Costa Rica. Colombia. Ecuador. Greece. These teams have amazed us in this year’s World Cup for having made it as far as they have. They’re teams that have played consistently well over the years but have never quite achieved the rock star status of a Brazil, Italy, or France. They have their moments of greatness—see Costa Rica’s incredible 1-0 win against four-time world champion Italy—but overall, they have little hope of getting beyond the qualifying rounds due to their relatively lackluster performance and generally unchanged style of play over the years.
Segue to our World Cup of Literature, Round Two:
Representing team Ivory Coast, we have the relentless Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma. Team Ivory Coast’s opponent for this match comes in the form of The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti representing team Uruguay. The two teams make a rather odd match for one another: the one, an unapologetically graphic, realist novel told from the perspective of a child soldier in Liberia and the other, a collection of short stories spanning more than fifty years in the prolific writing career of one of Latin America’s most esteemed writers.
Allah comes out with guns blazing (literally), expletives flying, glossary definitions interjecting irritatingly in passages on nearly every other page. What at first seems like a clever tactic for representing the voice of the novel’s 10-year-old under-educated hero, quickly becomes uninteresting gimmick and it’s clear early on in this match that Ivory Coast will not be able to keep this up. Sure enough, by the 23’ the referee finally pulls a red card on team Ivory Coast—the crowd groans in exacerbated agreement. This is sheer stereotype reinforcement, pure and simple—cheap tricks and laziness on the part of the author, who neglected to craft a single compelling or nuanced character.
Team Uruguay knows a little something about nuance. In the prologue to his 1979 play, Pedro and the Captain, Benedetti writes:
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.
Indeed, team Jungle does a much better job navigating this complex terrain of human characterization by juggling various narrative voices and tones but still, many of these stories leave barely a blip on the radar (unfortunately in this case, it seems, in large part due to mediocre translation). In spite of some lovely poetic moments that linger in the imagination as well as the more haunting moods pervading some of these stories, there’s no Maradona ’86 goal against England. Nothing particularly breathtaking. Which is why we watch this stuff in the first place, right? And so with that, once team Uruguay scored a goal in the 62’ with the short story “The Iriarte Family,” I shut the TV off and went to sleep.
Uruguay 1 – Ivory Coast 0
Elianna Kan edits literature in translation for The American Reader and translates from Spanish. She’s also a shameless Argentina fan.
One of my personal concerns going into the World Cup of Literature was ending up with a book I had already read—something that quickly became not an issue at all, since out of the 32 representing titles I’d read a whopping one of them. ONE. So, unlike many of my fellow judges, I entered this with zero biases (unlike the Real World Cup, where GERMANY ALL THE WAY! You done got jawohled, USA) or existing knowledge. Which definitely made this a partly disconnected and partly ridiculous—but wholly entertaining—experience.
Representing Costa Rica in this literary matchup is Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon, which is based on the first known serial killer of Costa Rica, and is pretty much the only book written in that country, ever1. Among other things, it’s filled with chauvinism, smoking, and a lot of sultry women with huge racks who just don’t seem to get laid enough or at the right time. It’s also filled with some of the weirdest, non-standard narrative descriptors I have ever, ever read. (More on that later.)
To put the structure of Cadence of the Moon simply, think All the President’s Men, but with crappy journalism, better hair, ritualistic violence, and if Watergate had ended with everyone saying “So do we know who our culprit is? No? Oh, okay. Well . . . Hey look at how cool the moon is!”
And in case you want to know what Costa Rica was like in the mid 1990s, serial killings aside, Cadence lays on the sexism: Maricruz, our Journalist Extraordinaire and one of the main protagonists, barters with her editor, Juan José Montero, for the right to cover the story of the Psycopath murders for—any guesses?—a kiss:
“If you want to cover [the story], I’ll give it to you but the price is a little taste of those goodies.” He indicated her lips by pursing his own, musty, nicotine-stained ones.
Even though this disgusting display of, well, everything, ends up being more of a “friendly” teasing tactic the editor uses to rev up his employees, it’s apparently entirely normal; Maricruz proceeds to tells off her boss, who laughs, then they exchange a few more comments on the case, and then he gives her the assignment. No one gets slapped, no one gets fired. Same old, same old in Costa Rica. Then Maricruz is advised by her colleages to cozy up to the cop working the case, Gustavo . . . And no they don’t bang. Poor, curvy Maricruz. The plot is stilted, the characters frustratingly simple—and this is a novel sparked by a serial killer. Nixon’s shady doings dropped a far more interesting plot-brick than this. And what kind of gets me about this is that Núñez Olivas himself is a journalist. There’s even an ironic section later on, in which the newspaper’s owner, Mr. Grey, is insulting Juan José Montero’s staff, and Montero comes to his employee’s aid, saying something along the lines of “What do you think this is, the Washington Post?” . . .
