside his own walls, are being rocked to their very foundations and demanding a settling of scores ... Like the class to which he belongs, Osvaldo is a bridge and, thus, he both unites and separates other worlds and also separates his own world from others.’

Two key journeys shaped Benedetti’s own world-view: his first trip to the United States in 1959 (where he witnessed poverty and racism on an appalling scale) and his 1966 stay in Cuba. The victorious spirit of the Cuban Revolution was picked up by the Tupamaro movement for national liberty in Uruguay. And as Jean Franco pointed out, middle-class intellectuals (like Benedetti) were attracted to the guerrilla movements in Latin America. They included Benedetti’s close friend, the Salvadorean poet, Roque Dalton, who was murdered in 1975. Most of these movements’ members were workers and intellectuals united by the notion that the international process of a burgeoning class struggle would eventually lead to ‘revolution in all capitalist societies.’

(Left) Roque Dalton photographed in exile in Czechoslovakia, 1966
℅ MUPI (Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, San Salvador, El Savador
(Right) Monument to Raúl Sendic in Trinidad, Uruguay

The Tupamaros began their activities in 1962. Up until 1968, these largely consisted of raids on banks and casinos. From 1968, the guerrilla struggle increased in intensity and violence came to the streets of Montevideo. Uruguay’s famed democratic tradition was in grave danger. Benedetti, for his part, became an increasingly militant member of the emerging Socialist and Communist students’, workers’ and trade union movements. As Umaña Chaverri has observed, this was ‘a very different Benedetti from the one from his youth who was more interested in Proust and Kafka.’

William Cordova, ‘Tupamaros, after Raúl Sendic’ (2007/2008),
Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City, NY)

In 1970, the year he was writing Juan Ángel in Cuba, Benedetti defended the position of the Castro government, which was going through intense internal and external tensions. Nevertheless, although Benedetti supported the cause for which the Tupamaros were fighting in Uruguay, the radicalisation of the guerrilla movement alarmed him. His position remained the one which he had expressed in a 1968 article, entitled ‘The profitability of talent,’ namely that ‘the simple political militant can take refuge in his comfortable operations with an act of faith, whereas the intellectual, in his congenital function as an inquiring investigator, because of the minimum respect he holds for his condition of implicated witness [to events], has no other option than to think with his own brain.’

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Juan Ángel’s Birthday, written between March and November, 1970, is dedicated to the Tupamaro leader, Raúl Sendic. Indeed, the novel was even accused of being the inspiration behind the escape of more than a hundred Tupamaro prisoners from the Punta Carretas prison, when the protagonists fled down an underground tunnel at the end of 1971. (Whatever the truth of this, we do know that in Mexico—where the novel was prudently first published—the separatist leader, sub-commander Marcos, said he owed his assumed name to the guerrilla leader in Juan Ángel’s Birthday.)

So where does Juan Ángel’s Birthday fit within the canon of ‘revolutionary literature’? José Otilio Umaña Chaverri has observed:

Poetic (literary) language has demonstrated its powerful presence in the struggles waged across the [Latin American] continent for freedom from the programmes of subjugation and domination. For that reason, is not surprising that our literature incorporates the phenomenon of revolutionary movements as part of the complex reality we call “Latin America” and which, in the case of Juan Ángel’s Birthday ... the transformation of the revolutionary is explored in great depth. But what is the appropriate conscience, attitude and literary response towards events in Latin America? Benedetti argues that the writer must “assume our reality” as “an inevitable pre-condition to changing that reality.”

This novel is doubly revolutionary, because quite apart from its theme, it experiments with language. 

Mario Benedetti, Montevideo, 1963
Fundación Benedetti, © 2024

The work of Mario Benedetti, my friend and brother, is surprising in all its aspects, whether the varied extent of genres it touches, the density of its poetic expression or the extreme conceptual freedom it employs.

José Saramago

Demonstration against the coup d'état
in Uruguay, Montevideo, 9 July 1973
Aurelio Gonzalez, © 2024

In Latin America and Spain, he is remembered above all as a poet who sought to speak of love and political commitment as directly and passionately as possible. By the end of his life, he had published more than 80 books, and in one of his last poems he gave the instructions: When I’m buried / don’t forget to put a Biro in my coffin.

Nick Caistor, The Guardian

Benedetti has crafted a portrait of the ‘long parenthesis’ opened up in Uruguay’s society, from which ‘nobody will be able to pick up the thread of the original sentence.’

New York Times Book Review

Mario Orlando Hamlet Hardy Brenno Benedetti, known as Mario Benedetti, was a Uruguayan journalist, novelist, and poet. He is considered one of the most important 20th century Latin American writers, especially in the Spanish-speaking world. A revolutionary and a passionate romantic, Benedetti wrote of love, anger, political resistance and redemption, particularly during the period of his enforced exile from Uruguay, between 1973 and 1985.

Adam Feinstein
is an acclaimed British author, poet, translator, Hispanist, journalist, screenwriter, film critic and autism researcher. His biography of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, was first published by Bloomsbury in 2004 and reissued in an updated edition in 2013 (Harold Pinter called it ‘a masterpiece’). Arc published his new book of translations, The Unknown Neruda, in 2019 and another book of translations, this time of the great Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, came out in two separate editions in 2020, first in Nicaragua itself and then by Shearsman in the UK. He has also published a collection of translations of the Cuban poet, José Martí. Feinstein has given numerous lectures around the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the United States, Russia, China, India, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and writes for the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times and the Times Literary Supplement. His own poems and his translations (of Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Mario Benedetti, Roque Dalton and others) have been praised for their ‘power and possession’ and their ‘compelling fluency’ and have appeared in many magazines, including Agenda, Acumen, PN Review, Poem and Modern Poetry in Translation.

Were a wind to rise
I could put up a sail
Were there no sail
I’d make one of canvas and sticks

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Motto’
(Bucknow Elegies)


Tenement Press, MMXXIV