He never considered himself an exiled politician. He abandoned his country out of a strange impulse that was forged in three stages. The first was when he was approached by four successive beggars on the Avenue. The second was when a minister said the word Peace on television and his right eyelid immediately started to tremble. The third was when he entered his neighborhood church and saw that a Christ (not the most divine one, crowded with candles, but another, crestfallen, on a side aisle) was crying like a saint.
Perhaps he thought that if he stayed in his country he was going to become desperate in a short span of time, and he knew all too well that he wasn’t cut out for desperation, but for free-spirited wandering, independence, the most modest enjoyment. He liked people, but he didn’t bond with them. He enjoyed the countryside, but in the end he would become weary of so much foliage and yearn for the soot of the cities. He relished urban tensions, but the day would arrive when he felt walled in by the imposing blocks of cement.
As soon as he had finished roaming the streets and roads of his country, he started wandering across countries, borders, and seas. He was terribly absentminded. He often didn’t know what city he was in, but that wasn’t any reason for him to ask. He simply continued walking, and, in any case, if he erred, he didn’t mind correcting his mistake. If he needed something, whether it was something to eat or a place to sleep, he made use of his four languages to find it and there was always someone who understood him. In the worst case, he was left with the international language of gestures.
He traveled on the railway or on the bus, but normally he managed to get a lift in some car or truck. He inspired trust. People would believe the most absurd things he said, and they wouldn’t be mistaken, because everything about him was a little absurd. But he usually traveled alone, which was logical, since no man, and certainly no woman, would be able to tolerate so much haphazardness and so much disorder.
Whenever he crossed a border, he showed his passport with an indifferent or mechanical gesture, but would immediately forget which border he was crossing. He spent very little time in the center of the cities. He preferred the neighborhoods on the outskirts, where he got along well with children and dogs.
Sometimes, some detail would present itself which served to orient him. But not always. One morning he found himself next to a canal and thought he was in Venice, but it was Bruges. He confused the Seine with the Rhine, and vice versa, on at least three occasions. He didn’t carry a compass, but oriented himself by the sun. But when the days were stormy, with dark skies, he didn’t have the faintest idea where North was. And that also didn’t affect him, since he didn’t have a preference for any of the cardinal points.
One midday, he realized that he was walking in Helsinki because he saw a telephone booth displaying the word PUHELIN. It was one of those scarce pieces of information he knew about Finland. Another day he felt an alarming pang of hunger in his stomach and took a little bit of cheese out of his knapsack. As he chewed with pleasure he noticed that he was leaning against a column which brought back a memory of the Pentelic marble columns he had seen in some photograph of the Parthenon, and of course, from that moment on realized that in fact he was in the Acropolis. Yes, he was terribly absentminded. On another occasion, it was snowing and to protect himself from the cold he went into the shops of the modern underground of the Halle. When he emerged from other underground shops right in the center of Stockholm six months later, he was honestly happy that it was no longer snowing.
From time to time he went to airports, but almost never traveled by airplane, because among other reasons, after reporting to the corresponding counter and checking in his light luggage, he would go to the terrace to watch how the big airplanes took off and landed and never paid the slightest attention to the loudspeakers, which repeatedly announced his name.
Nevertheless, on a certain occasion, and it’s anybody’s guess by what strange mechanism, he remained in the departure gate and confidently boarded the airplane with the rest of the passengers. When he arrived at his destination and showed his passport, indifferently, as was his custom, an immigration official looked at him attentively and said: “Come with me.” He meekly followed him along a deserted corridor. When they arrived at a door with a sign that read No Entry, the official opened it and ordered him inside. Unprepared, he did so. He thought about approaching a table that was in the middle of the room, but suddenly he couldn’t see anything. Someone, from behind, had placed a hood over his head. Only then did he understand that, in his complete absentmindedness, he had ended up in his own country again.
© Mario Benedetti. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2003 by Harry Morales. All rights reserved.