The Upper Footpath

If I had had a mother and father, everything would have been different. But my only family was a maternal grandmother, and a maternal grandmother isn’t adequate for anything. Furthermore, she was missing almost all of her teeth and every time she spoke you thought she was going to spit out her remaining tooth. That probably signaled the beginning of her hatred toward me. She realized how terribly repulsed I was by her exposed and babbling gums. But I couldn’t avoid it, any more than she could avoid her hatred.

Nevertheless, in a town like this, that had never been too welcoming, we represented such an exemplary grandmother/grandson combination that mothers would point us out to their children and their own mothers in an effort to steer them towards a mutual understanding among themselves.

It was truly moving to see us, my grandmother and me, go out in the afternoon, my hand in her hand, smiling and pleasant, stopping in the plaza to greet the shoemaker who was talking about crimes while he mended, and also going into the pharmacy so that the pharmacist could fill my right pocket with honey or peppermint candy. It was moving to hear my grandmother asking me if I wanted to take a ride on the only bus in that area, thereby offering me the pleasure of listening to her tell me, just before the last bend, that she always felt bored and sleepy. And it was moving to hear me say no, that today I didn’t want to, when in reality everyone knew that I was making the sacrifice so that she could save ten cents. Then, she would smile at me understandingly, without her dentures, and invite me to the upper footpath. I didn’t refuse, because it didn’t cost any money and it would have been a ridiculous sacrifice to do so. Besides, the upper footpath was my best source of enjoyment at the time.

The upper footpath was near the mill. I know that it had a bright red brick border and it was about two meters above the dirt road. Whenever there was a very prolonged dry spell lasting for many days, the muddy road would become dusty. On those occasions my grandmother didn’t want to take me because the dust would get into her ears. As for me, the dust would enter into my nostrils, but I would remedy that with a couple of sneezes.

Today I still don’t quite understand the nearly unexplainable attraction I had to that footpath. I remember that there, on the dirt road down below, four or five boys were learning not to have pity on each other and would throw whatever object they had at their immediate disposal at each other, whether it was a piece of debris or a barrel rim. Once, one of the boys threw an object and it hit my grandmother’s bun. After hesitating for a moment, he decided to overtake her, ultimately ending up at her feet after attempting a series of quick, expressive hugs. Me and the rest of the boys down below laughed after seeing this surprise gesture, and afterwards didn’t fight any more for a while.

When something like that happened, my grandmother would punish me for my inappropriate mischief and deny me the footpath for a couple of days. That time the same thing happened. That was when I officially began my meditations. I had had them before then, but only as an enthusiast. I had frequently thought about my role as an orphan and about the advantages and disadvantages that would cause me to perform it. It was clear that I had not chosen this, but I didn’t completely understand it either. Nevertheless, when I decided to meditate seriously I had to select a major subject containing sufficient doubtful material to fill the hours without the footpath.

So, when I finished reflecting on open subjects (the flies, my knee, the speaker), I would sit in front of the henhouse to eat crackers and think about death. That was indeed a subject, too vast for reflection, so intense that it always left me a little pale. I would close my eyes. The day would also close its own eyes and the henhouse would remain quiet. Then, one could begin to meditate. Since the subject was death, before anything it was necessary to conceive it. In order to conceive it, there was nothing better than not thinking about anything. By not thinking about anything, one would become nonexistent, which was death. It was obvious. Like that, at least I believed it. But when I seemed to be reaching the complete void, my complete disappearance, I discovered that, finally, I was thinking about not thinking. And even if my only thought was about nothing, that was the sole reason for everything. Of course, this is only an approximate translation of that kind of infantile dialect after which my feelings would take hold. But in essence, it wasn’t much more than that.

It was after the ninth or tenth meditation that I convinced myself of two very important issues. The first was that death couldn’t be complete and total Nothingness. The second was that the only way of knowing this was by dying. Actually, I thought this was a very good arrangement, because if I were to die and then it turned out that Nothing didn’t exist, it would matter very little to me that I had lost against myself, and I would not, moreover, be in a position to regret it. If, on the contrary, there was Something, not only would I win, but I would know it. And in the end, this was more important to me than all the other arguments. I knew. I was much more curious than cowardly. Therefore, I decided to die in a short period of time.

