Monday, August 5, 2013

In Short: Augusto Monterroso

Guatemalan author, Augusto Monterroso
Several months ago, I sat in my office, loudly bemoaning what I perceived to be a complete lack of fable literature (of the likes I was reading from the Medieval period) in 20th century Latin America. Luckily, a friend and colleague standing nearby overheard my lament and informed me that there was no need to complain; I simply needed to look into the short stories of one Guatemalan author.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading the first of Augusto "Tito" Monterroso's collection of short stories, Obras completes (y otros cuentos) [Complete Works (and other stories)]. Published in 1959, these stories reflect, at times, a mood of both anger and resignation, possibly symptomatic of Guatemala's tumultuous socio-political situation (a transition from dictatorship to democracy and back to dictatorship within the period of 15 years).

Born in Honduras, raised in Guatemala, and lived the majority of his adult life in Santiago, Chile and Mexico City.
But while it is important to be cognizant of the historical context in which Monterroso wrote, it would be folly to imply that the sole objective of "Obras completas" (or any other collection of his stories) was to reflect the socio-historic disposition of Guatemalan politics. His political context is but one of many sources from which he sought inspiration; critiquing his work entirely based on his political context would fail to adequately address the richly layered literary accomplishments of his concise texts.

Indeed, Monterroso himself commented on this in a 1996 interview he gave with Mexican-American academic Ilan Stavans, telling the interviewer that he "never experienced a connection between politics and literature in which literature became an instrument aimed at promoting social upheaval. ... I think that, in general, my work demonstrates a concern with social dilemmas, but not with politics in any strict sense of the word." [See: Ilan Stavan's piece, "On Brevity: A Conversation with Augusto Monterroso" in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 37, No. 3. August, 1996; pages 393-405.]

Monterroso's writing is clever, almost self-depricating, and totally unique among the other 20th century Latin American authors I've read.

Augusto Monterroso's first published collection of short stories (the same collection I read). 
The first thing I noticed about the stories in "Obras completas" is the immense restraint with which these stories are crafted. Subtle gestures here and there casually signal the central themes of his stories; major character development is accomplished with merely a wink in the direction of the reader.

In no other of his stories is this fact more pronounced than in his most famous short story (though perhaps not his most important). "El dinosaurio" ("The Dinosaur") is a one-sentence story that is, all at once, a fable, a joke, a surreal image, and a poetic transformation of the entire short story genre:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. (When s/he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)

The story begins in medias res with "When s/he awoke," immediately confronting the reader with the pace of the narrative and a perplexing, gender-ambiguous central character (in Spanish, the verb is conjugated for the singular third person without defining a male or female subject). This opening phrase also generates suspense for what we can expect to find after the comma, which announces the story's inevitable climax. When someone awoke, something must've been happening, otherwise there wouldn't be any story to tell, and suspense builds towards the resolution of that story as we approach--and read past--that comma.

At this point, the reader is thrust into a more surreal and fantastical realm with the introduction of the dinosaur, who is suddenly and inexplicably in the presence of the (main?) character. And yet there must be an explanation for the dinosaur's presence, because he was there before our gender-ambiguous character supposedly fell asleep. The end of the story forces the reader to re-evaluate his original assumption about the waking-up character being the main character--by the end of the story, the extraordinary importance of the dinosaur becomes clear. The dinosaur is, after all, the title character.

"The Dinosaur," on my kitchen table
I am certainly not the first to admire and analyze this brilliantly pithy story, nor shall I be the last. Monterroso almost did not include this short story in his collection, thinking that while it may have been relatively easy to write, it would not be the easiest thing to publish. He decided to publish it with Obras completas, at the urging of friends. The story became incredibly popular among the public (though not among critics, those nasty things), and in the interview with Ilan Stavans, he recalls the horror he felt as the little dinosaur began to eclipse the rest of his writing. Monterroso said:

... the story not only brought great recognition; it also generated great harm. ... People think that, since they've read 'The Dinosaur,' which obviously doesn't take that much effort, they know my entire work. I still have the very first reviews of the book [Obras completas]: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn't a short-story. My answer: True, it isn't a short-story, it is actually a novel... 

Ha! I love that last line-- he succeeds in directly addressing the critics of his story at the same time he completely changes the discussion. He has "agreed" with their critique, but only after surreptitiously  teaching them how to elevate their critique to a new plane. Again, he manages to do this in one line...

Monterroso credited extensive study of and admiration for classic Greek writers (and the Spanish Golden-Age writer, Baltazar Gracián) with his penchant for brevity. He claimed that the straightforward and wildly inventive styles of Golden Age Spanish tales informed his short story writing by showing him how to pursue a structurally simple story, gilded with his own wonderfully strange voice: "Traditional stories are useful in that they broaden our scope by showing us what people enjoy most: simplicity." Drawing from traditional tales also uninhibited him from the notion of "originality."He said, "Originality isn't based on the construction of a certain argument, but in the style and twist a writer gives it. ... It's only possible to achieve originality through form."

Monterroso died at age 81 in 2003 in Mexico City.
My favorite tale in the Obras completas collection was called "Sinfonía conluida" ("Completed Symphony"). The story is two pages long and relates how a man discovered, while cataloguing old sheet music of La Merced church, the lost pages of a symphony. He eventually comes to realize that the sheets of music belonged to Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."

As he excitedly shares his discovery all over his town, the people only respond by laughing at him and scorning the sheets of music. So he ends up selling his house and possessions (without bothering to tell his wife) and traveling to Vienna, to try to convince more "learned" men of his astonishing recovery of the lost Scherzo and allegro ma non tropo. But there, as in Guatemala, he meets with disbelief and disapproval.

Finally, a handful of Schubert scholars realize that this little old man is correct, and that he holds in his hands the lost parts of the symphony. In the end, however, they tell him that revealing these sheets of music would spoil the beloved narrative of the first two movements of Schubert's symphony-- how Schubert himself didn't think he could write anything beautiful enough to live up to the first two movements. Not only did they not wish to depose the old narrative, they did not want to have to figure out what the new one would be: how did Schubert's music end up in Guatemala? how had it languished in obscurity for so long?... (Remember the post I did about preferring a collectively constructed narrative to a "true" narrative?!)

I won't spoil the end of this tale for you. But you can already tell how wonderful a story it is (packed neatly into two pages like some elegant literary bento box)...

Augusto Monterroso seemed to be able to address enormous truths about humanity--our inclination to make assumptions in the face of suspense, our occasional foolhardiness, our occasional brilliance, our inferiority- and superiority-complexes. He was not afraid to let animals do the talking, he was not afraid of borrowing age-old tales that could be recreated entirely in their telling, he was not afraid to let each word he wrote turn around and say ten other things to his reader that he had no control over.

I am very inspired to read more of his work, and am very happy that, because of him, I am able to rescind my complaint about there being no fables in 20th century Latin American fiction.

On the "Centro Virtual Cervantes," (a Spanish-based online literature website) they chose to end his biography with a very sweet and personal line, and I'd like to conclude the post with this same line:
Pese a su intención de hacerse invisible, Monterroso refleja las huellas luminosas de un talento y una modestia excepcionales. Querido Tito, muchas gracias por tus maravillosos libros y por tu amistad.
(In spite of his attempts to make himself invisible, Monterroso left behind luminous traces of exceptional talent and modesty. Beloved Tito, thank you so much for your wonderful books and friendship.) 
<Please note, all translations in this post are my own.>

Have you read any ultra-short-stories that could actually be novels?? What is on your reading table?? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

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