×
header-image

Hispianola

A Jukebox of Augusto Monterroso
DISCUSSED
The Meaning of the Miniature, Lamentations of Guy Debord, Poles Stranded in Buenos Aires, Literary Safari Parks, No Escape from the Full Stop, Contempt for the Person Who Writes “Little Nothings,” The Snow Globe Fixation of Walter Benjamin
by Adam Thirlwell
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Hispianola

Adam Thirlwell
18 Snaps

For Jorge Herralde

I.

Recently, I began to want to be sudamericano. It was a time of lethargy and safety, in the soft gray rain of London—and I was reading the very short stories or essays of Augusto Monterroso. I basically wished I had this name Augusto. But while it’s quite normal for me to want to inhabit other people, even going so far as to want to adopt their names, I was wanting all the more to imagine what it would be like to write and think like Augusto Monterroso, since the stories I was reading by him were in a French translation of his Spanish originals. We were triangulated. Even more than usually in this life, therefore, I felt adrift, or estranged.

So to console myself I began to imagine a possible experiment with these thirds, or triangles.

I knew only a few of Monterroso’s facts. He was Guatemalan. In his youth, he was associated with the revolutionary government of Jacopo Arbenz, the government that ­disappeared after the CIA coup of 1954 (a coup—this was my only other Guatemalan fact—that was lamented by Guy Debord in Paris as an early proof of the society of the spectacle). And so in the brief era of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, Monterroso then emigrated to Mexico City, where he lived for the rest of his life, perfecting his style of writing short pieces of prose that sometimes seemed like stories, and sometimes seemed like essays. This, I realized, exhausted the facts I knew about Augusto Monterroso—as I sat there in the safety and lethargy of London, reading in French his 1972 collection, Movimiento perpetuo.1 But then, I didn’t really want more facts. No, I wanted to inhabit the ways in which Monterroso might think, the reasons why he wanted to think in his miniature way. And so in the soft gray London morning, which was really, I decided, now the humid and caffeinated green and concrete landscape of Mexico City, I tried to appropriate his experiments.

And this meant also proving something about this principle of the third language—in other words, about translation. I needed it to be true that there is no reason why translation should always be modeled as a process involving only two languages and a solitary translator. So I rehearsed the prior examples. There was Witold Gombrowicz, stranded in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, translating his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish with his friends, even though his friends spoke no Polish, and he spoke almost no Spanish: and no Spanish–Polish dictionary existed. Or there was James Joyce gradually assembling a team including Samuel Beckett and Philippe Soupault to translate the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of his Work in Progress into French. Or Christopher Logue’s account of Homer’s Iliad, based on other translations and the notes of Donald Carne-Ross—because he spoke no Greek at all. Yes, I thought. As well as one-to-one translation, there was surely also the possibility of a collective, of the rewrite: the multiple.

And while this might not match the usual ideas of ethics and literary property, I began to wonder if a new kind of ethics could be imagined for me, the corrupt novelist-translator, as opposed to the nobler translator-translator. I was thinking that maybe I needed the ancient Roman chutzpah—the chutzpah that allowed you to put a Roman head on an otherwise Greek statue. This seemed correct. It was like the way Nietzsche described the crazy attitude of the classic Roman poets like Horace or Propertius:

They did not know the pleasure of a sense for history; what was past and alien was embarrassing to them; and as Romans, they saw it as an incentive for a Roman conquest. In fact at that time one conquered by translating—not merely by leaving out the historical, but also by adding allusions to the present and, above all, crossing out the name of the poet and replacing it with one’s own—not with any sense of theft but with the very best conscience of the imperium Romanum.

So I tried. I began to write my first text that wasn’t by me at all, called “Brevity,” an English version of a French version of a Spanish original, in which I wrote that “people often praise brevity and for a precarious moment it makes me happy to hear them repeat the saying that what is good, if short, is doubly good.” I paused, I sipped a small coffee beside me, I sucked on a fat cigarette, I was oblivious to the temptations of the internet, since this was 1972, and I continued. Yes, people praise the miniature, but remember Horace: remember how the Roman poet “asks himself or pretends to ask Maecenas the reasons why no one is happy with their condition, why the merchant envies the soldier and the soldier envies the merchant.” “You remember that, don’t you?,” I asked my international reader. And with Horace’s idea in mind, I confessed in my new disguise as a writer of malicious brevity that a writer of short texts in fact wants nothing more than to write “long interminable texts,” yes, long texts “where facts, objects, animals, and people would meet, seek each other out or flee from each other, would live, cohabit, love or make each other’s blood flow in complete freedom,” a total safari park, without being subject to the comma or the full stop. Whereas it was not to be, because for the writer of miniatures—I wrote, and I was now a writer of miniatures—there is no escape from the full stop: “This same full stop which has just been imposed on me by a superior force which I respect and which I hate.”

