Literatura en México

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Cinco Décadas de Cuento Mexicano. Antología. Perea, Pitman, Taylor, Tedeschi, Valenzuela

Experimentation in Contemporary Mexican Short Story

Lauro Zavala

The concept of "experimental" literature is problematic. Hidden behind the term exists the notion of temporariness. Notwithstanding it, the poem in prose and the surrealist writing are far from having being temporary.

In order to acknowledge the experimental it is necessary to acknowledge the conventional, in thematics as well as in the techniques of writing. Therefore, in what follows I am going to use partially historical and partially generic criteria.

The proposal for analysis that I want to pose in this notes is this: in the evolution of the Mexican short story there was an important rupture between the themes and techniques domineering in the short story during the decades of 1950 and 1960 (characterized by tragedy and melodrama) and the short story of the decades of 1970 and 1980 (characterized by comedy and irony), and the moment of this transition was between 1967 and 1971.

The Mexican short story of 1950s and 1960s was, in general terms, an expression of existencial angst, despair, boredom, loneliness, and introspective isolation, and its narrative technique was realism.

The paradigmatic writers during this period were Juan García Ponce, José de la Colina, Juan Vicente Melo, Inés Arredondo and Elena Garro.

As a corollary to this practice of writing it should be mentioned that the short story was then understood as a minor genre, and as a preparation for writing a novel. Maybe this is the reason why all these short stories had a tendency to be longer than ten pages (about 5000 words or more), very often seeming to be competing with the short novel.

In a notorious contrast with this, the Mexican short story during the last 20 years could be characterized as experimenting with the conventions of language, and also as parodical, ironical, humoristic, and treating the collective daily life in a journalistic manner.

The short story is now a practice of writing as experimental in its diversity as it is poetry, but with more readers than the novel. This is so because of two evident reasons: its shortness (rarely goes beyond 5 pages or 2500 words) and its (thematic and technical) mimetism with journalistic writing and with other forms of everyday common language, such as letters, word games, and aphorisms.

The most important antecedents of this forms of writing in the contemporary Mexican short story were in short story writers as diverse among themselves as Efrén Hernández and Julio Torri (during the first half of the century), Juan Rulfo and Juan José Arreola (in the 1950s), and Salvador Elizondo and Augusto Monterroso (in the 1960s). At this point it is convenient to stop for a moment to observe the mentioned writers of the 1950s and 1960s, because they are, by force, the most immediate antecedent of the contemporary Mexican short story.

In the short stories by Juan Rulfo (El llano en llamas, 1954) the narrative transculturation means the extrapolation of the mythic syntax of the rural world to the language of the urban readers, and thereby the experimental employment of narrative time reaches allegorical resonances.

Juan José Arreola (Confabulario, 1952; Bestiario, 1959) is the creator of a densely intertextual writing, where the surprise ending, paradoxically, is foreshadowed in a veiled way since the very first lines. This is why this typical resource of the classical short story (the surprise ending) becomes irrelevant when cofronted to the rhythm and expressive strenght of the language.

Salvador Elizondo (El grafógrafo, 1967) is an author of self-sufficient, self-referential writing, able to create his own parameters, in which what is being told is of minor importance before the exibition of the technical resources used for invoking precise images.

Augusto Monterroso (in La oveja negra y demás fábulasThe Black Sheep and Other Fables, 1969), parodies a most traditional narrative genre, far away from the literary short story, used to create complicities with the reader (the fable). His writing is inscribed in the literary tradition (of which Julio Torri is a fine example) in which the most is told by means of what is not said. The shorter the text is, the more complex it becomes.

In retrospective, the importance of La oveja negra y demás fábulas (recently translated into Latin as Ovis nigra atque caeterae fabulae, 1988) could be acknowledged by observing that it is the most important work during the transitional period between 1967 and 1971, that is, the period when it is published a group of short story books that establish a rupture with the tone that was domineering during the past 50 years.

Also it should be noticed that this is the period during which the killing of students in 1968 generated a collective response of the civil society whose consequences are still being evoked as a liminal moment of the recent history and cultural development of Mexico.

In 1967 it was published La ley de Herodes by Jorge Ibargüengoitia (a series of ironical short stories); 1968 was the year of Inventando que sueño by José Agustín (it includes the important and funny short story "¿Cuál es la onda?", already translated into English with a special glossary of the "onda" language); in 1969 it's published Hacia el fin del mundo by René Avilés Fabila (which includes experimental short stories where the author mixes fantasy, politics, and humor); also in 1969 (the year of The Black Sheep...) it is publishedInfundios ejemplares by Sergio Golwarz (paradoxic exercises of growing shortness); in 1971 it is publishedÁlbum de familia by Rosario Castellanos (where it is included the short-story/essay "Lección de cocina", a historical feminist example of grotesque humour), and also in that year it is published El principio del placer by José Emilio Pacheco, which contains the splendid short story "La fiesta brava".

