Augusto Monterroso: From Culture Clash to Real Encounter

An Van Hecke

KU Leuven (University of Leuven)


The expression encuentros y desencuentros is quite common in Spanish, and it is equally well known that it has found its way into criticism (1). Throughout his works Guatemalan author Augusto Monterroso offers an enriching view of this complex dichotomy of failed and successful encounters, both on an individual and social or cultural level (2). To start with, “Encuentros y desencuentros” appears as a title for a fragment in his diary, La letra e (Fragmentos de un diario). In this text, Monterroso talks about his unexpected meetings (perhaps a more accurate translation for “desencuentro”), or run-ins with another author, Francisco Cervantes (3). Monterroso and Cervantes promise each other to exchange books, then forget, and then try to apologize (La letra 74). It is a text about how uncomfortable people feel when communicating in daily life, even under normal circumstances. What strikes the most is Monterroso’s fascination for the randomness of these encounters. Those “fortuitous meetings” that happen by chance are well known in literature, as in Rayuela by Cortázar, who identifies them as a Brownian movement (346). In Monterroso we find many of these inexplicable moments that are difficult to pin down because of the lack of an internal logic; but the coincidental character is exactly what gives them a magical twist. The unpredictability of meeting other people, especially writers, can be related to a strong symbol omnipresent in Monterroso’s work, the fly. The random encounters, like the flight of the fly, seem chaotic at first glance, but are likely to hide an order. Chaos and order, movement and immobility are central in his work. The fragment “Primeros encuentros” (La letra 138) relates how the first time Monterroso met the writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique was everything but a success; they became close friends only later, after other meetings. Another example can be found in “Christmas. New Year’s. Whatever”, from Perpetual Motion. In this text, Monterroso gives his interpretation of these fortuitous meetings:


The cards and gifts you send and receive year after year or that we send and receive with a somewhat foolish feeling that overwhelms you or us but which slowly, because of an interweaving of memories and forgetfulness, you or we stop sending or receiving, […], like those bourgeois drivers who, just because they are who they are, […] only once in their lives, meet up with you at a red light and you exchange foolish knowing glances with them for a moment […]. (Complete Works 142).


The text refers to the absurdity of human life or the lack of sense in our encounters with other people. At the same time, Monterroso observes with irony the way people behave in these encounters which have no meaning at all. For him these encounters form part of the world of magic, a “theme much richer than the theme of the chance or mere coincidences” (La letra 33; my translation). The magic is best revealed in his encounters with other writers’ lives and works. Cortázar is, again, a good example. When Monterroso stayed in Paris in 1984, as he describes it in his diary, a strange coincidence made him stay in the apartment where Cortázar once lived. Cortázar had died recently and Monterroso went to visit his tomb in Montparnasse. Back in the apartment he writes down the strangeness of the situation: “I remember … Cortázar, here, in this apartment (4 rue Martel, C., 4°. right), where he lived in and where I’m living now due to coincidences worthy of his imagination and where I’m writing these sentences” (La letra 200; my translation).

Fortuitous moments, which may seem insignificant to some, can then have a great impact on others. Monterroso usually presents his as unexpected, as if he is not looking for them, and they just happen. The concept of “encounter” in his works can be studied from many different perspectives: encounters with other authors, encounters through translation, or his life between two cultures as an exile in Mexico. Monterroso was forced to leave Guatemala in 1944 for political reasons and lived in Mexico until his death in 2003. He always considered his life in Mexico as enrichment, and was extremely grateful for the numerous opportunities he was given by Mexicans to write and publish his books. At the same time, the memories of his childhood in Guatemala and the Guatemalan culture and literature had a great impact on his entire work.

