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.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 9 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re looking at Uruguayan author Andres Ressia Colino, whose “Scenes from a Comfortable Life” was translated by Katherine Silver.
We haven’t talked about this much, but the breakdown of authors included in the Granta special issue is pretty heavily weighted toward Spain and Argentina. To be exact, of the 22 authors included, 8 are from Argentina, 6 from Spain, 2 from both Chile and Peru, and 1 a piece from Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay. I’m not sure this necessarily means anything, but it’s kind of interesting to notice and to speculate about. (My momentary theory: The vast number of independent small presses in Buenos Aires have helped continue the long, vibrant literary tradition in Argentina. And Spain is just pretty. With lots of interesting things to write about.)
During our Twitter Party last week, there was a bit of conversation about whether to look at authors as belonging to a tradition based on their country or on their language. (Personally, I think authors belong more to a stylistic tradition that is built out of influences from all over the globe, in translation, in their native language, with time delays, coincidences, etc. This is why I like The Delighted States so much.)
I’m not particularly well versed in Uruguayan literature—although I am a huge fan of Juan Carlos Onetti—but reading this piece by Andres Ressia Colino reinforces the belief that literature is not bound by territory. It’s true that some pieces may be more focused on local politics than others, but the way these stories are told (the most important aspect, in my opinion) isn’t necessarily local.
Before excerpting Colino’s work, here’s a set-up from a piece on Granta‘s website by Ben Rice:
The fathers of girlfriends, or wives, are always interesting for male writers. Why? Because they offer a tantalizing and often disturbing insight into what we ourselves might become down the track.
And they seem always to be in a position of power. This is because of their age, their experience and because they have something over us: they have long ago committed to and experienced a long-term relationship with a woman who is a genetic prototype of our own partners. They have been where we have yet to go. [. . .]
In his story “Scenes from a Comfortable Life,” Andrés Ressia Colino explores the ‘meet the parents’ formula. It’s familiar territory, but Colino handles it with originality and subtlety. The father knows exactly what it is to be in the role of the young suitor. And the young man knows he knows. And as the men tinker with cars in the garage, and charge a battery, they are not just male-bonding but partaking in a primitive and rather disturbing ritual.
And here’s the opening section of “Scenes from a Comfortable Life”:
It was on a Sunday afternoon in spring, a family lunch at the house in Carrasco. The servant is clearing up the coffee cups under the watchful gaze of Isabela, Virna’s svelte mother. Bruno, her hefty Teutonic father, interrupts the conversation and turns to me: How would you like to drive the Peugeot? It’s a little old but . . . I hesitate, am astonished, like a child who’s just watched a magic trick he doesn’t understand, as Virna smiles at me, made happy, or rather intrigued, by her father’s noble gesture, and she tries to encourage me to say yes. Moments later we are in the garden watching as the garage door rises and rolls up slowly. We wait a few seconds until Bruno drives out in a white Land Rover Discovery, parks on the side of the driveway, gets out, smiles at us and returns to the garage. Then he brings out an aqua-blue Mercedes-Benz C250. He parks it next to the Discovery and on his way back to the garage motions enthusiastically for me to come join him. Between the two of us, we bring out a blue Yamaha 1800 jet ski on its own trailer, a Zodiac-style inflatable boat and a heavy old Zündapp scooter. Then we move several bicycles, a lawnmower, a ping-pong table and, finally, There it is, Bruno says. The first car I bought when I came to Uruguay. Now let’s see if we can get it started, he adds. It hasn’t been moved for about two years.
