I don’t remember when I’ve read a collection of such varied and original short stories as Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle, forty-five extraordinary stories, demonstrating the genius of a writer who cannot be pigeon-holed. So different are these stories—one from another—that if Benedetti’s name were not on the cover, the reader would conclude that this is an anthology by many writers. Some of the stories are no more than a page of print, others twenty or thirty; some are nothing but dialogue (phone conversations, chance encounters on the street); others, nothing but exposition—not a line of dialogue. And the subjects of the stories, their themes, are just as varied. Even the narrators cannot be categorized because one of the most memorable stories is told from a dog’s point of view.
In that story, “The Rage Has Ended,” the dog (generically called “Fido”), prefers the attention of his master to his mistress—even before he witnesses the developing affair of his mistress, when his master is away from home. So how is he going to respond to what he clearly sees unfolding before him, especially once his mistress realizes that Fido understands what has happening? Worse, if his loyalties are to his master, how can he reveal what has been going on during the days when his master has been gone? That’s the dilemma of the story which provides an original spin to the old cliché that a man’s best friend is his dog.
A more powerful story is “Listening to Mozart,” which replicates a philosophical issue that simply won’t go away. How does the torturer (usually part of a repressive government) return home, play with his children, sit down and eat dinner with his family after he has spent the day torturing political prisoners or dissidents? J.M. Coetzee asked the same question in his masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, as did Martin Amis, in Time’s Arrow, to mention only two titles. What is so interesting about “Listening to Mozart” is Benedetti’s second-person narration, thus implicating all of us—everyone who reads the story, since the question is always how can societies, whole countries, support torture?
The torturer in the story comes from a typical family—wife, eight-year-old son—all cultured and educated: “You’ve liked Mozart ever since you and Amanda used to go to the concerts in Sodre, when neither Jorgito [his son] nor subversion existed yet, and the most aberrant duty in the barracks was to drink maté, which indeed the soldier Martínez prepared so well. You like Mozart, but you didn’t always until Amanda taught you to like him. And look, how strange, now Amanda doesn’t feel like listening to music, any music, not Mozart, not a damn note, simply because she’s scared and fears assaults and watches over Jorgito, and of course, Mozart can’t be heard while feeling afraid but with a free spirit and calm conscience.” The ending of the story is shocking, totally unsettling, but—under reflection—no surprise at all.
Which is only to say that Benedetti has never been afraid to address Uruguay’s political instability. He’s had to live in exile during part of his career, for fear of recriminations for what he has written. He has spoken of his own writing: “An intellectual’s weapon is writing but sometimes people react as if it were a firearm. A writer can do a lot to change the situation, but as far as I know, no dictatorship has ever fallen because of a sonnet.” Benedetti has also remarked: “We are a small nook of America which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, not even an army dedicated to coups. We are a small country of short stories.”
Two more short stories in this delicious collection need to be mentioned, again to demonstrate the author’s remarkable imagination. “Innocence” narrates how two adolescent boys decide to crawl into a ventilation shaft, so they can spy on naked women at a public bath. Essentially a comic story, the ending is once again surprising, as the two boys get their just desserts. In a one-page story called “Translations,” Benedetti pokes fun at the way that literary works often gets translated, linking them to the child’s game of “telephone.” The gossip being relayed from one child to the next bears no similarity to the original message, once it has passed along the line of children. To suggest that the same thing can happen with literary translations is nothing short of blasphemy, no doubt, but also a matter of reality.
Fortunately that did not happen when Harry Morales lovingly translated Benedetti’s short stories from Spanish into English. Looking at the copyright dates of the translations in the volume, it is obvious that Morales has made translating Benedetti’s stories his life’s work. Benedetti and Morales are both beneficiaries.
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories
By Mario Benedetti
Host Publications, 296 pp., $15.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.