Keep it short, we’re constantly being told, about letters, essays, speeches, columns, in a world that’s always in a hurry. The introduction of short message service (SMS), better known as texts, as well as tweets, reinforces the abbreviating imperative.
But long before SMS and tweets, literature had its short short stories. For English writers, it was first called flash fiction, then microfiction. The definitions vary with the maximum length: some at 300, others at 400 words.
They’re a joy to read, but not that easy to write, almost like poetry.
These stories need not be limited to fiction. For months now, I’ve been transported into the worlds of loves and loving in The New York Times, which has a section called Tiny Love Stories, limited to 100 words and sent in by readers. These are true stories about love in its widest usage: romantic love in all its complicated permutations, as well as the love of friends, of parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren. The stories are accompanied by one photograph, which helps to skirt the 100-word maximum limit.
The New York Times actually has longer love stories, but those 100-word tales of the heart beat the longer ones when it comes to impact.
Micro stories are helpful if you’re trying to improve your reading of a foreign language, and you might want to try the microcuentos (also known as microrelatos, minicuentos) in Spanish.
The microcuentos of Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) came back to me the day after elections, as I thought of what to write for my column. Monterroso was born in Honduras and adopted Guatemalan nationality, but also had to live in Chile and Mexico practically as a political exile, because his writings were so political, made all the more subversive because they were in the form of stories.
Let me share two (I would have wanted three but lack space) of these microcuentos, to show how political writing can be more powerful using this micro- or minigenre.
Here’s “Imperfect Paradise,” which consists of one long sentence. (This is my translation, using my 12 units of college Spanish and Google Translate, which has vastly improved since its early days.)
“It is said — the man spoke with melancholy and without taking his eyes off the flames that burned in the fireplace that winter night — that in Paradise there are friends, music, some books but the only thing about Heaven is that there the sky cannot be seen.”
I thought of President Manuel Quezon and his famous quote from a speech in 1939, in an event organized by the Civil Liberties Union, which rather reads like a microcuento:
“It is true, and I am proud of it, that I once said, ‘I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.’ I want to tell you that I have, in my life, made no other remark which went around the world but that. There had been no paper in the United States, including a village paper, which did not print that statement, and I also had seen it printed in many newspapers in Europe. I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by any foreigner. I said that once; I say it again, and I will always say it as long as I live.”
Oh, but are we indeed happy living with a government run like hell, but at least have a view of the skies, an angry gray in many cases?
To return to Monterroso, here’s his “El Dinosaurio,” which is said to be the shortest short story in the history of literature — all of seven words, and worth giving in its original Spanish together with its translation:
“Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.” (When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)
I first read this microcuento many years ago, amused by the way it is supposedly set on the morning after elections in Mexico, where one political party held on to power for many decades, election after election. Literary analysts have praised the short story for its play on the word “desperto,” which is “to awake,” but carries connotations of a dream state, and the heavy weight of a dinosaur.
When we woke up the day after the elections (and elections past), did we find a dinosaur, too?
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