And so I ended my text on brevity there, submitting to my fate. I was no longer a novelist. I was something else. And my name was now Augusto.

 

II.

But one element of being a writer of short things, I was discovering, was that a desire to write as briefly as possible was part of another desire: to write in a series. To write short is to write prolific. It is you—the grand loquacious novelists—who are parsimonious with production. Each new paragraph, for us writers of short things, is an individual work. Which is to say: the complete works of a miniaturist are like one of those trick mirrors: they might look miniature, but in fact they’re incredibly fat.

With these paradoxes I tried to enter more intently into the paradoxes of Monterroso’s art. In this place that was almost London and almost Mexico City, I wanted briefly to consider the meaning of the miniature, this form I’d now made my own. And so I paused on a moment seven years after the first publication of this text called “Brevity”—a moment in 1979, when Roland Barthes gave a seminar where he advised his Parisian students that there was work still to be done in the study of literature and modernity. The student, wrote Barthes,

should consider all the quantitive phenomena of discursivity (in all the arts): length (elongation), brevity, summaries, copious, interminable, tenuous, poor, “nothing” (with the corresponding mythologies: contempt of the doxa for the person who writes “little nothings”)—Norms of length (books, films)—And also phenomena of density: the Rarus (thick), cf le Ma: notion which would permit one to talk about painting: Twombly, the Orientals.

From my renovated perspective, these now seemed obviously abstract ways of thinking about the inventions of smallness. But I was still grateful that Barthes had been troubled by the phenomena of density. I approved of the fact—as I discovered, trying to locate this passage in his collected works—that in the same year as this seminar he had continued to think about the problem of smallness by thinking about the American painter Cy Twombly. He kept on at the nature of the rare. Because normally, Barthes argued, rarity “engenders density and density the enigma.” What is tiny can seem freighted with dark meaning. But this didn’t seem to me, imagining the perpetual movements of Monterroso, a convincing attraction. Nor did Barthes. For in the paintings of Cy Twombly, he wrote, rarity unusually allows for lightness. This, it seemed, was closer to my sudamericano idea of form. And via the Latin word rarus Barthes therefore went on to relate the rare to “that which presents intervals or interstices, scattered, porous, sparse…” For Twombly’s scattered marks on paper create a space that is, he argued, no longer countable, and yet simultaneously plural: a “hardly tenable opposition,” which “excludes at the same time number and unity, dispersion and the centre”—like that strange “dedication that Webern offered to Alban Berg: ‘Non multa,
sed multum.
’”

 

III.

It was in 1913, eight years before Monterroso was born, that in Vienna, Anton Webern completed his Six Bagatelles for String Quarteta series of six miniature pieces. In total, these pieces last three and a half minutes. And on the score Webern gave to his friend the composer Alban Berg, he wrote: “Non multa, sed multum.”

In other words, amigos: it ain’t big, but it’s clever. Or in even other words: not much, but very much multiple. And I grimly began to think that Webern was right, for one strangeness of thinking about brevity was how difficult it was to invent stories that were safely nested in their own concision. Even this joke about multiplicity was not without its multiple effects. In 2001, the Portuguese filmmaker ­Pedro Costa made a movie called Où gît votre sourire enfoui?—a documentary about the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in which Straub quotes a famous comment of Schoenberg’s on Anton ­Webern’s Six Bagatelles. When the score was published by Universal in 1924, it was accompanied by a preface from Schoenberg, who had been—or was still, perhaps, in 1924, I have no idea—Webern’s mentor. “Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. You can stretch every glance out into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath—such concentration can only be present in proportion to the absence of self-pity.” For Schoenberg, brevity was sternly modernist: it was a way of preventing the entrance of the sentimental. But this was also a way of saying that brevity proved the total authenticity of the artwork. It obeyed no law apart from the artist’s attention. It refused all external blandishments. And in a cinema in London, which was now doubling for Mexico City, where I watched Straub tell this story in Costa’s documentary, I was charmed; and I was more charmed when, in the same film, and without observing any contradiction, because after all there is none, Straub tells the story of how the Straub-­Huillet movie Dalla nube alla resistenza, made in 1979, ends with an enormous seven-to-eight-minute section without any dialogue at all—just because at seven minutes on the soundtrack there occurred a birdcall that Straub particularly liked. And so Huillet, his wife, left it in for him on the edit. They allowed the length of the work to obey some personal intuition of the random. Which made a story of length, I suppose, a story of love. Just as it was a different story of love when Pedro Costa, from the rushes of his documentary, made an accompanying eighteen-minute film of six episodes cut from the final version of his documentary—which he called 6 Bagatelas.