One night, my grandmother kissed me with her customary drooling and because I behaved myself and didn’t wipe off her kiss with my sleeve, she informed me that the next morning we would go to the upper footpath again. I was determined to die and one walk more or less wasn’t nearly enough to move someone who was going to embark on the longest, or the shortest—it would soon be determined—of all trips. Nevertheless, at that moment it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to enjoy the footpath. After all, it was what I loved the most, even more than a record of Offenbach’s Barcaroles that had belonged to my father, even more than a box of lead, unpainted soldiers, which I would place on parade in the kitchen and whose monotony finally turned me into a antimilitarist.

The next day I woke up early. I didn’t feel melancholy about any of it. One doesn’t cry over or dismiss an experimental death. Before going out, I gave myself the pleasure of reflecting on the subject of The Grandmother.

We left at ten o’clock. I patiently tolerated the visit to the shoemaker and even sucked on one of the usual candies in the pharmacy. So that later, the fine man had reason to say “Just think, the poor boy left the pharmacy sucking on one of my candies.”

The upper footpath was prettier than usual. Because it had rained the night before, the mud was cool and the bricks were striking. Down below, the usual boys were playing their usual war game. A barrel rim cut through the air and although my grandmother’s bun shook, it landed very far away from us.

She let go of my hand without me having to ask her to do so. I took a few preliminary steps. I looked down and I was surprised that I didn’t feel vertigo. After several protracted looks, I chose the rock onto which I thought I would land on my head.

My grandmother was muttering some kind of warning when I pretended to make a false move and threw myself. Thrashing images battered my eyes and I immediately felt a tremendously intense pain.

Naturally, it resulted in a broken leg and a scratch from a brick. But at that moment I thought I was dead; that death was Something, that that Something was horrifying. And that from the very highest footpath to my muddy and painful death my grandmother’s hatred was reaching me in slaps.

(1947)

Bios

Mario Benedetti

Mario Benedetti was born on September 14, 1920 in Pasa de los Toros, Tacuarembó Province, Uruguay. When he was four years old, his family moved to Montevideo. Between 1938 and 1941, he lived in Buenos Aires almost continuously. When he returned to Montevideo in 1945, he published his first book, La Víspera Indelebe (Poems) and became the editor of Marcha. Although he was 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, Quién de Nosotros, but it was with the publication of Montevideanos: Cuentos (Stories), in 1959, that the urban concept of his narrative style took shape. With the publication of La Tregua in 1960, Benedetti acquired international pre-eminence. This novel, written in the form of a diary, has been published in more than one hundred editions, translated into nineteen languages, and has been adapted for the stage, screen, radio, and television. In the late fifties and sixties, he traveled extensively in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. 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. Since 1985, he has lived in Montevideo, where he devotes his full time to writing.

Benedetti is one of Latin America’s most highly renowned and beloved authors who writes (especially) about everyday life in Montevideo. Using well-balanced and appropriate doses of humor and colloquialisms, he shows a deep and poignant insight into his characters’ inner world and captures the problems of the city dwellers, who while trapped in an impersonal world, are building a shell to protect themselves from authentic feelings. As Jean Franco stated in The Modern Culture of Latin America, many of Uruguay’s problems stem from its high level of literacy and large middle class. “Modern Uruguay is a country of clerks and civil servants, and the hazards that face them are not those of violence and oppression, but of smugness and the excessive concern for security.” Consequently, Benedetti’s works are often set among office workers and members of the middle class, and in many, the characters’ low-key lives take on a tragic tinge simply because they are caught in the trap of routine.”

As a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, playwright, songwriter, and screenwriter, Benedetti’s vast body of work encompasses every genre and is known worldwide. He has written for magazines, newspapers, and various periodicals and journals in Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico. In addition, selections of his work are represented in anthologies published in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, England, Italy, the United States, Israel, Venezuela, and Spain. His poetic texts, some of them set to music and frequently performed at folk concerts, are familiar to the generations of Latin Americans who flock to hear him whenever he appears in public.

