A translated collection of stories by Mario Benedetti reveals how Latin American writers remain endnotes in the annals of universal literature despite generous contributions to it
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories
Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales
2010, Host Publications
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
IT IS CURIOUS THAT a full appreciation of the literary contribution of so many Latin American writers only begins to emerge upon their death.
It is almost as if the region’s writers remain exiled as an afterthought, endnotes in the annals of universal literature, despite their generous self-sacrificing contributions to it.
The Uruguayan journalist, novelist and poet Mario Benedetti, who died aged 88 in 2009, represents a good example of how a rather unsatisfactory posthumous recognition is the most some of the world’s greatest talents are likely to achieve in a hierarchy of value determined by the obese English-language canon.
Considered in the Spanish-speaking world to be one of Latin America’s most important 20th-century writers, Benedetti nonetheless struggled right up until his death to find publishers willing to translate his work, and was not well known outside the Hispanic world. He noted this with some bitterness in his very last poem, dictated to his secretary, in which he spoke of a life hovering, where “My art has consisted / Of not being too noticed”. 
Yet he was a national hero in his native Uruguay, whose remains were carried by sorkers and students to the national pantheon in central Montevidoe and whose government decreed a day of mourning upon his passing.
We have recently noted and dwelled upon a similar, inexplicable, invisibility in the case of the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who has never received the recognition he should be due.
That both men were leftwing firebrands, might have something to do with this, for one can speculate that a publishing industry that survives within a set of labyrinthine ideological structures and interests that all lean towards the right must have something to do with who succeeds and fails in the great historical game of achievement. From 1973 to 1985 when Uruguay sweated under a military dictatorship, Benedetti lived in exile in Buenos Aires, Lima, Havana, and Spain, and did not fully return to Montevideo following the return of democracy. Much of his work in this period, inevitably, came from the left and was set against the tragic backdrop of repression and dirty war while also challenging the stereotpes that this was capable of engendering. His books were both banned – and burned – in this period.
Moreover, apart from at least one loyal American translator, he was not greatly liked within Hispanic circles in the United States beyond aficionados, not least because of his many contacts and links with Cuba, and his prominence in the campaign for Puerto Rican independence. Benedetti was loyal to his own belief that the writer had a responsibility to take a political stand, and was a formative influence both in the development of Cuba’s Casa de las Américas and the Frente Amplio coalition in his own country.
Yet perhaps there is also a failing or lack of confidence in the world of Hispanic literature to market and promote its talent as aggressively as it should. Any English publisher will tell you, for example, that the term “proactive” is certainly not often found in bold within the glossary either of Latin American or Spanish presses or agents. They seem content to speak to each other, as if Hispanic literature existed on a self-sufficient island in a kind of cultural autarky.
The sadness of such a situation is that in the case of Benedetti and so many others we are bequeathed an archive, not a lectern: yet Benedetti had much to say, and did so in a long career as a writer that began in 1945 with La víspera indeleble (“Indelible Eve”), a poetry collection and the first book he published, at its height saw such classics as La tregua (The Truce, 1960), his most well known work, translated into 19 languages and reach the cinema screen and stage, and ended with him having clocked up 90 books.
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories brings together works that reach far back into this prolific career, including a tale first published in Esta Mañana in 1949, a full 61 years ago. It is a rich showcase for the art of the short story – which remains alive and kicking in Latin America. Indeed, Uruguay, said Benedetti in 1967, was a country “… which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, nor even an army dedicated to coups. We are a small country of short stories.”
It reveals this author’s extraordinary ability to capture ordinary life, and the pretensions and dreams of the petit-bourgeoisie, with perspicacious humour yet a tenderness born of genuine understanding. Benedetti had an affinity with children, and his uncompromising child’s eye view is often just beneath the surface of his clever observations. His politics is well concealed, and deployed more effectively as a form of subversive humour that aims to shed light on what is right or wrong, than as a soapbox.
This collection draws upon the author’s own painful experiences of exile to his many observations about the things that divide us, from the cafes of Montevideo to the complex families that are meant to represent unity. Many of these stories are comfortably short, snapshots even, allowing the reader to navigate through the scenes, colours and surprises of life without tedium, and Harry Morales has translated these works with a simplicity that is both appropriate and refreshing.
There is Doña Valentina Palma, a sex-starved widow, who seduces a burglar then shoots him with a satisfied smile; Olegario, a kerbside prophet able to predict as firemen race past that his own house is burning down; a warring couple thrashing out property details of their separation yet oblivious to their son sitting in the room; the absent-minded exile so lost in his thoughts that he ends up in his own country again, with a hood over his head; studies of sincerity, youth, melancholy.
The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories is a glimpse of a world resisting change that fills the reader with both nostalgia and joy, and is a fitting introduction in English to Uruguay’s great sage.
1. “Rostro de vos”, El diaro de Ecuador, 21 May 2009. Available at: http://www.eldiario.com.ec/noticias-manabi-ecuador/119366-rostros-de-vos/
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books