You are on page 1of 3

THE

STORYTELLER

Carlos Fuentes

T h e novel is an ocean liner. T h e short story, a sailboat hugging the


coast. A n O l y m p i c team is required to write a novel. Singular as he or
she may seem, the novelist is a team of painters, city planners, gossip
columnists, fashion experts, architects and set designers; a justice of the
peace, a real estate agent, midwife, undertaker; a w i t c h and a high priest,
all i n one.
T h e short-story writer on the contrary is a lonely navigator. W h y this
fidelity to solitude? W h y this need to be i n sight of the coast? Perhaps
because the storytellers know that i f they do n o t tell the tale this very
night, near the shore, w i t h no time to cross the ocean, there might be n o
tomorrow. Every storyteller is a child of Scheherazade, i n a hurry to tell
the tale so that death may be postponed one more time.
As i n the A r a b i a n nights, urgency and brevity embrace i n the short
story. But brevity does not exclude depth or impose certifiable measures.
T h e short story is n o t a pigmy novel. It is an object w i t h its o w n totality,
integrity and beauty. I t has its own epiphany, but not the revelation to
be found i n the exceptional instants of Proust or Joyce. T h e short story
has to reveal its beauty, its meaning, its intensity, almost instantaneously; visible, as Sean O T a o l a i n says, like a child's kite i n the sky, "a
small wonder, a brief, bright moment."
Yet the response to the short story as a postponement of death can be
as varied as Gogol's, from whose humble Overcoat's pockets came the
m i l l i o n and one pages of the Russian novel; as Poe's, for w h o m the preconceived "effect" or "design" was the principle of composition, or

THE

STORYTELLER

THE

STORYTELLER

xi

Chekhov's, for w h o m a short story was a rush of satelUte figures rapidly

But as writers, our c o n t r i b u t i o n to society lies less i n p o l i t i c a l action or

displaced by the one central character, the "sun" of t h e story.

thematic "correctness" t h a n i n the two social needs t h a t a writer is best

T h e L a t i n A m e r i c a n short story is not alien to any of these preoccu-

prepared to fulfil: language and imagination. Deprive a society of its

pations. A l l of the major currents of the L a t i n A m e r i c a n novel have

words or its memory, of its speech or its desires, and you are easy prey to

been reflected or even forecast i n its short stories. Cosmopolitanism, sur-

false illusions, providential leaderships and other traditional ills of the

realism, naturalism, regionalism, the Indian, peasant and urban worlds,

L a t i n A m e r i c a n polity.

have all made their appearance i n our short stories. Yet these are n o t

W h i c h is one of the reasons why writing and publishing and reading

hermetically sealed-off styles. Each one is constantly i n v a d i n g the other.

literature are so important i n a world such as L a t i n America. I n the

One of the sires of the m o d e m L a t i n A m e r i c a n short story, the

midst of our turmoils we yearn for the epiphany, Joyce's sudden spiritual

Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), sets his tales i n the jungle

manifestation b o m f r o m the most ordinary of speeches and gestures; we

territories of Misiones, but his characters fall prey less to an overwhelm-

must d u n k our madeleine i n tea. But whereas i n Joyce or Proust the

ing, inhuman nature, as i n the realistic novels of the C o l o m b i a n Jose

e p i p h a n y t h e fugitive moment of authentic

Eustasio Rivera (1889-1928) or the Venezuelan

R o m u l o Gallegos

suddenly and exceptionally, immersed, as i t were, i n a vast ocean of nar-

(1884-1969), but more to quite recognizable m o d e m and urban ail-

r a t i o n , i n the short story the epiphany must coincide w i t h the very time

self-knowledgeappears

ments: fear, derangement, alienation, loneliness, suicide . . . Conversely,

o f the tale; i t must be simultaneous, i n other words, w i t h the tale itself.

a city-writer such as the A r g e n t i n i a n Roberto A r l t (1900-1942) con-

T h e M e x i c a n Juan Rulfo, the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or

vincingly depicts Buenos Aires as a savage jungle where people are as

the Brazilian Clarice Lispector perfectly exemplify this coincidence of

senselessly cruel as a boa, a panther or a piranha.

the epiphany, the exceptional spiritual or anecedotal moment, that

T h e new L a t i n American society, present i n the Vintage anthology as

occurs alongside the story itself.

a dying or nascent, yet always actual, community, continues as i t can not

Yet whatever the stress we wish to put on a L a t i n Americanor, for

fail to do (even when breaking w i t h them) these opposing yet comple-

t h a t matter. N o r t h American, European, Asian or Asiaticshort story

mentary traditions of our past fictions. A n d w i t h good reason: the for-

as i t addresses society or the soul, both the community and the i n d i v i d -

mer separation between t o w n and village, city mouse and country

ual's tales require a form, a valid aesthetic approach, a fidelity to the tra-

mouse, has been quickly deteriorating as the majority of L a t i n A m e r i -

d i t i o n f r o m w h i c h the story springs and to w h i c h i t contributes, a vessel

cans now live i n large metropolitan areas. Rio de Janeiro, M e x i c o City,

so that its shape can b o t h contain itself and sail forth, hugging the shore

Lima, Caracas, or Bogota are sprawling capitals receiving thousands of

and postponing the Caliph's sentence of death.

peasants each day, t o r n f r o m their villages by c i v i l war, terrorism,

T h e responses to the short story as a postponement of death can,

hunger, fallow lands or brittle illusions about c i t y life. T h e y end up, very

indeed, be as varied as Gogol's, Poe's or Chekhov's. But w h e n i t comes to

often, l i v i n g i n garbage dumps, sewers, or the gigantic shanty-towns

L a t i n America, I like to keep i n m i n d the lessons of two great masters,

k n o w n as favelas i n Brazil, cayampas i n C h i l e , ranchos i n Venezuela, or,

the Argentineans Julio Cortazar and Jorge Luis Borges.

literally, lost cities, dudades perdidas, i n M e x i c o .