This short story deserves a special mention in this recount because it is perhaps the only example of historiographic metafiction in the Mexican short story, while the most well known Hispanic American novels of the 1960s and 1970s were developing this trend, which has being characteristic of European and North American postmodern novel. Historiographic metafiction, it should be said, is a way to direct an ironical glance at collective history and simultaneously an ironical glance at the process of literary creation, by which every construction of sense is relativized.

In all the mentioned writers of this transitional period it can be observed an interest to play with the conventions of the inherited literary language, and of the perception of social reality. Thereby, there is an exhibition of the ridicule and grotesque of these conventions, especially by means of a deliberate usage of humour, parody and irony.

During the 1970s, it seems that experimentation was more evident in the novel and poetry than in the short story, as it can be seen in the novels by Fernando del Paso, José Emilio Pacheco, Carlos Fuentes, Sergio Fernández, Héctor Manjarrez, Daniel Leyva and Gustavo Sáinz.

Leaving aside the distinction between classical short story (with a single and surprising ending) and modern short story (with an open, imminent ending, differred to another short story in a series, or foreshadowed inside the narration), the following formal elements of the new short story arisen in the 1980s could be pointed out:

a) ludic tone: estrangement from the daily life by means of the employment of fantasy, humor, absurd and the games of language;

b) extreme shortness: tendency to an almost journalistic and aphoristic writing, with an extension that goes from three pages to three lines, and

c) experimentation with the genre boundaries of the traditional short story, be it in relation to other forms of writing (intergeneric experimentation) or in the interior of the narration (intrageneric experimentation).

During the 1980s the experimentation in the Mexican short story could be exemplified by the work of the following writers, chosen almost hazaphardly:

Alejandro Rossi, with his narrative reflexions in Manual del distraído (A Manual for the Absent-Minded) (FCE, 1979);

Hugo Hiriart with his parody of philosophical treatises in Disertaci¢n de las telarañas (Dissertation About the Spiderwebs) (FCE, 1980);

Bárbara Jacobs in her essayistic short stories written as weekly letters addressed to the Books Section in Time magazine, in Escrito en el tiempo (Written in Time) (Era, 1985);

Martha Cerda in her paradoxical vignettes of daily life in La señora Rodríguez y otros mundos (Mistress Rodríguez and Other Worlds) (JM, 1989);

Manuel Mejía Valera with his poems in prose written as children games of word guessing in Adivinanzas(Riddles) (UNAM, 1988);

Alain Derbez, author of short stories written as musical criticism, or viceversa, in Los usos de la radio (The Uses of Radio) (JM, 1988);

Óscar de la Borbolla, author of the imaginary chronicles of Ucronías (JM, 1990), and author of the five short stories written each with words that contain only the chosen vowel, in Las vocales malditas (The Damned Vowels) (JM, 1992);

Francisco Hinojosa, author of a famous mystery novel of 100 chapters in a few pages, in Informe negro (Black Inform) (FCE, 1987);

Fabio Morábito, author of the detailed psychological descriptions of everyday objects in Caja de herramientas(Tool Bag) (FCE, 1989), and creator of the surprising worlds of La lenta furia (Slow Fury) (Vuelta, 1989).

Also during the latest years it's been published some books in which it's being offered different kinds of very short materials, such as poems, aphorisms, sudden fictions, dialogues, vignettes and other prose texts difficult to be classified: Birlibirloque (FCE, 19897) by Carmen Leñero; La estrella imbécil (FCE, 1989) by Jaime Moreno Villarreal; Vida del orate (JM, 1989) by Roberto Bravo; Cuaderno imaginario (Diana, 1990) by Guillermo Samperio; La felicidad y otras complicaciones (UNAM, 1988) by Hernán Lavín Cerda, and La sangre de Medusa y otros cuentos marginales (Era, 1990) by José Emilio Pacheco. In all of them there are original proposals of writing, which might point out the tone of experimentation for the following decade.

I will stop at commenting a few of these and other short story writers to show in detail what seems to be at stake in their writing.

Alejandro Rossi is perhaps the best representative of the new Mexican short story, precisely because of the difficulty to be thought of as a short story writer in the most traditional way. He was born in Italy in 1932, but he's been living in Mexico since many years ago, where he's written most of his literary ouvre. His Manual del distraído (A Manual for the Absent-Minded) (1979-1986) gathers radically personal stories, surprises, minutiae, remainders, and protests, that is, stories of his family history told as to show their irrelevance; surprises described with the pride of a resigned collector; everyday minutiae observed with sarcasm by artists and writers; remainders of more systematic researches on philosophy and language; protests for the anachronic nature of certain terms or for the excess of certain explanations. Some of these texts undecidedly oscillate between epistemology and anecdote ("Por varias razones"), or between a short story and the disquisition about the process of writing a short story ("Un preceptor", "Sin sujeto").