In what follows, I will analyze the way Monterroso reflects (neo)colonial encounters and the subsequent power relations, in two different periods: on the one hand, the sixteenth-century encounter between the Old and the New World; and on the other hand, the neo-colonial relationship between Latin America and the United States and Europe in the twentieth century. All along the analysis it is important to keep in mind the dynamic of how Monterroso constructed his work, which actually puts into perspective the notion that he was a perfectionist and a demanding stylist who worked patiently and infinitely to find le mot juste. The fact that for this theme Monterroso distances himself from pure satire, does not mean of course that this mode is always absent from the texts that are my sample. As we know, Monterroso makes use of satire and irony as a mask to hide sadness (Noguerol Jiménez). Rather, Monterroso’s move shows that one particular humorous mode cannot and should not define the complexity of his prose. According to Moreno-Durán, many critics have classified Monterroso too quickly within the category of humoristic writers, without noticing the profound humanity which lays in his texts (Moreno-Durán 205).  In this sense, the analysis by Masoliver Ródenas is particularly useful, as he distinguishes three centres in Monterroso’s writings: a critical one, against politics and politicians, a sceptical one, which expresses a pessimistic vision on humanity, and finally a literary one, which reveals Monterroso’s passion for literature and his identification with authors such as Cervantes, Quevedo, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Swift, Kafka or Joyce (Masoliver Ródenas 9-10). These intertextual “encounters” run parallel with his criticism of neocolonial systems, as he always sees other authors as guides in the creation of his own texts (Van Hecke 98).

Colonial and neo-colonial encounters

Monterroso is a master at depicting great encounters of human history with brevity, and a master at dismantling the traditional binary of centre and margin, as is clearly shown in the fable “The giraffe who suddenly understood that everything is relative” (The Black Sheep 42), about the battle between Napoleon and Wellington. This is in line with Ashcroft’s, Griffiths’ and Tiffin’s statement on the difficulty in defining the binary opposition ‘centre/margin”:


Imperial Europe became defined as the “centre” in a geography at least as metaphysical as physical. Everything that lay outside that centre was by definition at the margin or the periphery of culture, power and civilization. The colonial mission, to bring the margin into the sphere of influence of enlightened centre, became the principle justification for the economic and political exploitation of colonialism. […] The idea is contentious because it has been supposed that attempts to define the centre/margin model function to perpetuate it. (Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin 36-37)


In much of Monterroso’s prose, what we find is exactly the desire to undermine the idea of a centre, often in a humoristic or sarcastic way. Although it is not evident to think of Latin America in postcolonial terms, some arguments of postcolonial theory can help us better understand the mechanisms in the relationships between colonial powers and marginalized regions. Especially the concept of “Otherness” as developed by Said can clarify the analysis of Monterroso’s short stories and other texts:


It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter). (Said 336)


Since the nineteenth century Spanish American intellectuals have always had a conflictive relation with Europe, and later with the United States. The place of speaking, the “locus of enunciation” becomes fundamental (Mignolo 51-55). Latin America is no longer seen as a region to be studied, but as a place from which to speak.

For this first part, I selected two short stories and one essay: “The Eclipse” and “Finished Symphony” from Complete Works and Other Stories, and “How to Stop Being a Monkey” from Perpetual Motion. In the short story “The Eclipse” (Complete Works 29-30), the plot of which is contextualized by many other historically-bound tales of the first encounters between Europeans and Amerindians, Monterroso offers a version of what could have happened if history was turned upside down and the Indians had conquered the Spaniards. For Dante Liano, this story is a homage to the intelligence and the culture of the indigenous people without the use of any rhetorical device (Liano 57). The story departs from the capture of a Spanish friar, Bartolomé Arrazola, who, in the sixteenth century, tries to deceive the Mayans who captured him in the Guatemalan jungle. He tells them that if they kill him, he will make the sun disappear. Thanks to his knowledge of Aristotle, he knows that there will be a solar eclipse exactly on that day. Nonetheless, the Indians sacrifice him and then, indeed, the sun darkens. During the sacrifice, one of the Indians recites “the infinite list of dates when solar and lunar eclipses would take place” (Complete Works 30). With their great knowledge of astronomy, the Mayans did not need the help of Aristotle.

Historians and experts in colonial literature have paid much attention to the great encounters of the conquest, especially that between Cortés and Moctezuma or between Pizarro and Atahualpa. In “The Eclipse”, Monterroso focuses on another type of encounter, between religious representatives, in the middle of the jungle, far from the great political centres. The reader does not get to see an image of the good missionary, elected by God to save the pagan Indians. On the contrary, despite his doubts about his duties within the scheme of the Conquest, Bartolomé resembles the fanatical monk dedicated to mass conversions, inspired by a sentiment of superiority regarding the Indians whose religions are eventually destroyed by the larger power to which he responds. It is clear that the friar considers his culture as more valuable than the indigenous cultures. He stubbornly exhibits a Euro-centric vision of the world, and even wants to make the Indians believe he has superhuman powers.