Cortazar translated the complete works of Poe i n t o Spanish and was

T h e sheer weight of social problems and quickened change i n L a t i n

keenly aware of the American's mandate for immediate effect i n the

America have effected and w i l l affect our w r i t i n g , but w i l l not absolve us

tale. Cortazar excelled i n giving his stories a sense of immediate sensa-

from the demand of shaping, giving form, giving speech and imagina-

t i o n . T h e visitor to an aquarium discovers his own face i n that of an

t i o n , to our societies. T h e p o l i t i c a l urge manifest i n many L a t i n A m e r i -

axolotl, the swimming dark salamander i n a perpetual larval state but

can writers is explainable: we are citizens and legitimately act as such.

w i t h an eerily h u m a n face. A n Aztec being sacrificed o n a pyramid

THE STORYT

xii

EUER

THE

STORYTELLER

xiii

man

behaviour to admit new desires, new demands of both the individual and

being operated o n dreams t h a t he is b e i n g sacrificed o n top of a pyr=amid.

the collective being. They see human beings as b o t h transparent and enig-

dreams that he is being operated o n i n a m o d e m hospital where a

matic. They make each one of us^because of our fears, because of our

A house is taken over, i n c h by i n c h , by i n v i s i b l e forces.


I n Cortazar, the stories are discrete u n i t s , closed i n o n t h e m s e l v e s .

violence, because of our love, because of our

Borges, o n the contrary, conceives stories that open i n t o o t h e r sto-

unique beings. T h a t is also why so much of our literature is angry. Also,

ries, creating interrelated narrative constellations. His whole workL_ is, as

deathindispensable,

why it is tender and mercifiil.

he t i t l e d an emblematic story, "a garden o f f o r k i n g paths". His literrature

Yet, tender, angry or merciful, "realistic" or "fantastic", at the end o f

is made of great themes t h a t disguise one another, like the m y t r h i c a l

each story a question must hang over i t , a perfume must linger, permit-

cities of " T l o n , Uqbar and Orbis Tertius", h i d d e n b e h i n d the screens of

ting the story to be complete, but to remain open. A f t e r all, if a story is a

time, sustained by memory and created o n l y by language. T h e stCDty of

declaration against death, its author is n o t h i n g but a perpetual convales-

"Pierre Menard, the A u t h o r of D o n Q u i x o t e " , is the greatest examp-^le we

cent.

have of this art of p r o l o n g i n g t h r o u g h concealment.


Menard, a m i n o r notary i n the F r e n c h provinces, decides to r e w r i t e
Cervantes's novel. But a l l he does is copy i t , w o r d for word. Yet the

work

is new because, i n r e w r i t i n g D o n Quixote,

read

M e n a r d has taught us t o

Don Quixote i n a new way, w i t h e v e r y t h i n g t h a t happened b e t w e e n the


publication of the n o v e l i n 1605 and the present-day reading creat ing a
w h o l l y new context for the narrative. Borges reveals, t h r o u g h this t e c h nique, that the past has its o w n n o v e l t y a n d t h a t the next reader o P D o n
Quixote w i l l also be its newest reader.
Granted the formal and thematic variety o f the short-story w r i t e r s i n
this volume, I t h i n k i t is difficult to w r i t e i n this genre i n L a t i n A m - e r i c a
w i t h o u t remembering Borges and Cortazar. O n e writes, like Cortrazar,
discretely, each story a self-contained u n i t y , or indiscretely, each s t o r y
harking back and f o r t h to other tales, t o l d or u n t o l d . But w h e t h e r - you
belong to the family of Cortazar or t o t h a t of Borges y o u are, at the s a m e
time, expected to construct your stories i n one of t w o ways: i n eithner a
"realistic" or a "fantastic" mode. I , for one, have always tried to a. void
this stark choice by recalling the lesson o f Balzac and particularly

The

Wild Ass's Skin. T h e novelist w h o wished to be the public n o t a r r y of


French social classes " c a n i e d a w h o l e society" i n his head, but also carried ghosts, myths, fears, unexplainable occunences and a w i l d ass's skin
that fulfils your desires but shrinks every t i m e i t gives, u n t i l , at the

end,

it takes life from the hapless owner and disappears.


A l l stories have, explicitly or implicitly, a fantastic dimension. T h e - y try
to recapture, or reveal, or anticipate, time. T h e y finally borrow, as W a l t e r
Benjamin said, their authority from death. T h e y broaden the field of scocial

November 1998