The author pulls the reader's leg at the very moment of making explicit his deceit, because this extreme honesty keeps us unarmed. His confessions of sudden disqualification of himself at the end of a complex dissertation are a gesture of supreme arrogance, that of someone who simulates his doubts in a rhetorics that betrays its scholastic origins and is amused with its own lack of obviousness.

Reading Rossi means taking the risk to be installed in a rarefied world, where everything is seen from a strangely distant perspective, with the slight astonishment that makes an irrepeatable experience out of just crossing the street or visiting the dentist. Every book by Rossi is, as says one of his characters referring to something else, "an accumulative, disorganized book which nevertheless leaves an uncomfortable sensation of immensity".

Hugo Hiriart (1942) in Disertación sobre las telarañas y otros escritos (Dissertation About the Spiderweb and Other Writings, 1980) has cristalized a hardly repeatable genre, halfway between the essay, the poem in prose, the historiographic erudition, and the mythological tale. His formula for writing, like that of an alchemist, consists of giving more or less weight to each one of these ingredients, and therefore playfully hovering over things and animals, philosophers and madmen, crafts and the perceptions of the immediate world. How could it be defined a writing in which the archaeology of kites is as important as the amphibology of jelly, a taxonomy of instructives, or the usefulness of gardens?

These texts subdue the proximate and contingent to an examination which is at once rigurous and surprising. Because of this examination the trivial becomes subjected to suffer the metamorphosis of a permanently inquisitive writing, which disserts with the only end of wondering us for an instant before what we consider as natural (be it the skeleton of a frog or the texture of a hank), or as our historical heritage (be it the prose of Stevenson or the imagination of Plinius the Old). In these texts, the author looks for the sense of an epics, which is no other than the search for an aesthetics. For that he chooses the extremes: the closest or the oldest, the most recondite or the most excentric. And he treats all of that with the same elegance of a watchmaker who works with mechanisms whose only end is to produce the pleasure of minuteness.

It is enough to stop at any of these texts to see how this complex literary mechanism works. One of its most round works is precisely "About the Egg". In this dissertation the author arrives at interesting conclusions of metaphysical nature (the hen exists before the egg because of the anteriority of the act over the potency), of geometric nature (the egg as equilibrium of the free fall freezed in a shell), of psychological nature (the egg as an objectified waiting, "the Godot of beings"), and of semantic nature (the egg between onomatopoeia and doubt).

In the gratuitiousness of this collection of 36 dissertation-stories there is a will to parodize the best virtues of erudition.

Lazlo Moussong (1936) collects in Castillos en la letra (Castles in the Letter, 1986) 32 games of very different nature: parodies of vampire tales, apocriphal sequels to the sufi parables, an experimental story after Carrol's Jabberwocky, and visionary fables of urban development.

In this book coexist with all naturality the dialogue between the narrator and a police torturer (regarding the vitality of urban language), and a letter of love separation, influenced by the bureaucratic jargon of "projects, plans, programs, systems, implementations, and instrumentations".

In the middle of these seeming jokes, the author reveals, in "Three Women in My Life", how he perceives his two lovers and his wife, which happen to be Montreal (young, beautiful, and sensitive), New York (seductive and unable to love), and Mexico (unruly, improvised, and clever). In this intimate emotional recount, the author shows what it means the love for the cities, and discovers that "loving a human being is living it as a tourist".

This is a book of boutades and confessions, closer to Mula Nasrudin than to the pataphysics of Jarry, in which laughter looks for illumination.

Manuel Mejía Valera, in Adivinanzas (Riddles, 1988), offers a series of vignettes that are a linguistically sophisticated parody of the children's game to define a word (a concept, a myth, a letter) by means of an enumeration of its effects, its syllabes, its equivalencies, its attributes, its behaviours, its exorcisms: "Opens the doors of the remote and, rich in illuminations, with its clear waves irrigates untied words" ("The Holymary").

The accumulative effect and the original reformulation provoke surprise, even though we violate the initial rule and we decide to read the answer beforehand. "Companies for women in their absent-minded steps and bad steps, our being starts in a point and in a point will end" ("The stockings").

Its relative gratuitiousness is justified, as in every game, by provoking diversion, arriving also to the unmistakable assertiveness of the epigram. "It devours the heat of the declining day, that kind of bad suspense between love and desire" ("The dragon").