 

IV.

These were ways of thinking about brevity. And thinking about brevity, I was discovering, was often a disguised way of thinking—flippantly, and eccentrically—about fate. Or, to put this another way round: brevity was often an investigation of those avid twins—entrapment and fantasy.

Or so I thought until I picked up the next book in my brief international zigzag into brevity, a book by the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, Short History of Portable ­Literature. It was published in 1985, in Barcelona—and since Vila-Matas shared a publisher (Anagrama) with Monterroso, and with me, I began to imagine that it was very much possible that as the real Augusto I might have read this Short History of Portable Literature, where Vila-Matas outlines his new theory of miniature literature—where the miniature is not so much related to fate as to ideas of portability and concealment: an ideal of fleeting meaning. Vila-Matas begins his history at the end of the winter of 1924, when on the very rock where Nietzsche had conceived the idea of the eternal return, he writes, the Russian writer Andrei Bely has a nervous breakdown as he feels the lava-flows of his superconscious irredeemably rise to the surface. At the precise moment when, not so far away, the musician Edgar Varèse suddenly falls under his horse while, parodying Apollinaire, he mimics a man preparing to depart for war. For me, wrote Vila-Matas, these two scenes are the twin pillars on which the history of portable literature is built: a history with European origins, as light as the writing case with which Paul Morand traveled in luxury trains through a nocturnal and illuminated Europe: it’s this mobile writing-desk which inspired Marcel Duchamp to make his boîte-en-valise, without doubt the most brilliant attempt to exalt the portable in art. And perhaps with this mention of Duchamp’s portable complete works, I would have remembered—I thought, if I were Monterroso, and my name were Augusto, but it was not—my own joke, many years earlier, when I entitled my first book of stories Obras completas (y otros cuentos). I would have recognized in Duchamp a twin in this desire to ironize the solemn: to reverse the usual ideas of the large and the small.

And Vila-Matas in this first chapter then went on to describe another genius of the small: Walter Benjamin—the inventor of a machine, or, in other words a prose style, that “permits us to detect with absolute precision the unbearable character of certain works and, on this account, however much they might try to hide it, their untransportable character.” For Benjamin was also a connoisseur of the minute: he loved old toys, stamps, photographs on postcards, and “those imitations of reality which are wintry landscapes enclosed in a glass globe where it begins to snow when shaken.” Even Benjamin’s handwriting was almost microscopic, added Vila-Matas, and for a long time he had the ambition, always frustrated, of getting one hundred lines on a single page. So Benjamin was Duchamp’s shadow: “They both knew that to miniaturise is to render portable and that this was the best way of possessing things for a vagabond or an exile.”

But at this point Vila-Matas reversed, and added his second theory of the miniature: “To miniaturise is also to conceal. Duchamp, for instance, always felt drawn to the extremely small, in fact to anything which required deciphering: symbols, manuscripts, monograms. To miniaturise, for him, was in the end a way of rendering something unusable.” In this way, Vila-Matas returned the miniature to Barthes’s problem of the dense, of the enigma. But then, via a quotation from Susan Sontag’s essay on Walter Benjamin—­without mentioning Sontag (for one lesson of the portably miniature, I suppose, is that everyone is equally portable)—he restored the miniature, and therefore densely meaningful, to a state so dense that in fact it meant only what it said on its small surface. In Vila-Matas’s quotation marks: “Something which has been reduced is in a certain sense freed from every meaning. The minuteness of reduced things makes them at the same time a whole and a fragment. Love of the small is an infantile emotion.” Infantile as the gaze of Kafka—added Vila-Matas—who, as we know, hurled himself into a fight to the death for his integration into patriarchal society, a fight in which he would never have consented to succeed except on the condition that he could remain the irresponsible child he was.

 

V.

