When I was a lad, and perhaps even today, you could get these tinned meat pies under the distinctive rubric of Fray Bentos. I had always thought this was a brand name, like Hoover or Marmite, so I was pleased to note that the town of Fray Bentos really exists – it’s in Uruguay, and is (or was) famous for its meat-packing industry. (I should have realized this, of course – the existence of the town, not of its industry – it is the home town of Irineo Funes, the eponymous subject of Funes the Memorious, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favourite authors).
But I digress.
Regular readers will recall that I had occasion to visit Uruguay recently, as a delegate of the 9th International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology. I didn’t get the chance to pay homage, either literary or carniphilous, to Fray Bentos. However, my colleagues Dr J. H. and Dr D. E. of Toronto planned to go up country after the conference to prospect for fossils, and send me any relevant pictures. And this, friends, is what arrived in my inbox yesterday.
As you can see, they didn’t actually get to Fray Bentos. All we see is this sign (with its teasing suggestion, in the sign for the gyratory, of a meat pie) indicating how to get there.
This sign raises more questions than it answers, which we should explore in a Borgesian manner. Had Dr J. H. and Dr D. E. followed the sign to Fray Bentos, what, then, would have happened? The existence of the sign doesn’t actually say anything about the existence of Fray Bentos as a real place, any more than it signals a talisman, an aspiration, a goal perhaps never reached. It could simply stand for some kind of lost city that one ever sees on the horizon but can never approach or enter – a metaphor, perhaps, for ambitions unfulfilled. Alternatively it could be twinned with Toutes Directions, that mythical French city, copiously signposted but never attained.
Oddly, this only serves to heighten the reality of Fray Bentos, not diminish it. For were one actually to reach Fray Bentos, would one not be disappointed? Once inside a city, you might find it hard, on contact with the grimy reality of people and shops and cars and so on, to distinguish it from any other place: and yet, in its tantalizing state almost of quantum superposition, it remains, in our hearts, that lost land of childhood nostalgia where beef is king, where unknown yet assuredly happy people pack meat pies in a state of bovine elysium, and as a result of their assiduity there will always be a comforting Fray Bentos meat pie in the pantry.