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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: The Rest is Jungle By Mario Benedetti

The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, Host Publications, 2010, Harry Morales, translator. Review by Debrah Lechner.

The unique voice of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti (1920 - 2009) was and is a profound influence throughout Latin America, as well as internationally.

As a poet, fiction writer, journalist, playwright and critic, he published more than ninety books. He won at least thirteen literary prizes. Eighteen of his literary works were translated into film. The adaptation of his novel
The Truce was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been published in twenty-six languages. He composed music. He acted.

Benedetti was also a founder of the organization Frente Amplio, which opposed military dictatorship. For this he was exiled until 1985, when a democratic government was re-established. After his death, thousands of mourners followed his casket through the streets of Montevideo.

Regrettably, opportunity to hear the voice of this artist in English has been rare. The publication of The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories will help redress that injustice. It’s past due.

Benedetti writes compellingly about political repression, torture, and how the simple tedium of submission to such a regime is sometimes is enough to turn an ordinary, typical human being into a monster─an ordinary, typical monster. From Listening to Mozart:

Where will your sense of discipline lead you, little Captain Morales?
To begin suppressing your capacity to love? Turn your hatred into a routine?
Or allow your routine to assault, wound, pierce, fracture, rape, amputate, asphyxiate, sacrifice?

In contrast to that (but not as sharp a contrast as might be imagined) are stories of interpersonal relationships. In "The Sweethearts" a marriage proposal is the vehicle for passive-aggressive vengeance. The bridegroom has insight into his motivations and the consequences to follow, but is unapologetic: “Freedom has it’s advantages, but just now (now that she was sure of my withdrawal, disconcerted by my rejection) revenge was better than freedom.”

In writing on subjects as diverse (and similar, and overlapping) as political torture and family life, Benedetti has a keen sense of humor and gift for suspense.

Writers will be intrigued by the techniques employed in these stories. The harrowing "The Rain and the Fungi," published by Hayden’s Ferry Review in issue #43, is entirely a first-person monologue on the danger of sincerity, delivered to a lover trapped by an innocent question. "For Objects Only" is a dispassionate third-person rendition of objects in a room. Each object illuminates the meaning of another, and the impact is just as strong as the increasingly threatening tone of "The Rain and the Fungi."

The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories is available for pre-order on You really should get in the queue. Listen and learn from this unique voice.

Mario Benedetti Farrugia was born in 1920 into an Italian immigrant family in the cattle town of Paso de los Toros, in central Uruguay. But he came of age in Montevideo, going to work at 14 in an auto-parts shop before making his mark in Latin American literary circles in his mid-20s, first for poems and then for short stories. Mr. Benedetti’s best-known work, however, is probably his 1960 novel The Truce, a film version of which, made in Argentina, was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film in 1975. “The Truce,” which has been translated into 19 languages, is written in the form of a diary and tells the story of a romance in Montevideo between a middle-aged widower and a woman half his age. Several of Mr. Benedetti’s poems, which dealt mainly with love and politics, were set to music and recorded; a few even became pop hits. The most notable example is “The South Also Exists,” a collection of 10 songs, all with lyrics by Mr. Benedetti, which the popular Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat released in 1985.

Read the New York Times obituary for Mario Benedetti and then view photos of the massive national funeral procession.

Get your copy of The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories for your personal library.

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