Yesterday I reviewed a collection of short stories from Australia, “Six Bedrooms” by Tegan Bennett Daylight, and to be honest, although well-constructed the collection did nothing to move me, if the book comes up in conversation I’ll relay my thoughts, but I won’t be starting conversations about it. At the polar opposite is the stunning collection from Augusto Monterroso “Complete Works and Other Stories”. Here is a book I would thoroughly recommend to anybody, I’d even start conversations about this revelation of a work (in fact I already have done so).
This collection, from the University of Texas Press, includes an introduction by Will H. Corral, and as he points out; Monterroso’s prose is supple, analytical, full of irony and intricate nuances. What also emerges in his work…is writing that peels away the social veneers that conceal the beast within human beings and reveals all that they have accomplished or undone throughout history. He continues on; reading them (the short stories) will prove the futility of discussing their contents in full.
This book contains two collections of short stories “Complete Works (and Other Stories)” and “Perpetual Motion”, the first collection originally published as “Obras completas (y otros cuentos)” in 1959 and “Movimiento perpetuo” in 1972. This book released in 1995 was translated by Edith Grossman, arguably the most important translator of Latin American and Spanish fiction, translating both Nobel Laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez along with numerous other works including Miguel de Cervantes “Don Quixote” and although I generally don’t talk about my impressions of the translation (not having a strong enough handle on the original languages) this collection reads as another wonderful example of the literature of Latin America.
Monterroso was born in Honduras to a Honduran mother and a Guatemalan father, and at age fifteen his family settled definitively in Guatemala City. In 1944 he was detained at exiled to Mexico City for his opposition to the dictatorial regime, but soon afterwards, with a change in government he was assigned a minor post in the Guatemalan embassy in Mexico. Spending time in Bolivia, Santiago de Chile and Mexico City (where he primarily lived and worked from 1956 until his death in 2003), he was awarded the Mexican government’s honour the Águila Azteca (the Order of the Aztec Eagle the highest Mexican order awarded to foreigners in the country). Along with the Spanish Prince of Asturias Award for Literature (received in 2000 and award with an honour roll which includes Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Muñoz Molia, and non-Spanish writers such as Ismail Kadere, Leonard Cohen, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Günter Grass and Doris Lessing) Monterroso received the Miguel Ángel Asturia National Prize for his body of work, the most important literary award in Guatemala.
Even the title of the work, “Complete Works and Other Stories”, leads you towards the playfulness of this collection, although there is a story called “Complete Works” the idea of there being no finality sits nicely with the feeling of these stunning stories.
The collection opens with the story “Mister Taylor”, a tale of the shrunken head trade, an economy that is built on the export of shrunken heads, and when they start to run out???
According to this remarkable law, the gravely ill were given twenty-four hours to put their affairs in order and die, but if in this time they had the good fortune to infect their families, they received a month-long reprieve for each relative they infected. Victims of minor illnesses, and those who simply did not feel well, deserved the scorn of the entire nation, and any passerby was entitled to spit in their faces. For the first time in history the importance of doctors who cured no one was recognized (there were several candidates for the Nobel prize among them). Dying became an example of the highest patriotism, not only on the national level but on an even more glorious continental scale.
So many parallels with our own economies of mining, trade deficits, health care systems, patriotism and more, captured in a few short pages. An enlightening read with a preposterous premise.
As our introduction points out, there is no classifying of these stories, as soon as you think you have found a common thread, Monterroso throws another curve ball at you, keeping you alert, amused and astounded. Even the art of writing itself comes under the microscope, in “Leopoldo (His Labours)”:
Leopoldo was a meticulous writer who showed himself no mercy. From the age of seventeen he had devoted all his time to literature. His thoughts were fixed on literature the entire day. His mind worked with intensity, and he never allowed himself to succumb to sleep before ten thirty at night. Leopoldo, however, suffered from one defect: He did not like to write. He read, took notes, made observations, attended conferences, criticized bitterly the deplorable Spanish in the newspapers, solved difficult crossword puzzles as a mental exercise (or for relaxation); his only friends were writers, he thought, spoke, ate and slept as a writer, but he was seized by deep terror when the time came to pick up his pen. Although his constant dream was to become a famous writer, he delayed the moment of realization with the classic excuses: you have to live first, first you have to read everything, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote at an advanced age, without experience there can be no art – and other similar arguments. Until the age of seventeen, it had not occurred to him to be an artist. His calling came to him from the outside. He was forced into it by circumstances. Leopoldo remembered how it had all started and thought he could even write a story about it. For a few moments his mind wandered from Katz’s book.
The title story “Complete Works” is very reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño, a story full of cafes, poets, praise of others works, analysis of “diverse literatures”, probably written when Bolaño was five years of age, I possibly should have referred to Bolaño being influenced by Monterroso!!!
The second collection here “Perpetual Motion” is an homage to the humble fly, with each short story (all thirty-two of them) having an epigram related to the fly, for example the story “How I Got Rid Of Five Hundred Books” opens with:
The misanthrope: The sun is good only for
reviving the flies that suck my blood.
Jules Renard, Diary
However, as a reader you are left wondering as to the relevance of the reference, even though the opening story is called “Flies” and opens with “There are three themes: love, death, and flies.”, analysis of the theme is useless, although I’m sure there is a thesis there.
Economic reform, or absurdity, comes to the fore in the story “The Brain Drain”, not as subtle as the exporting of shrunken heads the moral is simple:
For each cluster of bananas that Guatemala exports, she earns one and a half cents, paid in taxes by the United Fruit Company, and especially useful to the government in maintaining the social stability and police-imposed order that make it possible to produce another cluster of bananas without interference. True, thousands of clusters are exported each year, but it must also be recognized that aside from order, and not taking into account the depletion of the soil on which this crop is raised, the benefits have been fairly meagre. What a difference when a brain is exported! It is evident that exporting the brain of Miguel Angel Asturias has brought notable benefits to Guatemala, including a Nobel Prize. Although many other brains have left the country, as far as anyone can tell they have not made a single crack in the nation’s structure; on the contrary, the country seems better off without them and is making more progress than ever.
This is a playful, thought provoking collection, humorous, bleak, deep, superficial, a complete mixture of classic Latin American literature. All obsessive readers and book collectors need to buy this collection, if only for the short story “How I Got Rid Of Five Hundred Books”, a tale of the angst of having a growing book collection, the ritual culling, the logic that would go into such a task and written with such humour.
This books forms part of my Classics Club reviews, where I intend to read and review fifty “classics” between now and the end of 2020. More on that journey can be seen here