In the written versions of those encounters among distant cultures, language and translation are undoubtedly essential aspects of an initial contact. During his encounter with the Maya and the Aztecs, Cortés communicated with the help of two translators, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinche, and the above mentioned historians and colonial literature experts have made much of those transactions. Differently, the Spanish friar of Monterroso’s story tries to speak directly with the Indians: “Three years in the country had given him a passing knowledge of the native languages. … He spoke a few words that were understood” (Complete Works 29). But even this linguistic knowledge is of no use. From the perspective of the friar, who “waited confidently” after having told them about the sun disappearing, the end is totally unexpected. The “religious zeal of his work of redemption” is of no value when the Indians sacrifice the friar to their gods. Monterroso gives an ironic view of the cultural arrogance of Europeans. The targets of Monterroso’s irony are not only men but also God. In the chronicles of the conquest, as for instance in Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True Story of the Conquest of Mexico, we often find references to God who helps conquer America and is at the same time the ultimate justification of the conquest. It is also a commonly accepted fact among historic scholars that the Indians in Mexico were conquered so quickly because they were already convinced that their gods had abandoned them. The resignation, especially by Moctezuma, can be explained by the many ominous signs they interpreted in the way that their gods were not ‘talking’ to them anymore. In Monterroso’s “The Eclipse”, we observe an inversion at a spiritual level, as the Christian God now abandons the friar and the Mayan Gods are praised by the sacrifice. The failure for the Spanish friar is a triumph for the Indians. The wisdom of Arrazola becomes ignorance. For a few minutes literature creates the illusion that the conquest could have been completely different. At a symbolic level the story suggests the enormous implications for both cultures if the conquest had been the other way around. Monterroso gives a reinterpretation of history through imagination.

Although the story is a fantasy, the idea is not completely original. The author was questioned about the originality by Will Corral in 1978 (81) and by Stavans in 1996 (400). Both critics then referred to the story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. To Corral, Monterroso explained that he wanted to write a story “against Twain”; to Stavans Monterroso revealed that he did not take the idea directly from Twain, but from a Hollywood movie about King Arthur. Unlike this movie, about an eclipse in Africa, Monterroso situated his story in the Maya region of Guatemala. Monterroso also talks about Columbus who used similar tricks in the Bahamas, which makes him conclude: “In other words, the seed of the story dates back to Columbus, was later reworked by Twain, revisited in a Hollywood movie, and reapplied to Guatemala” (qtd in Stavans 400). Stavans then asks him quite directly: “So what amount of the story is actually yours? We cannot avoid, at this point of the dialogue, the topic of originality”. The author then explained: “Originality isn’t based on the construction of a certain argument, but in the style and twist a writer gives it” (400). This answer by Monterroso does not surprise, knowing his view on the importance of world literature for his own writings and the amazing amount of intertextual references in his work (Ruffinelli, Van Hecke). Monterroso’s work can indeed be studied as a palimpsest with many layers (Glantz) or as “literature within literature” (Olea Franco).

“The Eclipse” has pursued the author for many years, as critics kept on analyzing it and asking questions about it. There even has been a study on the relation between the story and Tintin, the comic by Hergé (Binns). Toward the end of his life the author wrote down his thoughts about “The Eclipse” in an essay “Imaginación y realidad” (Literatura y vida 135-140). Considering the actual situation of the Maya, Monterroso is of the opinion that the mestizaje, or misgenation is a doubtful question, and the relation between the oppressed and the oppressors is still conflictive. Concerning the illusion or disillusion of literature, Monterroso writes:


Every year, every day since the first publication of my story – I must admit – I have learned that imagination and reality are often conflicting terms, and that it is easier to make someone triumph in three minutes of good (or bad) wishes than in five hundred years of real history. (Literatura y vida 136; my translation)


What we see here is a profound pessimism regarding Latin American history. Five hundred years later, the full recognition of various indigenous identities and cultures has not been achieved, not only because of feelings of superiority, but even so because of a lack of knowledge of the Other’s culture and language, two essential aspects emphasized in the story “The Eclipse”.

