Augusto Monterroso, master of parody

100 years ago, on December 21, 1921, he was born Augusto Monterroso in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Nationalized Guatemalan, he went into exile in Mexico in 1956, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here he wrote all of his work, made up of short texts imbued with immense depth. The writer John Villoroa disciple of Tito Monterroso, and the academic of the KU Leuven University, in Belgium, An Van Heckeremember this giant of letters, “one of the most humorous authors of Latin American literature, an author who uses satire, parody, irony, to face a sad and complicated world,” says the researcher.

Juan Villoro, who attended the story workshop given by Tito in the Capilla Alfonsina, remembers: “When we all kept quiet, Monterroso said: ‘How nice it is to be happy.’ He was a man who lived in a state of fulfillment. He did not regret not being more fruitful, he mocked himself as a poor author and assumed life as an extraordinary magic. Of course he lived through difficult circumstances: political repression —he was arrested for his political convictions—, he suffered exile. He first went to Chile where he met Pablo Neruda and then came to Mexico. He was a person who faced the chiaroscuros of life, but in him we find this bonhomie of the sage that we see in the great philosophers —Socrates, Montaigne— or in writers like Cervantes who have the mettle to endure adversity with a great sense of humor. Monterroso had that, he was a wise man”.

“The issue of exile is complicated,” says Van Hecke, “he was skeptical about all this about national identity, passports, borders. He had conflicts with the concept of exile. I prefer to see him as a pilgrim, a traveler, someone in constant movement. He was restless, always traveling, like the fly”. Juan Villoro adds: “Not for nothing did he write a book called perpetual motion where he tried to show that life is made of a dance of ideas. Life has to do with poetry because we feel many things; with the essay because we think about many things; with the novel because we have many stories, but the poem is something else, a perpetual movement”.

reading for pleasure

Monterroso is placed as an author of stories, although he approached various genres. “He didn’t want to repeat himself,” says Van Hecke, “if he published stories, the next book was fables, then essays, an autobiography, a novel that isn’t a novel, a book of drawings. The dinosaur, for example, has been labeled a story because it is in a storybook; as a fable, because there is an animal; as an antitale, because it is not a story. It was even taken for a poem and Monterroso himself said it was a novel, that he just took a pair of scissors and cut off the beginning and the end”. Juan Villoro points out that “Italo Calvino considered it the best example of brevity in literature. It is a text of seven words: ‘When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there’. In essence, what Monterroso gives us is the surprise ending of a story that does not exist. The reader has to imagine what happened before. It is a great example of brevity, but that brevity lasts a long time. Monterroso’s texts are short, however, they make us think again and again”.

“Dialoguing with Monterroso is like dialoguing with many other authors —says Van Hecke—, for him literature is made with literature. There is hardly a sentence or paragraph without an implicit or explicit reference to another author, but he does not consider them influences or models, but accomplices, guides. I have done some studies on intertextuality with Mexican, Guatemalan or classic authors: Heraclitus, Zenon, Kafka, Cervantes, but it is a minimal portion of the Monterrosian universe. It is said that Monterroso’s literature is like a labyrinth, a jungle or a garden. I like the image of the journey because it reflects movement, literature as a journey”.

Juan Villoro points out that “Monterroso prided himself on being self-taught and never having read a book out of obligation. He exercised a hedonic reading, totally pleasurable. At the same time, he said that people are more important than books and that our stories should be made of people, not books. He made us aware that reading is a form of happiness, you exercise it when you can and when you can’t, you dedicate yourself to something else. He was a wise man, he never pretended to be something he wasn’t, he never wanted to become a character.”