On thirteen occasions he has received prizes for literature, including the “Premio Ministerio de Instrucción Pública” for Peripecia y Novela, a book of literary criticism, in 1948, and again for the play, El Reportaje, in 1958; the “Premio Municipal de Literatura” for Montevideanos: Cuentos, a collection of stories, in 1959, La Tregua, his second novel, in 1960, and again in 1963, for Literatura Uruguaya Siglo XX, a book of literary criticism; and Third Prize in the “Simposio del Comisión del Teatro Municipal” for the play, Ida y Vuelta, in 1963, for which he was also awarded a drama fellowship by the American Council of Education to visit the U.S. That same year, when Gracias Por el Fuego, his third novel, was awarded Second Prize in the “Concurso Seix Barral” in Barcelona, he won the “Concurso Periodístico de SAS” for journalism, and was awarded the “Premio Cámara del Libro” and the “Medalla Félix Varela al Merito” for his first novel, Quién de Nosotros. In 1979, he was awarded the prize for “Mejor Obra Extranjera” in Mexico, the “Premio Llama de Oro Amnistía Internacional” for the play, Pedro y el Capitán, and again in 1987, for the novel, Primavera Con Una Esquina Rota. In 1986, he was awarded the “Premio Jristo Botev de Bulgaria” for his body of work in the poetry and essay genre. In 1989, he was decorated with the “Medalla Haydeé Santamaría” by the State Council of Cuba. In 1997, the Universidad de Alicante conferred upon him a Doctor Honoris Causa. In 1999, he was awarded the “VIII Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana” for his body of work in the poetry genre, and in 2000, he received the “Premio Iberoamericano José Martí.” In 2004, he was awarded the “Premio Etnosur,” and in June 2005, he received the “XIX Premio Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.”

Besides having written a full-length study of twentieth-century Uruguayan literature, he is the author of more than seventy-five books, including thirty-one books of poetry, seven novels, thirteen collections of stories, nine books of essays, eleven books of literary criticism, ten books of journalism, five plays, one children’s book, seven anthologies of stories, poetry, and journalism (as editor), and three books of music.His work has been translated into twenty-six languages: French, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Greek, Czech, Slovak, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese, Finnish, Ukrainian, Arabic, Romanian, Catalan, Galician, Flemish, and Braille.

Harry Morales

Harry Morales is the author of The Suit and Skirt Farm (Xlibris, 2002), a novel. He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, in 1962, and was raised in New York City. He is a graduate of New York City Technical College and lives in Manhattan. He has studied literary translation under Gregory Rabassa and translated stories by the Uruguayan poet and novelist, Mario Benedetti, from various collections including Montevideanos: Cuentos, La Muerte y Otra Sorpresas: Cuentos, Esta Mañana: Cuentos, and Con y Sin Nostalgia: Cuentos, among others. He has translated the poetry of the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and the work of Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rossi, Julia de Burgos, and Ilan Stavans, among many other Latin American poets and writers. His translations from the Spanish of Mario Benedetti have appeared in The American Voice, Pequod, Fiction, Confrontation, Arshile, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Chicago Review, Sycamore Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mānoa, BOMB, Puerto del Sol, Michigan Quarterly Review, and World Literature Today, among others. His translations of work by Ilan Stavans have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories (University of New Mexico Press, Spring 1996), Prospero’s Mirror: A Translators’ Portfolio of Latin American Short Fiction (Curbstone Press, June 1998), The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (Oxford University Press, November 1998), Agni, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Stories (St. Martin’s Press, July 1999), The Essential Ilan Stavans (Routledge, October 2000), The Saint Ann’s Review, The Iowa Review, and MEXICO: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2005). Other work in translation appears in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays (Oxford University Press, October 1997), Contemporary Fiction from Cuba (Seven Stories Press, May 1999), and Worlds of Fiction: Second Edition (Prentice Hall, August 2001). His journalism and book reviews have appeared in Hopscotch: A Cultural Review, WorldView, and The Bloomsbury Review. He is the recipient of a Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry grant for his translations from the Spanish, and has completed a new English translation of Benedetti’s internationally-acclaimed, award-winning novel, La Tregua (The Diary of Martín Santomé: A Novel). His translation of two verse collections by Mario Benedetti, Sólo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948-1950 (Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948-1950) and Poemas de la Oficina: 1953-1956 (Office Poems: 1953-1956) is published by Host Publications.

"The Upper Footpath" from Esta Mañana: Cuentos (and included in Cuentos Completos).  Copyright (c) Seix Barral/Biblioteca Mayor Compañía Editora Espasa Calpe Argentina, 1994. English translation copyright (c) Harry Morales, 2004.