Nationality: American (immigrated to Mexico). Born: Guatemala, 1921. Career: Writer. Awards: El Aguila Azteca, 1989.
Monterroso (lectures and essays), compiled by Jorge Ruffinelli. 1976.
Complete Works and Other Stories, translated by Edith Grossman. 1995.
Obras completas (y otros cuentos). 1981.
La oveja negra y demas fabulas. 1981.
Movimiento perpetuo. 1981.
Mr. Taylor and Co. 1982.
Lo demas es silencio: la vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres. 1982.
Viaje al centro de la fabula. 1982.
La palabra magica. 1983.
Las ilusiones perdidas. 1985.
Der Frosch, der ein richtiger Frosch ein Wollte. 1986.
Sinfonia concluida y otros cuentos. 1994.
Estado religioso y la santidad. 1967—.* * *
The universality of Augusto Monterroso's short fiction no doubt has its roots in his international background. Born to Honduran and Guatemalan parents, he has resided in Mexico City since 1944. His main literary vehicle, short fiction, emerges from a world in which modernization and its consequences are dominant concerns. Monterroso's style is marked by sophistication and wit, yet it reflects many simple realities of contemporary Latin America.
Because of its sparseness, Monterroso's work would appear to condemn him to a secondary place among Latin American writers, a fact compounded by his publishing during the so-called Boom, the movement that brought to light Latin American figures such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Monterroso's emphasis on short narratives of an ambiguous nature invites parallels with the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and his collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and casts doubt on the nature of the genre. Because he is a writer's writer who avoids regional clichés and plays games of wit and intellect with his readers, the comparisons are not unreasonable. Monterroso, however, has developed a unique style that has begun to serve as an example of a certain type of narrative. Instead of being influenced by more visible contemporaries, he has been rediscovered and reinvented as a model of postmodern irony, wit, and critical insight.
Monterroso's body of short fiction has been compiled in three collections—Complete Works and Other Stories, 1959; The Black Sheep and Other Fables, 1969; and Perpetual Motion, 1972. The last has been included in the 1995 edition of his Complete Works. The collections reveal the most notable characteristic of his prose to be an impressive sense of minimalism best exemplified by "The Dinosaur," perhaps the shortest short story ever written ("When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.") With conciseness of thought, ideas, and style, Monterroso's microstories state his belief that profound themes do not require the heavy rhetoric of so many of his predecessors and contemporaries. As the critic Angel Rama has observed, Monterroso avoids a "rhetorical Latin American jungle," clearly referring to the neobaroque style characteristic of the Boom writers, with their dense, difficult, and experimental narrative structures and their blatant involvement with social and political problems of specific nations within Latin America and with the struggle between the First and Third worlds. Despite this fact it is easy to see Monterroso's ironic, sardonic, and satirical view of powerful, dominant cultures that, in seeking to dominate the indigenous and "primitive" Latin American world, underestimate it and suffer the consequences. In "Mr. Taylor," for example, shrunken heads become a commodity that brings prosperity to a small nation and wealth to U.S. residents such as Mr. Taylor's uncle. In the end mass production is the cause of the destruction of the product, with Mr. Taylor's shrunken head reaching a suicidal uncle in the last shipment from a collapsed nation whose citizens have given up their heads to fill the demand from U.S. markets.
In "The Eclipse" Brother Bartolomé Arrazola tries to save his life by outsmarting the native Guatemalans with Aristotelian logic. Through understatement Monterroso funnels the clash of two civilizations into a terrifying moment in which one man's arrogance and belief in his mission, education, and, in his eyes, superior worldview prove to be an inadequate solution:
Two hours later the heart of Brother Bartolomé Arrazola spurted out its passionate blood on the sacrificing stone … while one of the Indians recited tonelessly, slowly, one by one, the infinite list of dates when solar and lunar eclipses would take place, which the astronomers of the Mayan community had predicted and registered in their codices without the estimable help of Aristotle.
Without indicting a particular culture, Monterroso instead chooses a tersely and graphically depicted situation. One can imagine his smirking narrators who, by not belaboring their messages, create a strong impact in both stories and who displace the blame so that the reader is left with a sense of irony rather than a partisan viewpoint.
Monterroso's apparently simple tales call upon many cultural codes that help us see the criticism of repression and tyranny fed by people's passivity. "The Black Sheep," for example, is a four-sentence sardonic fable that depicts an executed black sheep for whom a "repentant flock" raises an equestrian statue that serves as a model of sculpture. Therefore, says the tale, "every time black sheep appeared they were summarily executed so that future generations of regular sheep could have a hand at making sculptures." Monterroso indicts both repressors and repressed equally, delivering no particular message for the reader to digest. Rather, he leaves us simultaneously with a sense of recognition and amusement at the lack of common sense we can all be guilty of.
The ambiguous nature of much of Monterroso's overall message is best exemplified in the collection Perpetual Motion. Using epigraphs that are related to houseflies—with flies as the maetaphor for perpetual motion—before each story or fictional essay, his narrators subvert all of the cultural patterns, leaving us with an uneasy smile. The self-mockery of short narratives such as "How to Stop Being a Monkey" defies readers from both worlds:
In the United States and in Europe they have recently discovered a species of Latin American monkey capable of expressing itself in writing…. Something like this fills these good people with wonder, and there is no lack of willing translators of our books or ladies or gentlemen of leisure willing to buy them, as they once bought the shrunken heads of Jivaro Indians.
Monterroso's aphoristic wit that reaches a mocking self-referentiality is best exemplified in "Fecundity," in which his narrator states simply in one sentence, "Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line." Ironically, the epigraph that precedes the story is much lengthier and complex, for it comes from a metaphysical text. By juxtaposing much deeper thoughts with his own, Monterroso appears to lend credence to his lack of philosophical objectives. Nevertheless, he accomplishes the opposite as our imagination, being given only one line, is invited to go above and below for the lack of an in-between.
Despite his sardonic delivery and his dare to the reader to go beyond the easy prose, to speculate on philosophical and moral issues, Monterroso's short fiction, in the words of the critic Will H. Corral, is filled with compassion and respect for the human spirit. Moreover, by not forgetting to be humorous, Monterroso permits his narrators never to fall into bitterness or to take themselves too seriously. That is what makes the writer accessible to readers of all nationalities and types and what allows him to demonstrate that, indeed, less is more.
—Stella T. Clark
See the essay on "Mr. Taylor."