Augusto Monterroso is perhaps the least known of that famous generation of Latin American writers which included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes. It is likely that this is entirely a result of his preferred form: the short story. Publishers, already fearful of translated fiction, are unlikely to take a risk with a writer who wrote only one novel, and whose short stories can be very short indeed. (Monterroso’s fame in the English-speaking world rests largely on his authorship of one of the very shortest of short stories: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”) All I was aware of in translation was a one volume edition of his first and third collections (Complete Works (and Other Stories) and Perpetual Motion), until, that is, I happened upon, the fables he wrote in between, translated by R. D. V. Glasgow and Philip Jenkins in 2004.
The Black Sheep and Other Fables is a collection of forty-two fables which average two pages in length – the longest is four pages, some take up less than a page. Many, like the title story, are animal fables, but, of course, their real target is humanity. Here, for example, is ‘The Black Sheep’ in its entirety:
“In a distant country many years ago there existed a Black Sheep.
It was shot.
A century afterwards, the repentant flock raised an equestrian statue to it, which looked very good in the park.
So it came about that thereafter, whenever any black sheep appeared, they were quickly executed so that future generations of ordinary sheep might also be able to practise the art of sculpture.”
There speaks a man who was exiled from Guatemala to Mexico, and later saw the government he did support (and worked as a diplomat for) removed from power by the Americans.
Not all the stories are animal fables, however. Others reference Greek myth (‘Penelope’s Cloth, or Who is Deceiving Whom’, ‘Pygmalion’) or the Bible (‘Samson and the Philistines’, ‘David’s Sling’). The target of some of the best of them is writing itself. The wonderful ‘The Monkey Who Wanted to be a Satirist’ tells of a monkey who mixes with and observes others with the intention of finding raw material for his satire. He is so well-liked, however, that when he attempts to write he cannot find any group he is willing to offend:
“Finally he drew up a complete list of human defects and weaknesses, but failed to find anyone at whom he could aim his broadsides, for they were all to be found in the friends who shared his table or within himself.”
The final story, ‘The Fox is Wiser’, tells of a fox who publishes two exceptionally successful and critically acclaimed books. Years pass and he writes no more, despite the entreaties of those who claim to admire him:
“The Fox never said so, but he thought: ’What these people really want is for me to publish a bad book, but as I am the Fox, I’m not going to.
And he did not.”
This may be a slight collection, easily read in an hour, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found within its pages.