Reviewed by Jeremy Garber
When the great Mario Benedetti passed away at the age of 88 in May 2009, thousands of people throughout his native Uruguay and the rest of Latin America mourned the loss deeply. In the United States and other English-speaking countries, however, the death of this renowned literary master garnered little but a passing mention. As the author of more than 80 books (poems, short stories, novels, plays, and essays), Benedetti was as beloved and respected a man of letters as the Southern Cone has ever produced.
In addition to his creative works, Benedetti was also a journalist and outspoken political activist. He helped coordinate the Broad Front (Frente Amplio), a coalition of leftwing political groups organized to combat Uruguay's ruling parties. As political tensions grew during the tumultuous years of the early 1970s (as they did throughout Latin America), repressive actions by the military also grew in frequency and severity. Following the 1973 coup, Frente Amplio was outlawed, as was the magazine for which Benedetti wrote, forcing him into exile. He moved first to Buenos Aires whereupon a rightwing paramilitary group threatened him with death. From Argentina he traveled to Lima, Peru, but was soon detained and later deported, finally reaching Havana and eventually Madrid. Benedetti continued to write from abroad, heavily critical of the political oppression occurring in his homeland. It would be over a decade before his return to Uruguay, settling in Montevideo in 1985, where he lived for the remainder of his life. The political repression, censorship, and exile he endured largely influenced his writing.
With so little of Benedetti's work to be found in English, the posthumous publication of a recently translated collection of his short stories is a welcome and well-deserved addition to what remains. Composed of nearly four dozen short stories, The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories spans 50 years of Benedetti's literary career. With nary a weak piece to be found, this collection offers the full breadth of his remarkable short-story-writing prowess.
Adeptly translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales, The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories is, as described by him, "My flower of multi-colored petals to Benedetti, which I place at his feet, followed by a deep bow and bent knee." As one who began translating Benedetti's works over 20 years ago, Morales is well accomplished in rendering the rhythm and nuance of the author's writing from its original Spanish. After studying literary translation under the famed Gregory Rabassa (Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Amado), Morales translated two of Benedetti's poetry collections (Solo mientras tanto and Poemas de la oficina) into English (the single-volume Only in the Meantime and Office Poems), as well as stories that have appeared in an impressive array of publications. Though it has yet to be published, Morales also retranslated Benedetti's most famous work, La tregua (The Truce), as its English predecessor has long been out of print. That Morales has faithfully endeavored to promote Benedetti's work to English-speaking audiences is testament to the care and devotion he brings to his translations.
From the seemingly mundane, often overlooked moments of everyday life to the impossible ontological questions that have tempted minds for millennia, the scope of subjects that Mario Benedetti incorporated into his fiction is simply breathtaking. Perhaps the most singular quality defining Benedetti's work, however, is the mindful humanity that courses through his writing. Sympathetic, tender, and rhythmic, Benedetti never divorces his characters from their roles in the larger melodrama of life. A man may indeed inflict the cruelest torture upon a political dissident, yet he must later that very evening face the innocent inquiries of his young child. Where it would be all too easy to veer into the realm of offering moral pronouncements or ideological posturings, Benedetti's focus upon each character as a real, complex individual never strays nor wavers.
As was the focus of his haunting 1979 stage drama, Pedro and the Captain, a few of the stories in The Rest Is Jungle deal directly with the grave implications of state-imposed torture. He wrote of that play in its prologue:
The work isn't a confrontation between a monster and a saint, but rather one between two men, two flesh and blood beings who both have their points of vulnerability and resistance. For the most part the distance between the two of them is ideological, and this perhaps holds the key to their other differences -- the moral, the spiritual, the sensitivity to human pain, the complex terrain that lies between courage and cowardice, the lesser or greater capacity for sacrifice, the gap between betrayal and loyalty.
It is with these sentiments in mind that Benedetti seems to have crafted all of his fiction. His interest in the rich, personal experience of his characters (be they perceived as heroes, traitors, or common folk) appears invaluable, and to the reader this translates to a seldom seen warmth and compassion that emanates freely from the page.
Despite Benedetti's trenchant observations about the nature and effects of abhorrent political tactics (for torturer and tortured alike), his insights into the fancies and follies of romantic love are perhaps even more incisive. It may well be that Benedetti's familiarity with the more calamitous and forlorn aspects of existence equipped him with an equal, perhaps greater, capacity for sharing the transcendent joys of love and freedom. It most certainly was a subject he knew well; his marriage to his childhood sweetheart prevailed for six decades before her passing in 2006.
Given the vastness of experiences Benedetti chronicled throughout his work, it's easy to see the zest he applied to life and literary creation. While many of his stories lead to an unanticipated conclusion, often even a dark one, they are balanced by a revelatory and paced quality that comes eerily close to the personal tales one might hear from a friend. Reading Benedetti is just that, like learning of a well-lived life with its ample share of frustration, worry, regret, solitude, beauty, unexpected humor, grace, loyalty, and romance. His work feels so vibrant and animate because it's so eminently realistic. Whether reading the easily relatable tale of abiding bureaucracy or a metaphorical story about an ant nearing its destination, it often seems as if Benedetti simply recast the happenings of his (or our) neighbors under the guise of gorgeous prose, the cloak that is the storyteller's gift.
Benedetti's characters, like the stories that contain them, are never static, but instead wend a fluid course which often leads to places unexpected. Little is certain save for whatever reality he has us inhabiting for the moment. The men and women that populate his tales are subject to similar precepts. In "Lunch and Doubts," a character offers,
My conscience turns up on the day I least expect it to. When one is going to open the front door or while shaving, when one looks at oneself absentmindedly in the mirror. I don't know if you understand what I'm saying. In the beginning, one has an idea of what happiness is going to be like, but then afterwards, one starts to accept corrections to that idea, and only when all the possible corrections have been made, does one realize that one has been fooling oneself.
Benedetti's work is suffused with the promise of possibility, adding handsomely to an already abundant wealth of charm and likeability.
The stories compiled for The Rest Is Jungle are deeply rewarding and satisfying. For those unacquainted with the late, beloved Uruguayan's work, a trove of riches awaits. That more of Mario Benedetti's writing shall find its way into translation, one can only hope. What little there is available in English demonstrates an immense talent regarded highly for decades elsewhere in the world. The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories is more than just an outstanding collection, it's a fitting tribute to a man whose commitment to life and literature was rivaled, perhaps, only by his steadfast devotion to compassion and justice.
Books mentioned in this post