I was only in the middle of his first chapter, but I stopped reading Vila-Matas. It’s shameful but also true. This mention of Franz Kafka had made me remember one of my favorite fragments from Kafka’s notebooks, his invention of a character in a sequence of two sentences: “He felt it at his temple, as the wall feels the point of the nail that is about to be driven into it. Hence he did not feel it.” This anonymous character feels nothing in the second sentence, because the first sentence has compared him to a wall. So that in the second sentence he has in fact become a wall. The second sentence has made the first sentence impossible. It is its own vicious circle.

And perhaps—to return to my own vicious circle—this was why my fantasy of becoming Monterroso through the medium of a third language wasn’t so fantastical, after all. Or so I was thinking. These small stories were syntactical machines for making experiments in logic—and syntax, perhaps, was universal. You could always make the reader follow the same cul-de-sacs, just with different words.

And so I also remembered how fifty years after Franz Kafka, the Argentinean novelist Julio Cortázar had published a book of miniature stories called Historias de cronopios y de famas. It was 1962. By this time, Cortázar had emigrated permanently to Paris from Buenos Aires. And in the early years of Monterroso’s own exile he could therefore have read this book with its investigations of how easily language can make anything real—even unreality, like the story of how an imaginary being, a Cronopio, is

about to open the door to the street and, putting his hand in his pocket, instead of taking out his keys, he takes out a box of matches, which makes this Cronopio desolate and he begins to fret at the idea that if he finds matches instead of his keys, then maybe the world has been suddenly displaced and it would be horrible to find his wallet full of matches and the sugar bowl full of money and the piano full of sugar and the telephone book full of music and the wardrobe full of commuters and the bed full of suits and the vases full of sheets and the buses full of roses and the gardens full of buses.

And so as he cries and laments, the Cronopio “runs to look at himself in the mirror but since the mirror is slightly tilted, what he sees is the umbrella stand in the hallway and his worst fears are confirmed…” Although maybe, I was thinking, this story offered too practical an explanation for the world’s displacement. Whereas another story by Cortázar, with the bland and accurate title “Story,” was an example of a more terrifying wisdom: in which a “small Cronopio was looking for the key to the street door on the night table, the night table in the bedroom, the bedroom in the house, the house in the street. And there, the Cronopio paused because, to leave, he needed the key to the door.” Somehow, just because of a sentence’s logic, this Cronopio has locked himself inside out of his life.

“The sign of a great short story,” I think Cortázar said once, if I remember it right, is what we might call its autarky—its total self-sufficiency. Or did he mean its autarch—its total despotism? It maybe didn’t matter: because both words or definitions would explain why, say, Monterroso could once write a story, in his first book, that read, in its entirety: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” A miniature story is a dream of self-sufficient megalomania. It has too few elements to allow the presence of the random.

And so my miniature conclusion on the miniature was this. It let you play with the reversals of reality. Which was perhaps one reason why distinctions between the fictional and the essayistic were so irrelevant to the miniature stylist. They are games with transparency. For so many of Monterroso’s stories aren’t really stories at all but essays in surreal meditation. And it was their foreshortened length that made these sequences of sentences hospitable to the invasion of the small by the large, of reality by fantasy. A miniature is a microphone: it allows for the amplification of effects. And an amplified effect—I was beginning to realize—was a new effect entirely. In the enclosed world of small stories, it was possible to play with the usual ideas of proportion, and therefore of time, and therefore of the real. “I look a girl in the eye,” wrote Kafka once, “and it was a very long love story with thunder and kisses and lightning. I live fast.”

And, well, he did.

And it was also, I wanted to conclude, why the language in which these experiments are written might not be important at all. They were so small that they were machines of pure syntax: experiments in the fantastical largeness of miniature things. Yes, in this way I considered the various shortnesses of Monterroso and Twombly and Costa and Webern and Kafka and Cortázar and Duchamp and Benjamin and Vila-Matas. Was it possible to transform myself into someone else’s triangulated words: to become a jukebox of my own devising? For a moment, it did seem possible. In the brief nicotine morning, reading an exiled Guatemalan writer in French, I decided that anyone could become sudamericano. Why couldn’t you put English brand names in Mexican settings? I was beyond the problems of what was his (everything) and what was mine (nothing). London was Mexico City. And I had disappeared. In my place was a miniature Hispanic pianola. 

1. Augusto Monterroso, Mouvement perpétuel, Christine Monot trans. (Passage du Nord/Ouest, 2004).
More Reads
Essays

Send in the Clones

James Pogue
Essays

The Disaster and How Some Escaped

Will Stephenson
Essays

Notes in the Margin (Part III)

Peter Orner
more