From the sixteenth century we move to a story that takes place in the twentieth century, “Finished Symphony” (Complete Works 15-17). The story is about an old Guatemalan organ player who finds the two missing movements of the Unfinished Symphony by Schubert in a small church in Guatemala. On several occasions Monterroso insisted on the fact that this short story was not based on reality but, on the contrary, completely fictitious. It is a sad story about the organist who first was excited about his discovery, then argued about it with almost every musician in Guatemala, and then went to Vienna to prove the validity of his discovery. But in that European capital, considered the centre of all knowledge on Schubert, he only finds incomprehension and scorn:


… and once he was in Vienna it was even worse because they said no Guatemalan Leiermann* [*in footnote: organ-grinder] was going to teach them how to find lost works least of all ones by Schubert whose scholars were all over the city and how could those pages have ended up so far from home. (Complete Works 16)


Guatemala is that place “so far from home”, a place assumed by the European mind set of the fictional time to be impossible for finding such an important manuscript. Coming from Guatemala, he would have “no right” to judge Schubert’s symphony. He finally went back to his country, and on the ship he “ripped the pages one by one and threw the pieces overboard” (17). The story ends in a status quo, with a world that does not want to know the missing parts of the symphony. In Monterroso’s story, the subaltern still has no right to speak. This is exactly what postcolonial critic Spivak investigates in her well-known essay “Can the subaltern speak?”, in which she examines the complex “relations between desire, power and subjectivity” (Spivak 273). Again, as in “The Eclipse”, no real encounter is possible between the different cultures. As pointed out by Leonardo Padura, many characters in Monterroso are common people who are feeling frustrated and look for a spiritual way out, mostly through art, to compensate their alienation. This is especially the case for the Guatemalan organ player who is confronted with a public that does not want to see a finished symphony by Schubert (Padura 164).

Mark Millington, in his article “On Location: The Question of Reading Crossculturally”, took “Finished Symphony” as a starting point to discuss the limits that critics of First World cultures run into in their work with Latin American literature:


What is striking in “Sinfonía concluida” is the strong polarization imposed by the Viennese. In fact, one thing that the story does is to map in basic terms the major locations in cultural exchange: inside, outside and a more complex, unsettled ‘between’ …. Hence the European power seeks to preserve the self and its current identity by rejecting the Latin American Other. (Millington 14)


Millington questions the capacity of Western academic scholars to read Latin American literature: either they produce a monological discourse, which leaves the assimilation of the texts to their own values, or they tend to polarise. Millington’s categorical assumption offers an equally categorical solution: a dialogical and heterogeneous discourse. Another critic, McGuirk, also gives his interpretation of the story based on postcolonial theories by Bhabha, Jameson and Spivak. According to McGuirk, Monterroso’s story poses several questions: “A potentially abstract debate on the third term, on relativities, interpretants, dialogics and differences, irrefutably shifts to the political and ideological dimensions of intercultural transfer, translation, transgression” (McGuirk 246). “Finished Symphony” seems to be an incomplete odyssey, as the story ends in the middle of the ocean. That conclusion can be seen as symbolic of how two cultures, European and Latin American, are viewed as opposites and incompatible, which creates an in-between zone of tensions that has a negative impact on the individual characters.

The third example of such misplaced or unproductive encounters is ‘How to Stop Being a Monkey’, a prose piece about the way foreigners perceive Latin American writers. As this is a very short text I quote it entirely:


The spirit of inquiry knows no limits. In the United States and in Europe they have recently discovered a species of Latin American monkey capable of expressing itself in writing, identical, perhaps, to that diligent monkey who, by hitting the keys of a typewriter at random, eventually reproduces the sonnets of Shakespeare. Something like this naturally fills these good people with wonder, and there is no lack of willing translators of our books or ladies and gentlemen of leisure willing to buy them, as they once bought the shrunken heads of Jivaro Indians. More than four centuries ago Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas finally succeeded in convincing the Europeans that we were humans endowed with souls because we laughed; now they want to convince themselves of the same thing because we write. (Complete Works 116)


Whether this text is a short story or an essay is difficult to say – the delimitation of literary genres in Monterroso is quite complex (4)– but it clearly questions the position of Latin American writers and the way they are seen by First World critics and readers. In this text, Latin American writers find themselves at the level of the monkeys, one step behind the human race, which is considered to be more intelligent. According to this view, if Latin American writers achieve a literary work of quality, it will only be by chance.

