Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso (Book Review)

by Robert Nagle on 1/20/2012

in book reviews,Literary/Ebooks

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Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso (1995), UT Press (Austin). Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman, 150 pages.

Print Editions: Used copies are available for about $10

Book Page at UT Press site , Amazon.com page, Complete Review page , Author Wikipedia page ; Another review.

Summary: A great and hilarious sketchbook with smaller literary forms, but I wish that story subjects were treated more thoroughly.

Recommended if you like:  Borges,  Yourgrau, Calvino,  Kundera

Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories contain two volumes of stories in  a single book. The stories are compressed, satirical and chiefly about bookish subjects. In some stories the style is frenetic and a series of jarring images and exclamations. Many of the stories seem essayistic; the second volume Perpetual Motion contains a series of short themes — some of which are not fictional at all. Most of the narratives are self-conscious; in the penultimate story Brevity the narrator says,

The truth is that the writer of short pieces wants nothing more in this world than to write long texts, interminably long texts in which the imagination does not have to work, in which facts, things, animals and men meet, seek each other out, exist, live together, love, or shed their blood freely without being subjected to the semicolon or the period." (From “Brevity”)

The final story "Errata and Final Notice" points out alleged errors earlier in the book, adding that the book ends on page 152, this "does not mean it could not also begin here in a backward motion as useless and irrational as the one undertaken by the reader to reach this point."

Clever stuff. My favorite story Leopoldo (His labors) describes a man who considers himself a writer and is regarded as one by friends and family, and yet does little of what may be called writing. Instead, he cogitates at great length about writing, goes through several drafts and spends months agonizing about whether a porcupine or dog should win in a fight in one of his stories.   Other story themes include: the vagaries of literary reputation and publishing world, the vanities of the artist  and the art appreciator, The title story Complete Works is about a timid critic who longingly hangs around other more distinguished critics until he discovers a narrow field of literary specialization which suffices to gain him entrance into the club.

Other stories cover general themes with characters to illustrate the points: the tallest man in the world, the wife of a ruler who likes to put on charity events involving poetry, a man who deals in shrunken heads, a jealous man. But most of the chapters are either simple little allegories or one paragraph observations about life and art. The book totals 150 pages, and yet it took a long time  for me to read. Almost all the pieces were delightful: short and elegantly told (and rendered by Edith Grossman). Yet I wonder if nonartists would find these pieces as enjoyable as I did.  One of the more successful pieces, Solemnity and Eccentricity, reads more like an essay than a story;  a group of artists proclaim a war against solemnity, and Monterroso reflects on the futility of such a campaign:

those who were not solemn (I hastened to place myself among those) laughed more than ever, wherever they were, pointing the finger at things and people.Those who thought themselves solemn declared with a forced smile that they were not, or at least were only when there was no need to be.

The rest of the piece reflects on solemnity, false solemnity and ultimately eccentricity, cataloguing historical accounts of eccentrics  over the the centuries.

Monterroso’s previous collection Black Sheep (which I have not read) tells simple fable-like tales about animals, and this book also displays the author’s talent in working within miniature forms.  Complete Works has many elements found in shorter fiction:  the fairy tale realism of Buzatti, the elegant impudence of Baudelaire, the promiscuous surrealism of Yourgrau, the absurdist obscurantism of Kafka and  the otherworldly pedanticism of Borges. At the same time, Monterroso’s pieces have a friendly conversational tone; they are  more down-to-earth,  lush with symbolism but not allegorical, more designed to enthrall with wit than to engage the imagination, more geared to social commentary than suggesting an aesthetic. Most of the pieces seem borderline  ridiculous –  but never implausible.

Microfiction can be hard to read, even for a remarkable  book like this.  As much as I enjoy the book’s  paradoxes and aphorisms, at the end, I found myself longing for longer pieces and a sustained perspective  at characters. This is not an impossible feat.  Kundera organized various essays and mini-episodes into sections  to simulate the effect of a novel’s spaciousness.    In Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald assembled  a series of short  imaginary incidents from the  the  life of a German writer poet  and produced a coherent narrative direction — even though every chapter was 1-3 pages long. I know: Different author, different ambitions, different styles. Monterroso’s extraordinary fiction is what it is, but for me they never rise above being impish sketches.  For the Perpetual Motion collection of stories (in the 2nd half of the book), "flies" are the  unifying motif –  but this association via literary quotes at the top of each story  didn’t help me or even make much sense. Out of all the characters, only one – Leopoldo the writer – stood out in my memory.  I can’t help wondering if such a memorable character could be enhanced with additional chapters.   This brilliant story provided an initial condition without necessarily adding a complication or a potential for change. Let me ask: would Don Quixote be  better if  it were only one chapter?

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