Professor Antonio Benítez-Rojo
Professor Antonio Benítez-Rojo
Antonio Benítez-Rojo, the Thomas B. Walton, Jr., Professor of Spanish, died January 5 at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton after a short illness. He was 73 and had taught at Amherst since 1983.
A novelist, essayist and short-story writer, Benítez-Rojo was widely regarded as the most significant Cuban author of his generation. His work has been translated into nine languages and collected in more than 50 anthologies. Tute de reyes, his 1967 collection of short stories, won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize, and Sea of Lentils, his 1979 novel, was reviewed by John Updike in The New Yorker and listed as a notable book in The New York Times. He won the Pushcart Prize for his 1990 story “Heaven and Earth,” and was co-winner of the 1993 Modern Language Association Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for his book La isla que se repite. He also wrote the award-winning screenplay for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film The Survivors and contributed to more than a dozen scholarly books.
The complexity and variety of Benítez-Rojo’s writing was a reflection of his own rich background. As a boy growing up in Havana he favored adventure stories like Treasure Island and Captain Blood, and he was influenced by the colonial history of the Caribbean and the sense of romance attached to forts and pirates. In a 2003 interview with Bomb magazine, he said that one of his influences was his family cook, who was a former slave. “Whenever she saw me,” he said, “she called me over and began to recount Yoruba stories to me. And so, on top of the stories about pirates and naval engagements that I was storing in my memory fell the legends of the Yoruba orishas: Shangó Oshún, Ogún, Yemayá, Obatalá, Babalú Ayé....As you can see, by the age of 8 or 9 I was a caribeño. If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer invariably: a writer.”
His family had other ideas, however. Benítez-Rojo spent 12 years in a Jesuit school and then entered the University of Havana, where he studied finance, statistics and labor economics. On graduating from the university, he landed a job at the Cuban Labor Department, and might have worked there as an economist for the rest of his life, but in 1965 he became very ill and was confined to bed for three months. The confinement was so boring for him that he began to write stories. A year later, those stories won the Casa de las Americas Prize, and when his next two collections of stories also won major prizes, his new career path was set.
But his success would also bring heartache. Benítez-Rojo and his wife, Hilda Otaño-Benítez, initially supported the Cuban revolution, but by the mid-’60s they had grown disenchanted with its development. Consequently, when the government allowed Hilda to travel to the United States in 1967 with their two children to seek treatment for their daughter’s illness, Antonio wanted to accompany them and stay in the United States. Because of his new fame, however, the government saw Benítez-Rojo as an asset they didn’t want to risk and refused to let him go. Hilda stayed in the United States with their children, and Antonio didn’t see her or the children again until 1980, when he walked away from a delegation in Paris and made his own way to the United States. A friend in America helped get him a university teaching position, which eventually led to his appointment at Amherst in 1983. It was only then, Benítez-Rojo said, that he and his family could live a normal life together.
At Amherst he taught courses in Spanish-American literature, Latin American literature, Cuban literature and culture and creative writing. Dean of the Faculty Gregory S. Call said that Benítez-Rojo “was, by all accounts, beloved by his students, who saw him as the embodiment of the literature and culture that they studied.” “He had the unique gift of harboring both a sophisticated intellect and a deep appreciation of the simple pleasures in life,” Brandt Tullis ’07 told The Amherst Student. “His eyes lit up when, during our last class together, he explained each tiny detail of his Christmas dinner. From the way he described it, you would think he was talking about the most engrossing, awe-inspiring thing. In fact, he had a way of making anything seem amazing.”
Professor of Spanish James Maraniss, who translated several of Benítez-Rojo’s works, said, “I was bored with being an academic until I began a new life as his translator, and in a sense his presenter to the English-speaking world, to share that degree of his power, which was that of a great artist.”
In addition to his 20 years of teaching at Amherst, Benítez-Rojo held visiting positions at Harvard, Yale and Brown universities, among others. Active until the very end of his life, he was one of several intellectuals who signed a 2003 letter asking the Cuban government to release 75 political prisoners, 14 of whom eventually were released.
He is survived by his wife, Hilda, a senior lecturer and language program director in the Spanish Department at Amherst, and a son, Jorge. He was predeceased by a daughter, Maria.
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Photo: Frank Ward