BTBA 2011 First Look-Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Mario Benedetti~Uruguay

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Let’s not resort to the vulgarity of attributing everything that is shameful to a muddled childhood.  It remained over there, behind the fog.  My remembrances allow themselves to be seen through a sparkling glass called memory.  I see you naked in the field, beneath a rainfall that doesn’t discriminate, your naked arms up high, enjoying that initial happiness which would certainly not occur again, at least with that intensity.

Mario Benedetti was one of Uruguay’s preeminent writers and a stalwart in Latin American literature.  This collection of short stories The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories, contains fifty plus years of his work.  Besides being a prodigious novelist, essayist, critic and poet, he was a political activist.  His distinct imagery and political themes are present in these short stories which experiment with form, style and point-of-view.  Having lived to be almost ninety, Benedetti’s stories serve as a witness to the changing political tides, oppression, alienation, and human understanding during a tumultuous period in Latin American history. 

Many of his stories center around the isolation one feels living in an urban environment.  He conveys the loneliness and disconnectedness of the individual who simultaneously wants the metropolitan life of the city but feels confined by its impersonal limits: revenge fuels office betrayal in “Such Friends,” a daughter in a wheelchair shows her aversion to her father’s political views by telling the robbers where his art collection is hidden in “The Collection,” and a tale of embarrassment in an apartment building when a man dances naked among other things and then realizes his blinds were open in “Venetian Blinds.”

Benedetti also explores the concept of evil and how evil makes victims of the powerless regardless of their behavior as demonstrated with chilling precision in “Listening to Mozart,” “The Rage Has Ended,” and “No Surrender.” The realism that is heightened is these stories is met with stories that are ensconced in a surreal and dreamlike quality that address themes such as the passage of time, death and imprisonment found in “A Watch with Roman Numerals,” “Nineteen” and “He Dreamed He Was in Prison.”  And then there are little comic gems like “Translations” which deal with language, perception and derivation:

The same thing always happened to him.  when someone translated one of his poems into a foreign language (at least, on of those he knew), their verses sounded better than his original.  That’s why he wasn’t surprised that the French version of his poem, “Time and the Bell,” appeared to be wonderful, graceful, substantial.

Two years later, an Italian translator, who didn’t know Spanish, translated that French version, and although he had never been a supporter of the oblique versions (not forgetting, nevertheless, that many years ago he had discovered Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and also Confucius through them), he greatly enjoyed his poem “in an Italic mode.”

Three more years elapsed and a British translator, who, like the majority of British translators, didn’t know Spanish, translated the Italian version, which in turn had been translated from the French version.  Despite such distant origin, it was the version that brought the original Spanish-speaking author the most pleasure.  He was just a bit surprised (in reality, he attributed it to many errors) that this new oblique version was titled “Burnt Norton,” and that the name of the supposed author was a certain T.S. Eliot.  Nevertheless, he like it so much that he decided to take personal charge of translating into Spanish.

What makes Benedetti’s short stories so effective is that the reader is pulled in right in the middle of the action, right before the chaos unravels.  The stories have a blunt irreversibility about them–the endings don’t offer hope, just outcomes from impulse and desire.  The pettiness of hatred, fear and greed limn some of his harder truths that give these stories such finality.  If you like short stories, this is a collection that shows what the form can do from different angles and genres.  And Harry Morales’ translation is loyal and superb.  A perfect pairing of translator and writer makes this collection lush and varied. 

Having read his poetry, Benedetti’s love of language never leaves him, no matter what genre he is choosing.  Even though there is the harshness of city living present in his poems and poetry, it is tempered by a desire for connection and compassion.  It takes a truly skilled writer to tell the story of the human experience that includes love, hate and all that lies in between and Benedetti is just such a writer.

The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories

By Mario Benedetti
Translated by Harry Morales
HOST Publications
Paperback, 296 pp.
ISBN: 9780924047718

Other works by Mario Benedetti:

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