In the Jungle of Cities
by Bertolt Brecht
We are in Chicago at the beginning of the last century, a cosmopolitan city. Two men confront each other without any apparent motive other than a natural delight in conflict. They are an immigrant from the Far East and a man who has moved to the city from the American prairies. The former is a timber dealer. With no family, but close to his community, he has devoted himself to business all his life. He is looking for a worthy adversary. The latter is an idealistic intellectual, poor and uninterested in money, with strong ties to his family. He loves Rimbaud and dreams of Tahiti. The struggle in which they engage, with no holds barred, without even a purpose other than the victory of one over the other, will change both of them profoundly: the Oriental will die, defeated by emotions, and the intellectual, a second Symeon the Stylite, will descend from his pillar to throw himself into the corrupt arms of the metropolis, while his family seems to fall apart. When two people fight, it is a third who wins: a young man who had counted for little in the unfolding of the story, without a fight and taking advantage of the situation, ends up with both the riches of the Oriental and the poet’s sister.
Written in 1921, when he was 23, In the Jungle of Cities is Bertolt Brecht’s second work. I’ve always loved early works. You find in them in embryo, a bit awkwardly expressed and set out, the main themes of all the author’s later production. The characters are immigrants, one from Asia, the other from the countryside. They lose their identities and acquire new ones in the savage struggle for survival in cities. We are presented with conflicts between cultures, between generations (“the younger man wins the match”) and the kind of radicalization we have become accustomed to seeing every day: ideology, the worship of money, opportunism of every sort. They dream of escape, islands in the sun, perhaps love. They take drugs and dull their senses with alcohol. In 1921. Brecht’s gaze is extraordinarily lucid for such a young man, or perhaps precisely for this reason. It may appear cynical to those who feed on illusions, irreligious to those who place their hope in a consoling salvation. For me it is clear and poetic. In the Jungle of Cities is like a searchlight that reveals bits of reality in the darkness that surrounds us.