Within the first 40 pages of this book, Cadence has scored an embarrassing, slow-rolling self-goal, putting Costa Rica up 1-0 before anything really even happens. And oh, by the way, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. At this point I’m begging for someone to get bitten. But oh no, Uruguay keeps its mouth shut as Cadence continues to make things worse for itself, progressing from being Woodword and Bernstein’s Aspergersy, Canadian second-cousin to Dan Brown’s Post-it covered, Montessori-bound lovechild. I once listened to The Lost Symbol on a two-day drive from New York to Minnesota, and 10 hours into my drive I was about to lose my shit because no one had died, nothing major had happened, the plot hadn’t gone anywhere, I was in Indiana, by myself, and with a guaranteed twelve more hours left of that awful, awful book. GAH!
Clearly, lots of PTSD cropping up while working through Cadence. But then, out of completely nowhere, Costa Rica whips out its shiny bits. This otherwise boring, sluggish, based-on-real-events novel with a cover that smacks of self-publishing, suddenly started spitting out some of the most curious, awkward, brilliant sentences like:
“What?” Maricruz lit up with the brilliance that is seen in the faces of adventurers, archeologists and taxonomists.
(Whatever taxonomy Núñez Olivas has researched, it must be goddamn glorious. Classify these samples, you say? Sure thing—just give me a second in the bathroom alone with this spreadsheet . . .)
[Camila] is twisting like a snake, gyrating, licking her lips. She lifts a breast with her right hand and offers it to me. “Suck it!” her half-open lips seem to say, although she says nothing, she just offers the large, dark breast, whose formidable hardness is a last glory amid so much ruin.
(Sweet Jesus. Is this guy about to get pistol-whipped by some cougar’s fake tit as she trashes epileptically on top of him like a charmed cobra? For his sake, I’m hoping Núñez Olivas is either a virgin, or gay, because no sexually active straight man should ever have to experience this, or know how to describe it so vividly.)
“You’ve got a date!” Gustavo exclaimed in the voice of someone announcing the arrival of aliens.
(This sentence both baffles and tickles me. What does it sound like when you announce the arrival of aliens? Fear? Surprise? Arousal? All of the above? I’m going to use this tone the to announce to someone I won’t be paying back their $20.)
There’s just such a wacky brand of specificity to the writing at times that does seem journalistic in its descriptive nature, but is so, so entirely off in terms of human behavior and real-life situations. No book should read like this, no sentences this entertaining should be embedded in something so blah. And yet, I kind of love it.
Costa Rica points to the sky and then flicks Uruguay in their dongles while the ref isn’t looking, and equalizes during the commotion. The score is now 1-1.
Uruguay’s representative, Mario Benedetti, ends up being somewhat of a dark horse. It’s not often that I’m compelled to sit and read a 300-page book of short stories in one go, but Benedetti manages to keep things relatively interesting, very smooth, fairly metered, and overall well-trained. The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories is a fair opponent, blending various narrative voices with various themes—political, social, gender roles—and even though the text itself isn’t that mind-blowing, the stories roll at a steady and clean pace.
What Uruguay had in this case that Costa Rica didn’t was presence. It can be hard to pit a historical-type novel against short stories, but short story collections can so often work against themselves. The Rest Is Jungle is a collection that knows what it’s doing, where it’s going, where it’s from. (Unlike Benedetti, apparently, who writes in an epigraph: “We are a small nook of America 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.” Oh honey. America? You’re Argentina’s fanny-pack at best.)
From the very first story, Benedetti establishes his abilities to switch narrative voice. His narrators move from a precocious cleaning lady who decides to marry her way into the rich family she once worked for, to a dog observing its owners argue, to two boys sneaking into a ceiling passageway over a sports or youth club to spy on girls in the showers. The stories alternate from amusing to disturbing, from familiar to uncomfortable.
One of the most poignant stories was “The Cups,” in which a woman, her husband, and his brother are sitting in the living room about to have coffee. The husband has some kind of disease that has rendered him blind. At the time of the story, the three are sitting around, talking, trying to convince the husband to go to the doctor for a check-up, which he refuses to do. The three make conversation, and then we learn—and see—that the brother-in-law has been recently comforting the wife; we see him silently massaging her neck, cupping the back of her head in his hand, simple touches that give her strength and compassion where her husband has started to lose his. (And no, they don’t bang. At least not in this scene.) They have their “routine” down pat, conducting every calculated, dead-quiet caress right there on the sofa in front of the blind husband coordinated and dead quiet. The story gets emotional for the wife, how she’s had to learn to deal, etc. etc. Then the story closes with the coffee being ready to serve, and as the wife sets down the coffee cups, which she rotates each week so each person is drinking from a different color, the husband mumbles something that sounds like “No, dear. Today I want to drink from the red cup.” End scene.
Not all the stories captured my attention, but I do appreciate the experimentation Benedetti employs to get his words across.
