Mr. Taylor by Augusto Monterroso, 1959

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by Augusto Monterroso, 1959

Augusto Monterroso's ironic, satirical view of the relations between powerful nations and the "primitive" Latin American world they seek to overcome is well represented in "Mr. Taylor," first published in the collection Complete Works and Other Stories (1959). In the story the eponymous character is the subject of what appears to be an anecdote used to demonstrate a moral in a storytelling session between two men: "'Somewhat less strange, though surely more exemplary,' the other man said, 'is the story of Mr. Percy Taylor, a headhunter in the Amazon jungle."' Since this is the first story of the collection, Monterroso's sardonic interest in playing games with the reader becomes evident from the start. Although in this manner he resembles the renowned Latin American short narrative writer Jorge Luis Borges, Monterroso does not make the games cerebral but rather satirical and amusing. In "Mr. Taylor" the narrative voice of "the other man" provides a means both to criticize a segment of society and to offer the possibility of establishing a dialogue. The session seems to have no other purpose than to generate interesting, shocking tales. At the same time the narrator gives details such as Mr. Taylor's place of origin, the year of his arrival in an Amazonian region, and what he read. The question of veracity, as well as what the tale's original and ultimate messages are (of what is the tale more exemplary?), is left to the reader's interaction with the fictional narrator.

The tale deals with Mr. Taylor as he ends his seven-year wanderings in a small nation in the Amazon jungle where he has established residence among Indians who call him "The Gringo Beggar." As an object of curiosity, Mr. Taylor is besieged by all, but he soon is left alone both from habit and because "he had blue eyes and a vaguely foreign accent." Even the president and the foreign affairs minister, fearing an international incident, treat him with respect. One day an Indian, mistaking him for a tourist, offers him a shrunken human head. Ironically, Mr. Taylor cannot afford to buy it, but the Indian, embarrassed at not knowing English, gives it to him. Mr. Taylor spends many days admiring the object but soon tires of contemplating it and sends it to Mr. Rolston, his uncle in New York. Shortly afterward, Mr. Rolston requests more and more heads and establishes a lucrative business that he begins to share with Mr. Taylor. The shrunken heads progressively become a hot commodity that at first is only available to the wealthy, but as the narrator says, "Democracy is democracy, and no one will deny that in a matter of weeks even schoolteachers could buy them." Soon the heads become collectors' items and museum pieces. Meanwhile, the mass production proves prosperous to the small nation of origin so that it begins to show signs of modernity. The large demand for the product, as well as the newly found prosperity, causes the little nation to fear that it will run out of people with heads to shrink. A change in the legal system implements the death penalty for even the most minor crimes. Death becomes the highest form of patriotism, "not only on the national level but on an even more glorious continental scale," and doctors who save lives are scorned. As could be expected, the demand grows so large that the head supply ultimately begins to dwindle. The shipments then decrease, causing a stock market crash in New York. At the end of his rope, Mr. Rolston is ready to commit suicide when he opens a package in which his nephew's shrunken head, "smil[es] at him from a distance … with a false boyish smile that seemed to say 'I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I won't do it again."'

The sneering tone found throughout the story, as in many others in the collection, is not an indictment of the United States or of Latin America. Rather, Monterroso points at the lack of understanding on both sides, the stereotyping and the ignorance as the cause of the failure of both systems of life and government. On one hand Mr. Taylor and his uncle misuse capitalism and its potential benefits. On the other the Latin Americans become used to a wealth that they are not ready to embrace. In both cases greed and ignorance bring on destructive circumstances.

Monterroso makes digs at the Latin Americans for always believing that someone with blue eyes will save them and bring them economic prosperity, even if their savior is a misguided, puerile derelict. On the other hand the author condemns those societies that turn everything into a commodity to be exploited and marketed, disregarding the consequences. He also indicts the American middle class for creating an interest and a demand for a product that serves no purpose other than to give status, even if it is the head of a human being.

"Mr. Taylor" is Monterroso at his best. He presents a subject matter that in another context might be repellent to the reader. The invented narrator, who has already warned us that this is a shocking tale, describes the exploitation of the most vital human attribute—a person's head—as an absurdity that allows him to comment on the exploitation of more plausible commodities such as metals, rubber, and fruit. Monterroso's command of tone and his witticisms make the tale amusing and sardonic. The ironic, somewhat expected surprise ending gives a final twist that allows the social message to penetrate without forcing the issue. In this case, as in two other stories of the collection—"First Lady" and "The Eclipse"—Monterroso lets his absurd characters succumb to their own folly as the means of delivering his message. The self-referential aspects of the narrative, such as the framework that is presented as the fabrication of a recognizable narrator—the "other man"—and the asides this narrator uses to punctuate certain points of his tale, call attention away from the subject matter. Instead, they point to the usefulness of storytelling to teach a lesson. The narrator's understated, matter-of-fact tone contributes to the overall effect. Monterroso succeeds at creating an impact without driving his points too hard. In this way his story demonstrates what critics admire in the Guatemalan writer—the ability to say much in few words, the vividness of his narrative world, which is created succinctly but richly, and his ability to take a miniature world and elevate it to a meaningful and significant level.

—Stella T. Clark