The comparison with that “diligent monkey who by hitting the keys of a typewriter at random, eventually reproduces the sonnets of Shakespeare” is probably an intertextual reference to the short story by R.A. Lafferty, “Been a Long, Long Time”, in which an angel is punished “by having to supervise (for trillions of years) randomly-typing monkeys who are attempting to produce a perfect copy of the collected works of Shakespeare” (Lafferty 87-90). The infinite monkey theorem has been recovered in many manifestations of popular culture, even in an episode of The Simpsons. With sarcasm, the narrator of Monterroso’s text observes how people in the United States and Europe are excited about the discovery of these “monkeys” and how they are interested in translating and reading their works. In other words, and once again, little has changed in crosscultural relations between the Old and New worlds.

The fact remains then that Europeans, post-colonial literary critics among them, are still more motivated by a sense of exoticism than by a serious appreciation of the quality of the literature of those “monkeys,” i.e., writers, in the same way they bought the shrunken heads of Jivaro Indians from Ecuador, a topic that Monterroso employed and fictionalized in his story “Mister Taylor” (Complete Works 3-9). In “How to Stop Being a Monkey” there is an explicit comparison between colonialism in the sixteenth century and the present. Bartolomé de las Casas, unlike Arrazola in “The Eclipse”, really made an effort to prove that the Indians were “humans endowed with souls because [they] laughed,” a sarcastic reference to the early discussions in Spain about the humanity of Amerindians. Sadly, it seems that in the five hundred years these encounters have lasted nothing has changed: Latin Americans are still seen as inferior, as less advanced. But then again, the capacity to write is a vastly superior new argument for North Americans and Europeans to accept that Latin Americans are “human”.

Although in a generally humorous way, “How to Stop Being a Monkey” expresses the frustration of Latin American writers for not being recognized by the Other, for having to suffer contempt for their work. In the sixteenth century the initial encounter failed, and at a certain level this can be understood because of the huge differences between both cultures, as Tzvetan Todorov and post-colonial critics posit. But the fact that five centuries later the encounter is still problematic is much more difficult to accept. Monterroso has always been very critical, both in his texts and interviews, concerning the neocolonial powers in Latin America, especially in Central America where American companies like the United Fruit Company were responsible for the economic exploitation and the political dependence of these countries in the twentieth century. “How to Stop Being a Monkey” is a good example of what Noé Jitrik said about Monterroso. The Argentinian critic considers Monterroso ‘a philosopher of human nature’ who creates in the reader a sentiment of discomfort by forcing us to see ourselves in the mirror of our intellectual, sentimental or political commonplaces (Jitrik 53-54).

The wonders of successful cultural encounters

If we consider the three previous texts as a representative sample of Monterroso’s vision on cultural encounters, it is evident that he was especially interested in failed encounters and conflictive situations created by the clash between different cultures. This is true, and there are many more titles from earlier stories that can illustrate these conflictive encounters, like “Mister Taylor” (Complete Works 3), or later essayistic prose like “The Brain Drain” (Complete Works 96). Nevertheless, if we analyze closely the rest of his work we can find texts or fragments in which the cultural encounter between the Old and the New World has a much more positive outcome. Let us then take a look at three representative texts, “Cakchicoto” from La letra e (230), “Poesía quechua” from Palabra mágica (84), and “Vivir en México” from La vaca (147).

