The Rest is Jungle by Mario Benedetti (trans. Harry Morales). Host Publications. 295 pp., $15.00.
Returning from Exile
The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, sadly, was little translated into English during his lifetime, and most of what made it through was poetry. Perhaps this was because his fiction never quite fit the English-world model of a Latin American writer, neither writing the meta investigations of a Borges or Cortazar, nor delving into the magical realism of the Boom. Instead, his short stories were in a more realist vein, interested in urban dwellers; later, as he was marked by the turbulent history of Uruguay and its neighbor, Argentina, he reflected on the plight of the political prisoner and the exile. He was concerned with more than just 20th-century history, though, and he included in his stories moments of the fantastic and a humor that finds the foolishness in the deepest held aspirations of his characters. At his best, he combined these to draw portraits of stagnation, isolation, and the limiting power of dreams that are often funny, sometimes dark, and usually surprising.
English-speaking readers can now see for themselves with Harry Morales’ excellent translation of Benedetti’s stories, The Rest Is Jungle. While his stories do vary in structure, one consistent feature is that Benedetti liked to work with voices, whether through conversations or first-person narratives bordering on neurotic self-justifications. Using the conversational structure allowed Benedetti to dispense with direct psychological insights and let his characters reveal themselves, though they are never fully aware (even though they think they are). Not extravagant in their confessions, all these people want to do is talk, to explain. They show that even the most quotidian things can be the most revealing, if you know where to look for it.
This conversational style leads to intimate stories where the larger world never seems to exist, as if the office, bedroom, or even city were the end of the universe. Even when narrating a story that spans fifty years, Benedetti makes characters feel as if all that ever mattered to them were their obsessions. It is a claustrophobic world, isolated, limited, unable to see beyond itself. The isolation is not dark, though, and his characters lead lives that, though superficially happy, are limited by dark undercurrents. For Benedetti it is the dreams and aspirations that often limit the characters—what one longs for turns out to defeat him, as in the story “The Iriarte Family,” where a young functionary in government office falls in love with the voice of his boss’s lover. Meeting her at a vacation resort they have a whirlwind love affair, and when they return to the city they plan on marrying. One day as she is standing next to him in the office he receives a call and recognizes the voice as the boss’s lover. Realizing he has made a mistake he says,
Meanwhile, Doris’s hand was still resting in mine when I looked up and knew what I was going to find. Sitting on my desk, smoking like any other fashionable woman, Doris was waiting and smiling, still poring over her ridiculous diagram. Naturally, it was an empty and superficial smile, the same as everyone else’s, and she threatened to bore me with it from here to eternity. Later I would try to find the true explanation, but in the meantime, I put an end to this misunderstanding in the most unsuspecting layer of my conscience. Because, in reality, I am in love with the Itiarte family [The boss's lover].
The narrator’s reaction is typical of a Benedetti story. He has what he says he most wants, yet at the last moment, when he learns that the dream is not the reality, he would rather return to the dream, even if it means sitting in forgotten government office and living vicariously through the boss. His reaction is funny, but the humor is permeated by a sense of isolation, dullness, of never having what one wants. All that is left is another sad man.
If on the one hand dreams limit, habits and obsessions have the same power to blunt one’s greatest desire. In “No Surrender” a man is estranged from his brother because he thinks the brother took his mother’s jewels when she died. For twenty-five years he has wanted to see his brother, but until he gets the jewels, which remind him of his much-loved mother, he refuses to see him. Finally, he finds out it was his cousin who took the jewels. His brother returns the jewels, yet despite the loneliness and longing for his brother, he cannot let go of the previous twenty-five years.
Pascual looks at the long rock and the little angels without nostalgia, closes the steel door, causing it to creak, and finds himself in the street again. To be honest, he hasn’t surrendered. His left hand continues to squeeze the package and he immediately feels an uncontrollable desire to smoke. Then, he stops at the corner, lights a cigarette, and upon tasting the old pleasure of the smoke on his palate, suddenly sees everything clearly. Now the jewelry is no longer important; his hatred toward Matias continues intact; may his cousin Susana rest in peace.
Again, the claustrophobia closes in as the character’s whole world changes from the jewels and the memory of his mother they represent to the vendetta. Benedetti’s skill was to structure his stories so that the already closed world of the obsession leaves the reader feeling that there is nothing else for the character except that moment with its complete emptiness.
It is in the stories with bureaucratic functionaries that Benedetti presents a true sense of comedy and blunted desire, a perpetual state of waiting for something to occur. He captures it magnificently in “The Budget,” where the narrator describes how his eight-man department in a forgotten part of the government attempted to ask for a raise. Between the hours spent playing cards and reading the paper, they wait patiently for larger departments to receive the request, only to find it is almost impossible to get anyone to grant it. But of course, rumor fills the office and they hear they might get a raise so they spend more than they have and all end up in debt. The story ends with the men waiting until next week, when something might happen, but like a totalitarian bureaucracy nothing ever happens.
After a military coup in 1973 Benedetti was exiled from Uruguay for 12 years. While The Rest Is Jungle doesn’t indicate the publication date of these stories, it is obvious that his work began to reflect the harshness of the dictatorships that overtook the Southern Cone in the 1970s. He wrote both of military men inflicting torture and of victims haunted by their experience. He doesn’t describe the brutality in graphic detail; instead what he sees is the bureaucratic nightmare he earlier portrayed with humor now becoming a menacing, ever-present force. The characters don’t know if they are ever free, ever safe, and the reader doesn’t know where the stories are taking place: is it Uruguay, which would suggest immediate danger, or is it Europe, where the isolation and longing mix with an unspoken threat?
His take on exile adds a distant threat to the sense of confinement and isolation he explored in the stories about the government offices. While the exiles may have more freedom, all they want is to return, which is impossible, and consequently they find themselves lost. In “Completely Absentminded” he describes an exiled politician who sleepwalks through Europe, never quite understanding where he is, because he has been cut off from his home. Exile becomes a trap, a strange dream that can only end badly.
The story that best unites his interests in exile, oppression, and the limits of a self-constructed identity is “He Dreamed He Was In Prison.” It opens with a prisoner dreaming of his own imprisonment. Left with nothing else in his experience but prison, he can only dream of being in prison. When he finally leaves prison six years later he returns home exhausted and goes to sleep:
He slept for more than twelve hours straight. Strangely, during that long rest, the ex-prisoner dreamed he was in prison, with a small lizard and everything.
The past that has so shaped his waking life is now shaping his dream life. He finds himself trapped in the past and cannot go beyond. As with the exile, there is no return to the old life, there is just the memories that construct reality and leave one isolated.
The Rest Is Jungle offers a wide cross-section of Mario Benedetti’s stories, both in the stage of his development as a writer and in style. Although they differ as he grew as a writer, they are all extremely well written with a sharp attention to detail and are filled with humor and subtle observations. With this excellent edition perhaps one Latin America’s best writers will be recognized as such in the English-speaking world.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film, especially Spanish and Arabic language literature, at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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