Monterroso’s Laughter

When I write, I am always making a call for
rebellion or revolution, but I do it so subtly
that my readers usually become reactionary.
Augusto Monterroso

“Books have their own luck” is the title of the text that opens the collection La palabra mágica by Augusto Monterroso. The essay, inspired by Terence’s famous phrase, “habent sua fata libelli”, imagines the possible destinies of a book that many times “will prosper or be forgotten, or both, each in its own time”. Authors also have their fate and, in this text, typically autobiographical, Monterroso tries to imagine possible futures for himself and some posterities. Well, today, one hundred years after his birth, Tito arrives right on schedule to his destiny!

He arrives with that slow way of walking and moving, as if he is thanking the air for the kindness of imposing resistance, and he arrives with that deceptively naïve look with which he used to observe us interlocutor, between unpredictably delayed blinks. Tito Monterroso was as pure a soul, and as deeply ethical and incorruptible as few people I have ever known, but at the same time he was brutal, ruthless and ready to sacrifice everything for a literary find. In one of many profiles on Monterroso, María Luisa Blanco notes: “There is no distance between this precise and meticulous man and his refined work”. Insightful observation. The legendary slow tempo we ascribe to Monterroso has its correlate in the exactness of his writing; and his mischievous look finds its counterpart in the heartbreakingly satirical bluntness of his short stories. But if there is a point where this relationship between gesture and work is fully manifested, it is where his sardonic, almost inaudible cackle coincides with his subterranean sarcasm. Subtle yet colossal, like those small earthquakes that, although never felt, wind up little by little leaving the planet out of joint.

If laughter is the response to a frustrated anticipation, in Monterroso’s case, we laugh when we become aware of our tragic flaws, our cultural blind spots, and our metaphysical irrelevance. We laugh despite ourselves and listen to the echoes of his sneaky laughter as he destroys dogmas and unmasks hypocrisies, including his own. Far from the baroque energy of other great Latin American writers of his generation, such as Cabrera Infante or Roa Bastos, Monterroso practiced a style that is closer to the subtle and elliptical flair of a Jonathan Swift or a Thomas De Quincey. Monterroso’s satire is also political, but only insofar as we understand politics in its broadest sense of a commitment to dignity.

Undoubtedly, Monterroso’s commitment transcended the narrow historical moment: he made sarcasm a more effective way of dreaming resistance and revolt. Although he never renounced his civic duty, since the early forties when he fought both clandestinely and in the streets against Ubico’s tyranny in Guatemala, Monterroso always distinguished the aesthetic from the political. Like all great satirists, he asked himself, “how many truths do human beings avoid?”, but like Rulfo or Cortázar, he pursued above all things “the literary truth”. He recognized that “literature is useless for changing the political situation of any country”. That is why his commitment targets our sensibility and is manifested not only in texts of open political intention such as “Mr. Taylor” (allegory of capitalism), or “First Lady” (allegory of Marxism), but also in the sarcastic impulse of those more ambiguous texts such as “El dinosaurio”, “La fe y las montañas” or “La rana que quería ser una rana auténtica”. In short, Monterroso’s fables are demoralizing, not only because they reflect the disappointment that humanity inspired in him, but also because they break the tacit pacts of the genre: you won’t find here neither the happiness of an ending nor the consolation of a moral.

Monterroso liked to say that that phrase, “habent sua fata libelli”, was the only thing that had endured from Terence. He knew it wasn’t true, that in fact Terence’s work had survived and that phrase was a partial quote. But it amused him that a motto about the fate of books could be the only enduring thing about an author whose books will one day be destined for oblivion. The original expression read Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli ―”The fate of books depend on the reader’s capacity”―. Monterroso trusted on the ability of readers and that is why his satire is attenuated (like the virus of vaccines), aimed at producing not a laughter full of tongues, gums and throats but a sad, Quevedian chuckle that reveals the rictus of the jaws and confronts us with the clatter and the macabre dance of our own bones.

As a way of closing to that essay on the fate of books, Monterroso decides to imagine the laurels of a promising destiny, and addressing that imaginary writer who happens to be himself, he anticipates:

School children will go on the day of your anniversary to the street that bears your name, and the minister will make a speech, fifteen hundred years away, and you will be able to see from wherever you are those strange beings saying words in a language you no longer understand, and at a given moment the minister will raise his eyes and his arm and will wave a paper in his hand as if greeting you and as if saying don’t worry about your message, we are with you and we love you very much, while the children will also look up and will put their hands to their eyes, covering them, you won’t know whether from the sun or from your own radiance.

Monterroso laughs at these ministers, of course, but also at himself, and at the wives of the deputies who stroll along the flowery sidewalks, and at the soldiers promoted to generals, and at the North American professors, and at the conquistadors, and at the journalists, and at the monks lost in the Mayan jungle, and at the distinguished poets, and at writers like us who feel like a Balzac celebrating Augusto Monterroso today with our little speeches so well polished and with such nice adjectives that will undoubtedly grant us a bit of glory or at least a little novel published by Alfaguara. Monterroso’s satire offends because of its freedom and cuts to the core because of its authenticity… and that is why we love him so much and why he continues to dazzle us with his writing.

Translation from Spanish by Sergio Vitier.

Pablo Baler (b. Buenos Aires, 1967) is a novelist, critic and professor of Latin American literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of the novels Circa (Galerna, 1999), Chabrancán (Ediciones del Camino, 2020), and Los sentidos de la distorsión (Rialta, 2022) as well as the essay Latin-American Neo-Baroque: Senses of Distortion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Baler has edited the international anthology The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013). His short story collection La burocracia mandarina was published by Lumme Ed., São Paulo, Brazil (2013, Portuguese translation, 2017). A graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, Baler is also an International Research Fellow of the Centre for Fine Art Research at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom.


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