In “Bulgaria”, a fragment from La letra e, Monterroso first tells us about the Bulgarian author Rumen Stoyanov, who is running from one library to another in order to translate the Spanish version of the Popol Vuh into Bulgarian (La letra 132). Monterroso is amazed to see how Stoyanov is attracted by Mayan culture and to see how this Mayan book, fundamental to Monterroso, can cross borders thanks to translations, not only from Quiche into Spanish, but into a language like Bulgarian that is completely unknown to Monterroso. He then tries to imagine, in a following fragment, “Cakchicoto”, how that first encounter must have been: “Friar Thomas de Coto and the first Cakchiquel Indian in Guatemala, who taught him that Vuh meant Libro (Book), in exchange for learning that Libro was Vuh, in an amusing (I suppose it must have been) interchange that still hasn’t come to an end” (La letra 230; my translation). The way Monterroso perceives this encounter, as an “amusing interchange”, is in great contrast with the negative views he gave us in the previous texts that we have analyzed. No doubt, the fact that First World critics started to show interest in the Popol Vuh made Monterroso feel proud of his Guatemalan roots. He mentions the book every time he tries to claim the place of Guatemalan literature on the world map (Discurso). The fragment “Cakchicoto”, where we observe the beginning of an intellectual communication between the two cultures, confirms the interpretation given by Adolfo Castañón who describes Monterroso as a liberal writer for whom tolerance is an essential quality (Castañón 140).

In the essay “Poesía quechua” (La palabra 84-85), as in “How to stop being a monkey”, we see the complexity of the reception of Latin American literature, in this case pre-Hispanic poetry. With irony, Monterroso observes how people show an extreme and probably exaggerated admiration for these works precisely because they were “written by beings that are inferior to men” (84, my translation). Monterroso writes: “Thanks to an easy mental mechanism, many consider these works, if not the creation of irrational people, at least of people who have almost an infantile mentality” (84, my translation). This is where he turns to Montaigne, who expresses his admiration for pre-Hispanic poetry from a different point of view. Montaigne comments on an indigenous song from Brazil:


Now I have conversed enough with poetry to judge thus much that not only there is nothing barbarous in this invention, but, moreover, that it is perfectly Anacreontic. To which it may be added, that their language is soft, of a pleasing accent, and something bordering upon the Greek termination. (Montaigne, Essays, qtd in La palabra 84; my translation, based on existing translations from Montaigne into English)


Montaigne was famously one of Monterroso’s favourite authors, as criticism about him has revealed. This fragment by Montaigne must have been important for Monterroso’s ultimate goal, as, already in the sixteenth century, a writer from Europe showed his genuine admiration for the literature of the New World, and certainly provided a new perspective on the notion of encountering other cultures. Even in the twentieth century, Monterroso looked for signs in which Third World authors were not seen as monkeys anymore, nor as irrational or infantile beings, but respected as writers at the same level as First World authors. It is not surprising he found this recognition, when he himself received important literary prizes in Italy (1993) and Spain (2000). On both occasions, in his speeches he is not only grateful for the awards, but he sees them as a fundamental recognition of the literature of Guatemala and of Latin America in general. González Zenteno, in her thorough analysis of Monterroso’s work, rightly concludes that Monterroso, as a “Third World writer ... managed to free the Latin American cultural and literary machinery from the imposition of folklorism ... by the First World critical and editorial centres” (González Zenteno 201).

The third and last text, in which we perceive the cultural encounter in a positive way, is the essay “Vivir en México” from La vaca (148). In this essay Monterroso pays tribute to Mexico, the country where the author found refuge as an exile in 1944, and where he lived for more than forty years. Monterroso praises the Mexican hospitality and is extremely grateful for the opportunities given to him at a personal and professional level. At the beginning of the essay, Monterroso gives a quite emotional and even dramatic view of what it meant living in Mexico in the forties, not only for him, but for numerous refugees:


At that time, when life was just beginning, Mexico was an extension of a Europe at war; I mean, there were already so many refugees, Spanish, Czechs, Germans, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Russians, etc, that the pain, apparently so far away, could literally be touched with your hands, every time you shaked hands with one of them, something that happened at any time of the day or the night, in any house, and almost in any street. (La vaca 147; my translation)


The contrast between the remoteness of the war in Europe and the nearness of the real pain felt by shaking hands, is very intense. Monterroso describes the solidarity among the refugees, not only from Europe, but also from other Latin American countries, as he mentions Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Paradoxically, Mexico City is described as the place where you could feel the pain of so many exiles, but at the same time it appears as an amazing capital, especially in those magical forties, where people from different countries could find each other. The hand becomes a metaphor for the encounter between the Old Europe, suffering at that time during the Second World War, and the New World, where refugees are welcomed to settle down and to continue their lives.

