This is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Weirdfictionreview.com will feature a different writer. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Augusto Monterroso (1921 – 2003) was a Guatemalan writer known for short stories. Indeed, he is credited with writing the shortest story ever: “When she awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” Monterroso is considered a central figure in the Latin American “Boom” generation, recognized alongside such canonical authors as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. Monterroso often used the weird and grotesque to create incisive contemporary fables, as in his most famous story, “Mister Taylor” (1952). The story’s mixture of weird imagery with social commentary on U.S. imperialism has made it one of the most popular Latin American short stories of the mid-20th century. Here, the contributor of the newest translation of this story for The Weird, Larry Nolen, has chosen to give his own considerable insights on the story and its writer.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
At first glance, Augusto Monterroso’s “Mister Taylor” would not appear to be a suitable addition to The Weird. Set in South America, the setting contains nothing eerie or supernatural about it and the narrator is perhaps a bit detached in comparison to other tales. Yet if one digs further into the narrative, “Mister Taylor” begins to reveal weirdness shrouded in fable that makes some rather uncomfortable observations about imperialism and human avarice.
Monterroso is unjustly overlooked in conversations about the great Latin American writers of the Boom Generation. Whereas Julio Cortázar (also featured in The Weird) or Gabriel García Márquez were equally at home writing short fiction or novels, Monterroso contented himself with writing short fictions in a variety of modes. This is not to say that Monterroso was not a technical or storytelling genius (a quick review of his oeuvre would indicate otherwise), but that unlike his peers, he was not known for writing in a particular style. However, an analysis of “Mister Taylor,” shows a master who was adept at subverting story conventions to tell tales that are rich in irony, fabulism, and imagery.
“Mister Taylor” is a tricky narrative, in that it requires a closer examination of its structure to reveal Monterroso’s use of the weird to drive his story of a headhunting exporting business and its effects on producers and consumers alike. Monterroso’s narrative is replete with asides and striking images, constructed in such a fashion as to seem almost effortless. When I worked on translating “Mister Taylor” in the spring of 2010, it took several drafts to get the phrasing just so, as the power of the story is derived from the subtle juxtaposition of native and foreign perspective to generate a sort of social étrangeté where the weirdness comes not from external sources but from human behavior.
Early on, Monterroso establishes the terms of this social weirdness with the character of Mr. Percy Taylor:
‘It is known that in 1937 he left Boston, Massachusetts, where he had refined his spirit to the point of becoming penniless. In 1944 he appears for the first time in South America, in the region of the Amazon, living with the natives of a tribe whose name there is no need to remember.’
Here we see an ironic allusion to the “refinement” that imperialists frequently used to justify their exploitation of non-Western societies. This is contrasted by the purposeful elimination of the native tribe that Mr. Taylor visits. In several of his fictions, including “The Eclipse,” Monterroso often would subvert the association of the European with knowledge and wisdom and the natives with superstition and primitiveness. Here in “Mister Taylor” we see the titular character being so blissfully unaware of his initial stance within the community, as he thinks to himself, while the schoolchildren throw stones at him and call him “the poor gringo,” that:
“…this did not distress the humble character of Mr. Taylor, because he had read in the first volume of The Complete Works of William G. Knight that if he did not feel envious of the rich, poverty would not dishonor him.”
With this passage, Monterroso has shifted the perspective away from that of a white man’s burden–wherein the hero enters alone into a primitive place and quickly modernizes the joint while becoming its beneficent leader–toward a more nuanced look at the fools who seek to “improve” others without realizing that it is they themselves who need to be looked after better. In this manner “Mister Taylor” satirizes the attitudes of many Latin American officials toward American businessmen in the wake of “Dollar Diplomacy.” In scenes such as the one where the President and Minister of Foreign Relations treat the penniless Mr. Taylor with respect solely due to his “blue eyes and a vague foreign accent,” the reader quickly realizes that Monterroso is utilizing the form of a demented fable to make some striking points about the nefarious effects of American imperialism on the peoples and governments of Latin America during the mid-20th century.
The true weird elements emerge after Mr. Taylor has been offered a shrunken human head:
“It is unnecessary to say that Mr. Taylor was in no position to buy it; but as apparently he didn’t understand this, the Indian felt terribly embarrassed due to not speaking English well, and he gave Mr. Taylor the head as a gift, seeking pardon.”
Here the confusion of cultures is directly revealed. The stammering pidgin of the native who went from jumping out from behind a bush with the head, going “Buy head? Money, money” to Mr. Taylor’s being “somewhat indisposed” creates a moment of awkward confusion: why should one be offering and why can’t the other demur? What value is there in this head? Is it a religious or social trophy, or is it something else?
It is from this point that the story veers into a killing/selling frenzy, as Mr. Taylor and his uncle Mr. Rolston realize that there is a market in shrinking of heads and marketing them as a novelty. The grotesqueness of the latter part of “Mister Taylor” relies upon the dissonance created by vivid imageries of hipsters who limit the “cool factor” of the heads to arbitrary, almost incomprehensible numbers and shapes; the bicycles and trimmed pathways that the leaders of the natives utilize in the wake of the business generated by the slaughtering of their own people; and the frenzy that comes with the increased demands for more heads. This strange, over-the-top caricature of imperialist exploitation and marketing leads up to a surprising and chilling conclusion.
The end of “Mister Taylor” resembles several other of Monterroso’s fictions. Often, as is the case with “Mister Taylor” and “The Eclipse,” the conclusion references the beginning and recasts it, and with this, reader interpretations change. The vivid images conjured by Monterroso’s adroit placing of metaphor and simile often lead readers to question their previously-held assumptions about the types of fiction Monterroso is subverting or parodying. The weird here inhabits those gaps between reader expectations and the narratives in which Monterroso explores the depravities and fallacies of our belief and social systems, creating stories that surprise readers with their combination of ironic placement, fable, motifs such as the self-made man, and devastating conclusions.