We push it outside. Don’t worry, Bruno says, the battery is dead but we can charge it with the Discovery. It then occurs to Isabela that this is a good opportunity to clean the garage floor, and she calls the servant to do it. In the meantime, Virna is looking through some of the cabinets. She finds hockey sticks, rackets, balls and dozens of objects that remind her of how active and competitive she was when she was a teenager. Let’s play tennis one of these days, darling, she shouts to me from the garage. I’m standing next to the Peugeot, trying to be useful in some way while Bruno gets to work on the engine. I look at her and make a gesture that means something like, what a good idea! but she has her back to me, caught up in what she’s doing, so for a second I check out her body, I look at her ass, then quickly turn my attention back to Bruno. Just at that point he looks up, intercepting my gaze and producing an awkward moment in which suddenly the idea ‘sex with Virna’ flashes through my mind, and at the same instant it seems as though Bruno, who is staring at me, can also see that idea. Suddenly, it is as if Virna’s voice saying play tennis reverberates between the two of us but as if she had said have sex, and he is the father and it’s obvious that we do it, and that’s why I am there and why he wants to let me use his car, because I am his daughter’s boyfriend, for only three months so far, but for some reason he’s taken a liking to me and perhaps that is reason enough. After all, it’s so obvious, their lives are not going to change in any substantial way because he lets me use his Peugeot; but making sex so explicit, even though nobody has, in fact, explicitly said anything, is surely uncomfortable, and I feel as though I won’t be able to breathe normally until, mercifully, this strange exchange of looks ends. It lasted only a second. I breathe. Bruno turns back to his task, looks at the oil stick and says, in a low voice, How about you open the cap? I’m going to get . . . He points, then returns to the garage, wiping his fingers on a rag. Virna comes running up to me while I struggle to open the cap that isn’t budging. Look, she says. She’s holding a professional tennis racket and an old ball she bounces next to the car. Let’s play later? She prances a few metres over to a green wall that stretches away from the garage, and uses it as a backboard, contributing a rhythmic tapping to the afternoon. Finally I open the cap so we can fill up the oil. Bruno still hasn’t returned. When he appears, I am watching Virna run back and forth after the ball. He looks at me, but there are no more strange exchanges. Blank mind. OK, let’s fill it, and then we’ll hook it up to the Discovery and see if it’ll start. Pock, plock; plock, ponk, the sound of the ball Virna’s hitting accompanies the stream of oil Bruno is pouring into the dirty, greasy engine. Pock, plock. Bruno! Isabela shouts out from somewhere. He keeps the oil flowing with a steady hand. The ball hits the wall again, I hear the scrape of Virna’s shoes on the ground, I picture her sprinting to hit the ball, I imagine her in a short white tennis skirt. I resist. I watch the oil flowing. Bruno, darling! The clacking of Isabela’s heels announces her arrival from the house. I look up. She comes up behind Bruno with her lovely breasts and semi-transparent silk dress. I think about Virna’s breasts. Darling, I’m going to take the SUV to María Laura’s, Isabela says. I expect this to create a conflict, because Bruno needs the Discovery to charge the battery, but I soon realize that Virna’s mother is talking about another SUV, the bigger, darker one that is parked on the pavement. Bruno finishes filling up the oil and stands up straight. Kiss, Isabela says, and they kiss each other in front of me, briefly but not without passion. She walks away, clacking her heels and brushing down her dress. Bruno intercepts my gaze . . . He must be thinking about sex now.
The sun is setting by the time we manage to start up the Peugeot and take it out on to the street. Then we put everything back in the garage. Virna went into the house earlier, so we tell her the good news when we come in; by now we’re a bit tired. After carefully washing our hands – each in a different bathroom – Bruno offers me whiskey to celebrate, and he stretches out on the sofa to watch the Bundesliga’s most important plays of the day on the gigantic screen. Not sure to what extent I should continue to thank Bruno humbly or start to behave like the already consecrated son-in-law, I decide to sit quietly and watch television while Virna holds a long conversation on the telephone at the far end of the room.
This story gets really interesting in the third section—“Facing Facts”—when Bruno sits Jimmy down to grill him about what happened the night before, what drugs they took . . .
Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with Elvira Navarro.
Till then, remember to subscribe now and receive this issue for free . . .
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