Literary encounters

From the six texts above, we can conclude that Monterroso was always concerned about political and economic conflicts between different cultures, and consistent with his overall practice, he would submit “notes,” providing clues for greater discussion. Still, eager in his search for constructive and enriching elements in these encounters, he found them in the world of literature. A great admirer of universal literature, his work is based on multiple readings of other writers. Intertextuality inevitably becomes a key concept when analyzing Monterroso’s work. He perceives his readings of other authors as encounters with accomplices or guides whom he follows for a while yet to abandon them time and again. In an essay with the title “Influences”, Monterroso explains that he does not like to talk about “literary influences” nor about “literary models”. Instead he sees other authors as “accomplices” who give him company when he is navigating in an unstable movement to and fro:


And, as much as you can, you keep on navigating, in the company of this or that one, in a movement in which, when you are lucky, you find sometimes a certain stability of the mind … to find out that, again, you don’t know where you find yourself, neither if the accomplice … that you followed up to now, was in fact the best. (La vaca 45; my translation)


For Monterroso, there is no doubt that it is in the world of literature that a true cultural encounter can take place with an authentic appreciation for the Other, as we see in the “amusing interchange” between friar de Coto and the Cakchiquel Indian, or in the readings of indigenous poetry by Montaigne. However, when reading Monterroso’s work, it seems difficult to maintain these binary oppositions, self-other, civilized-barbarian, centre-margin… As Castañón discovered in Monterroso’s character the amazing capacity to give the same importance to every person (Castañón 137), we also found several texts in which the Other is actually seen as equal. In these cases, it may be more accurate to talk about “sameness”, as can be seen in the emotional description of “shaking hands” among refugees. Said’s view on “Otherness”, quoted earlier in this paper (Said 336), leads us to conclude that Monterroso clearly dreams of a world in which one culture does not rule the other, a world without classifications or hierarchies. Finally, Monterroso surprises the reader with many strange and unexpected encounters, whether they failed or not, and which make the reader often feel uncomfortable. It may seem utopian, and it may not be visible at first sight, but in Monterroso’s oeuvre, especially in his essays, we sense a fundamental view on literature and life: working and living within literature means crossing frontiers and creating a world in which tolerance, respect, and admiration for the Other can be made possible.



(1). The second concept of the dichotomy, desencuentro, is not easy to translate into English. One could say ‘encounters and disencounters’, but the ‘disencounter’ does not actually appear in English dictionaries. Desencuentro, at least in its usage in criticism (particularly for literatures of the discovery), can be translated as failed encounter or contact, discord, conflict or disagreement, but none of these exactly reflects the wordplay encuentros y desencuentros.


(2). Augusto Monterroso published his first book in 1959: Obras completas (y otros cuentos) (México: Ediciones Era, 1990). His second book La Oveja Negra y demás fábulas was published ten years later, in 1969 (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1991). Movimiento Perpetuo was his third book, published in 1972 (Madrid: Alfaguara Bolsillo, 1999). As of this date, only three books by Monterroso have been translated into English: Complete Works and Other Stories which includes Perpetual Motion (U. of Texas Press: 1995), and The Black Sheep and Other Fables (New York: Doubleday, 1971; London: Acorn, 2005, retranslation). For this article I also refer to books that have not been translated into English. In those cases I add the explicit reference ‘my translation’.


(3). The name Francisco Cervantes may allude to a sixteenth-century Spanish man of letters who moved to Mexico in 1550, and may be, according to some, the author of the foundational picaresque novel The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes.


(4). According to Will Corral’s study of genre displacement in Monterroso, the beginning and the end are typical of the essay, but the text as a whole cannot be considered as belonging exclusively to one particular genre, and the irony is the element that contributes to that impasse (Corral 1985, 165).


Works Cited


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