If the literary landscape of the early twentieth century, at least when it comes to short stories, is dominated by Anglophone writers like Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, then the mid-twentieth century arguably belongs to the Latin American writers who helped to move the short story form into new and exciting directions.
Magical realism, postmodernism, and metafiction are among the leading features of many Latin American short stories, as the selection below attests.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’.
Where else to begin our pick of the best Latin American short stories than with the writer who is widely regarded as one of the greatest short-story writers of the twentieth century?
Influenced by a whole host of authors, including Poe, Chesterton, and Wells, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) reinvented the possibilities of the short story in a series of brief tales, many of which were written in the 1930s and 1940s.
This story, narrated by the fictional French writer Pierre Menard’s equally fictional friend, sees the title character attempting to write the whole of Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote. But he is not aiming to copy out Cervantes’ original, nor to rewrite the novel from a modern perspective: he wishes to write Don Quixote, word for word, as if Cervantes had never written the original.
The story (which we have analysed here) is witty, funny, and absurdist – even postmodern – and raises some intriguing questions about literature and readership.
Julio Cortazar, ‘Axolotl’.
‘Axolotl’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84). The story was published in Cortázar’s 1956 collection End of the Game and Other Stories.
This tale is narrated by a lonely man who regularly visits the local zoo, where he becomes fascinated by the axolotls in the aquarium. In time, he states that he, too, is an axolotl, and feels he has become one of them.
One of the joys of Cortázar’s narrative is its ambiguity: we are left wondering whether we should treat the story as fantasy or realism, and whether we should view the narrator as the victim of a miraculous act of transmigration or whether he is merely deluded (and possibly mad). Does the mind of the story’s narrator miraculously transfer to the body of an axolotl, in a twist on Kafka’s Gregor Samsa metamorphosing into an insect? Or does he merely believe his mind is within the body of the animal?
Octavio Paz, ‘My Life with the Wave’.
Paz (1914-98) was a Mexican writer predominantly known for his poetry, but some of his prose poems approach the form of the short story, hence Paz’s inclusion here. In 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In ‘My Life with the Wave’, a man at the beach is seduced by an ocean wave which follows him home to Mexico City. In true magic realist fashion, the man and the wave have a passionate love affair, until jealousy tears their relationship apart. The wave represents female passion, and the story/poem can be viewed as a magic realist allegory for love.
Juan Rulfo, ‘El Llano in Flames’.
This is the title story from a 1953 collection by the Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1917-86). The stories in this collection are overwhelmingly focused on rural Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War.
‘El Llano in Flames’ (Spanish title: ‘El Llano en llamas’) sometimes translated under the alternative titles ‘The Plain in Flames’ and ‘The Burning Plain’, is about the spark that ignited the Mexican Revolution.
Clarice Lispector, ‘The Fifth Story’.
‘The Fifth Story’ is a 1964 short story by the Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist and short-story writer Clarice Lispector (1920-77). In the story, a narrator describes how she prepared a recipe of sugar, flour, and plaster in order to get rid of a cockroach infestation.
However, this simple event is described in five different ways, with the story gaining significance with each new telling of it. The significance of Lispector’s story lies in how she encourages us to think about the weight we give to certain aspects of a story’s events, and how the same event can come to glimmer with new significance.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’.
Let’s conclude this selection of the best Latin American short stories with a story by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, published in his 1972 collection Leaf Storm and Other Stories.
A story about acceptance, community, and honouring the dead, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ is one of Márquez’ most powerful stories. The story concerns the body of a dead man which is washed up on a beach; taken in by the local villagers, the handsome corpse of the man inspires many of the men and women of the village to reappraise their attitudes to life.