Assuming here for a moment the doctoral tone (which nevertheless expects to be read between the lines), it could be said that every page of Adivinanzas shares the essential elements of the best short story, that is, alteration of the sequential structure (the title becomes the answer); aleatoriousness of the main character (substituted by its traces); tendency to metaphorization (in the form of enigmatic enumeration), and a tendency to allusion (clues converted in narrative). "I disordered the universe. I abolished sterile harvests by the shadow of the apples, with just a chip of dust" ("The woman").

Even though it has pedagogical roots, this collection of instant mythologies constitute a natural history of paradox, with the ambiguity of the poem in prose and the neatness of the aphorism. "Drunken wine that hurries the licentious redemption of man" ("The poetry").

Guillermo Samperio (1948) is the author of ten books of short stories, in which he combines erotism, humor, and politics, elements common to many other young writers. In his first books it can be observed the influence of the massacre of 1968, the fantastic imagination of Julio Cortázar, and rock music. His prose is always colloquial, almost always as a friendly conversation. Some of his most popular texts are allegorical vignettes with a fantastic element, such as "Free Time" (a man becomes a newspaper, and it's raised by his wife in the morning), or "Miss Green" ("The green woman saw a charming dragon. The violet man saw a cascade of fishes (...). Later on, they closed the door").

In some of his texts he is also able to touch the fibers of the poem in prose (in "Something about the color" he writes: "The lines where a pigment merges with another are like paper blades. And on its edges we love").

In one of his latest books, Gente de la ciudad (People from the City, 1986), the author has collected 45 urban images, verbal pictures that every inhabitant of Mexico City will recognize as part of a collective and most affectionate experience.

This common portrait, like impressions in a ritual of observation, includes the description of objects of the architectonic ambience that have their own personality, and also instantaneous encounters, itineraries of urban erotism, dream images provoked by the earthquake and a gallery of familiar characters that get their right definition as legends of our contemporaneity, such as the Silent Woman of Midday (illuminating the narrow sidewalk), the Man of the Shadows (resigned office man adrift), the Mujer Mamazota (seemingly in extinction), and the misterious Man of the Keys, incrusted in the deepest places of bureacracy.

With this collection of urban vignettes the love for the city merges with the obsessions of a permanent searcher of change, who shows this way his best virtues as a narrator: economy, ingenuity, and a capacity to create atmosphers by means of the definition of his characters.

Juan Villoro (1956) is author of three collections of short stories. In 1986 he published Tiempo transcurrido, with the subtitle Crónicas imaginarias. The idea was, says the author, "to imagine histories derived from real happenings and a group of rock songs", with a story for every year between 1968 and 1985. Even though these bracket years point out the most important dates in the recent history of Mexico (the Tlatelolco killing of students and the Mexico City earthquake), these stories don't intend to be a chronicle of these years. The result is a light book with characters whose adventures show the effects of rock music in a whole generation. Among these stories it is to be noticed precisely that of the girl rock singer (whose name, Madonna de Guadalupe, is after the Mexican much honored Guadalupe Virgin), who offered concerts in front of the Basilica, and in whose climax the musicians caressed her on top of the scenery, while she threw to the public multi-colored wafers.

The humour of Villoro is, because of his nearness with his characters, a form of self-criticism, and it belongs in the search for a shared identity, which is, in itself, a generational attitude.

In order to understand better the current situation of the short story in Mexico, it could be useful to look at the polemics about its nature during the last 40 years. In the 1950s there was a polemics invented by some critics between the new telluric short story (exemplified by Juan Rulfo) and the artisanal short story (exemplified by Juan José Arreola). In the second half of the 1960s there was a rupture between the realist, intimist, and tragic short story (represented by the canonical Revista Mexicana de Literatura), and the humoristic, parodic and irreverent short story (represented by José Agustín). In the 1970s and 1980s the boundaries are not so neatly defined; the polemics of other decades are irrelevant, and in many cases the tendencies formerly excluded now coexist in the same short story. Even some of the short story writers who use the most traditional techniques in their writing are extraordinarily acute and original in their vision of reality, and they could also be considered as experimental (Humberto Guzmán, Luis Arturo Ramos, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite).

In the latest years, even though there is an acute publishing crisis in Mexico, it's being published more than 50 titles of books of short stories every year, and maybe that shows the vitality of a genre that, more difficult than the novel and as experimental as the poetry, is perhaps the best indicator of the imaginative capacity of our literary language.

Any which way the new writers decide to go, considering their work as experimental will depend, every time with more certainty, on the glasses we wear for reading them.


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Zavala, Lauro: "Humor e ironía en el cuento mexicano contemporáneo", in A.Pavón, ed.: Paquete: cuento (op. cit.), 159-180.



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