“The Big Switch,” for example, is written in a format that is very non-standard compared to the rest of the pieces. In it, a police officer is swearing (“Shit on the holy whore.”) about all the arrest warrants he has to sign, his broken pen, and the idiots working around him. But the paragraph breaks and shifts to the other story line, where a singer named Lito Suárez BITES EVERYONE IN SIGHT AND THEN THE WHOLE BOOK IS DONE. Kidding. But if only . . .
A singer named Lito Suárez announces to TV viewers that he’s come up with a new song, a kind of song-game, called the “Big Switch,” in which everyone watching will learn the four verses/lines of the song, the proceed to sing these lyrics all day, every day, for the whole week. At the end of the week, Lito will reconvene on TV and announce a change to the first line. Suggestions are welcome from the audience, but only if they follow certain guidelines. Interesting paragraph breaks, drawn out and mashed-up words . . . It’s visually exciting as well:
Lito Suárez is going to announce how “The Big Switch” sounds after the first transformation. “or one week we’ve all sung the song I taght you last Sunday. . . . I’ received 5,473 suggestions to change the first verse. In the end, I selected this one: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen.’ Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, says the channel’s young audience. . . . Disappointed, Julita stops eating her nails. Her brilliant suggestion ended up among the 5,472 rejects. “Within a week, we’ll replace the second verse. Agreed?” Yesssssss, scream the audience
the colonel displays his teeth. “Yes, Fresnedo, I’m with you. The new songs are idiotic. But what’s wrong with that? . . . What does it sound like? Wait, wait. Even I know it by heart: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen, so thatyourl ooooooooove awaken, foryouI render myv ooooooooice, formeo oooooooonly loving you.’
So even though The Rest Is Jungle doesn’t wow me, doesn’t make me want to snake-dance on top of people and slap them with my anatomy, Uruguay puts in a far more solid performance via Benedetti’s work. Uruguay scores another point, putting the game at 2-1 in their favor, and Costa Rica would scream in frustration, but their mouths are taped over by serial-killer-grade newspaper tape (what is that stuff on the cover, anyway??).
But then again . . . Maybe Costa Rica has one more shot on goal? One more approach from Cadence:
[Camila] entered the office and spoke in the authoritarian tone that had worked infallibly during 22 years of marriage
“Home!” she said. “You have to rest.”
Bill Grey did not even lift his eyes from the keyboard. He barely arched an eyebrow and replied with astonishing lucidity.
“Why don’t you take one of your sometimes lovers? I am busy.”
It was the first time that he had reproached his wife for her sexual adventures, which she had supposed he was ignorant of. Disconcerted by his response, Camila set off for her office without saying a word, afflicted by a sudden onset of diarrhoea.
And on that note . . . Costa Rica literarily-literally shits the bed in its final shot on goal, before tucking its tail and turning to head home—giving the game to Uruguay, 2-1, and leaving a wake of streak marks behind it.
1 It’s actually more like the only Costa Rican book to be translated into English, which should be remedied because OH MY GOD.
Kaija Straumanis is the editorial director at Open Letter, and translates from both Latvian and German.
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._
Click here for all past and future posts.
The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales
Publisher: Host Publications
Why This Book Should Win: Harry Morales has been championing Benedetti for years, and a victory could lead to more Benedetti books making their way into English; Host Publications deserves some extra attention; the cover has matches on it.
Today’s entry is from David Krinick, a former intern at Open Letter. He wrote this review last summer, and it’s a great overview of this book.
Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:
Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.
The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories (recently published by the admirable Host Publications) offers a rare survey of the author’s short stories that spans over fifty decades of work. The stories collected act as vignettes that offer the reader brief perspectives of the many unremarkable lives of many of Uruguay’s urban citizens. In works such as “The Iriarte Family” Benedetti shows the life of a secretary’s febrile romanticizing of a female’s voice and the subsequent disintegration of his real life relationship. His character’s are repeatedly confronted with outcomes that contradict what they thought they originally desired.
Later stories reflect the author’s exile, evoking voices from the previous generation’s émigré writers such as Nabokov and Bunin. In “Completely Absent-Minded” an exiled politician’s dazed wayfaring across Europe brings him unexpectedly back to his home country, where he is quickly arrested. Benedetti’s voice shifts from the expository urban observer to a ruthless dissector of individual’s morals that passively accept their government’s yoke. Stories such as “Listening to Mozart,” “Nineteen” and “Answering Machine” expose cases of loyalty motivated by fear and self-preservation. From “Listening to Mozart”:
Sometimes, you too interrogate without conviction, and if you use electric shock, that’s precisely the reason why; because you don’t have any confidence in your own line of reasoning, because you know that no one is suddenly going to turn into a traitor just because you evoke the fatherland or curse at them.
Benedetti’s fearless writing chronicles a dark period in Latin American history, one where loved ones would disappear over night, never to be seen again. This collection, however, also resonates with the author’s desire to speak of love and our need for one another despite the estranged natures that society and politics cultivates in us. He explores the lines between public and private lives, illuminating our curious passions with a sense of irony, humor and gravity. The Rest Is Jungle affords a great introduction into the provocative career of one of Latin America’s most beloved authors.
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