Among the authors closest to Monterroso, An Van Hecke mentions Kafka. He did a study on the dreaming cockroach, a very short fable where the presence of Gregorio Samsa is inferred. There is a trial The metamorphosis of Gregor Mendel and a drawing where a character appears sitting in his chair. It’s probably Gregorio Samsa. Metamorphosis is a fundamental theme in Monterroso, Ovid was one of his references. On the other hand, there is Don Quixote, undoubtedly one of the most important hypotexts in his work. He is interested in studying critical editions. He becomes obsessed with the study of the notes, everything that is on the sidelines attracts him even more than the text. In an interview he said that he had a copy of Don Quixote in every room of his house so that he could constantly read it and memorize fragments. It was as if Don Quixote lived with him and his wife, Barbara Jacobs, as if he were part of the family. We also see the impact of Cervantes and this is reflected in the sadness, the melancholy. Tito refers a lot to the poor Cervantes and sees in Don Quixote the antihero, the figure of failure”.

“Like all great writers —says Villoro—, he renewed the classics. He wrote fables after Aesop and Lafontaine. He was an author who suddenly wrote something down on a piece of paper and if he lost it he didn’t care much. From these lost papers he established a scattered strategy to integrate some books. He wrote autobiographical books like the gold diggersa diary like The letter Ewhere he wrote down his experiences, his readings. the rest is silence, a fragmentary novel and so on. He concluded a fairly extensive work from all these fragments that were creating a very eloquent fabric and where he always asked for the reader’s complicity, because the fragmentary writing has to be connected by the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the page ” . Van Hecke adds: “The reader has to fill in the gaps, as an accomplice that he can keep inventing and creating.”

“Like all great writers, Augusto Monterroso renewed the classics.”

John Villoro

humor and animals

Monterroso was a master of parody, caricature, double meaning, and he found in the commonplace a reason to write literature. Juan Villoro describes him as “a moralist in the best sense of the word. He wanted to illustrate the human race and reflected it through the customs of animals. In the black sheep as in other fables, rather than criticizing human habits, he exhibits them. In this sense, he was a moralist with empathy for the shortcomings or limitations of human beings and, at the same time, exerted an irony on himself, which is one of the main tasks of an ironic author. This gaze, critical but comprehensive at the same time, determined both his fables and the other texts he wrote. One of his fundamental attributes was his sense of humor and what it reveals to us is that we are laughable creatures. We can have sublime thoughts, but we also have a cramp and that makes us strange, questionable, fragile people. Monterroso knew how to capture this double dimension of the human being, the person who apparently has great ideas and yet is vulnerable. That is where he operates that double facet, investigating the moral condition of human beings and, at the same time, exercising a sense of humor. It’s about humor revealing something you didn’t know, activating your intellect and if that also makes you laugh, then what better“.

In Tito’s fables the fly plays a preponderant role. An Van Hecke devotes a whole chapter to the study of “this insignificant animal that he turns into a literary symbol. We see it in the epigraphs of perpetual motion. He explains that his intention was to create an anthology of the fly but he never succeeded, so he goes on a journey through world literature guided by all those flies. It is magnificent because in fables there are rabbits, lions, turtles, but never a fly, however, Monterroso includes it in his fauna. He also has this concept of fly phrases, phrases that say nothing, a fly phrase is chaotic. He always has these dilemmas, these paradoxes, chaos and order, he is an author in constant search”.

“Great writers reinvent reality,” says Villoro. “Monterroso, for example, said that literature had essential themes such as love, death and flies. He said that flies are eternal, they are with us all the time, so based on the theme of the fly, he reinvents reality. I believe that the great authors reveal to us that there is nothing as magical, as unique as the everyday and that was one of Tito’s virtues, although in some of his texts, for example in the black sheep, is not talking about our daily life, but about another, that of animals, which curiously is very similar to ours. His literature is full of paradoxes, for example, he has a fable where he talks about what it means to go to heaven and says: ‘Heaven is a very nice place, there are good friends, there are drinks, very attractive things, but the big problem going to heaven is that you can’t see heaven from there’. It is something that leaves you thinking and forces you to interpret”.

“Reading Monterroso —says Van Hecke— is a life lesson. He is almost a philosopher, he opens up a world for you, he makes you reflect”. For Villoro, “going back to Monterroso is discovering different aspects of the author, but above all of ourselves. In the fables of the black sheep one goes recognizing their relatives. Some aren’t there yet, but give them a little while and they’ll all end up being characters from the black sheep”.


Augusto Monterroso, master of parody