In this age of speed and technology, when people can barely keep up with email and appointments scheduled in palm pilots, the short short story has particular appeal for the reader with little time to spare. Even the ancient Greeks understood the relationship between speed and writing. As Italo Calvino tells us in his essay on the virtues of “Quickness” in literature, the god of communication and the inventor of writing is none other than Mercury, the agile deity of winged feet. The short short story (referred to as “sudden fiction,” “flash fiction,” “microfictions,” and “blasters” in English, and cuentos brevísimos and ficciones relámpagos or “lightning fiction” in Spanish), shares many of the virtues of poetry. In fact, Julio Cortázar, one of the Argentine masters of this literary genre, refers to the short short story as “el hermano de la poesía,” or poetry’s brother. The short short story presents a challenge to the author, for, like poetry, it requires exactness, control, virtuosity, and no small amount of courage. If the traditional short story wins over the reader by a knockout after a series of blows, as Cortázar proposes in La casilla de Morelli, in mini-fiction the knockout must come in one decisive punch. As Irving Howe observes in Sudden Fiction: “Everything depends on intensity, on one sweeping blow of perception. In the short short the writer gets no second chance.”
Of all Latin American countries, Argentina boasts the greatest number of writers who have cultivated this rebellious literary genre, masters such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Marco Denevi, Enrique Anderson Imbert, and Luisa Valenzuela; but without a doubt, Ana María Shua is the reigning queen of short shorts, with four collections of brevísimos published, to date, and the promise of more to come. The recipe for Shua’s success in the art of miniature fiction consists of her ingenious blending of precise language, incisive humor, and incredible imagination, resulting in a unique style and execution of the “short short.” The author has admitted in interviews that the short short story is her favorite genre, perhaps because it enables her to showcase her trademark talents: an innate capacity for synthesis and concision, and the use of humor and irony to reflect upon the human condition.–Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
Romance between Guard and Magnolia
Public square. Guard in love with Magnolia (secretly, even to himself). City budget cuts. Guard transferred to office job. Magnolia languishes. Guard languishes. Pathetic nocturnal encounters. With each passing day, Magnolia blossoms. Rumors in the neighborhood. One night, tragic premature birth: offspring buried discreetly. At the site, noticeable growth of a rebellious misfit sapling who refuses to remain tied to his roots, hates to study, and sits on the curb guzzling beer.
Beware of Women
That a woman has no roots (or pretends not to have them) is not enough proof. I would pay attention to what she eats, how she greets others (a certain flexibility in her curtsies). I would approach her to see if her sighs smell like the wind, if she has tangles like nests in her luxuriant hair. Clever, hybrid species that flitter between two kingdoms, these deceitful women disguise themselves, seduce, pretend to love, and reproduce at the slightest provocation.
Intensely engrossed in his favorite show, he fails to notice that the rest of the world has vanished around him, that the trumpets have sounded, and the Four Horsemen have spread their fury. He fails to notice that he has been judged once and for all, that having weighed his good and bad deeds, the faithful scale has tipped in his favor, and he remains now and forevermore, intensely engrossed in his favorite show, in Heaven.
The Unsurpassable Art of Ma Liang
Ma Liang was a legendary Chinese painter whose imitation of the world was so perfect he could transform it into reality with the final stroke of his brush. An emperor, who demanded he paint the ocean, drowned in it, along with his entire court.
To surpass the art of Ma Liang, the West invented photography, and later movies, in which the dead survive, repeating the same acts over and over again, as in any other Hell.
Prophets and Catastrophes IV
They banished him from the city when his prophecy came true. He had predicted abundance, good harvests, happiness. Only then did he understand that people take all the credit for their good fortune, but won’t own up to their rotten luck. Since then, he only foretells calamities. He gets paid even more when they don’t come to pass.
Prophets and Catastrophes VI
His words were so successful they made his mission fail. The prophecy was heeded and appreciated. The people changed their irreverent behavior and avoided fire and sulfur, panic and horror. Nor did the rain of death come to pass. Thus, for lack of catastrophes, he never made it to the rank of prophet, nor was the Almighty able to demonstrate his true powers. Since then, they only send boring or stammering prophets, weak in the art of public speaking, and more importantly, lacking personal charisma.
Time travel’s not only possible, but also inescapable and never ending. Ever since I was born, I’ve done nothing but sail toward a rotten destiny. What I’d like to do is stop, stay right here, which isn’t too bad: throw out the anchor.
The patients exchange information about their illnesses in the waiting room. The doctor’s running behind, the wait’s long, the doctor’s stingy, there are no magazines. T he receptionist complains that she has to update the medical histories over and over again when the patients, out of boredom, entertain themselves by trading illnesses. One night, the cleaning lady finds, in the ashtray filled with cigarette butts, an obstruction of the bile duct no one wanted to keep.
Following the sorcerer’s advice, he carved a wooden figure in the exact image of his enemy and burned it in a field, at night, under the moon. Attracted by the glow of the bonfire, his enemy found him and killed him with one thrust of his spear.
Excesses of Passion
We loved each other madly, fusing our bodies into one. Now only our IDs prove we were once two, and yet we still have challenges to face: the tax forms, the relatives, the distressing fact that we don’t have as much in common as we thought.
When I was a little girl, it seemed so absurd, so incomprehensible to me that Ali Baba’s brother could become so confused and make such a silly, absolutely unbelievable mistake. Locked inside the cave of the forty thieves, how was it possible he couldn’t remember the magic formula, the simple “open sesame” that would’ve opened the door for him and saved his life?
And here I am, so many years later, in danger myself, typing desperately on my computer keyboard, unable to remember the exact combination of letters that could lead to my salvation: “Open cardamon, open rye, open up, you damn seed!”
Most Absolute Certainty
We can hardly be sure of anything in this world. For example, the Argentine writer Marco Denevi, in his ingenious tale, casts doubt on the existence of the Chinese. And yet I know at this very moment that you, a person I can’t see, someone I don’t know or can’t imagine, a person whose reality means absolutely nothing to me (outside this small act that unites us), and whose existence I’ll have forgotten as soon as I finish writing these lines, you, with most absolute certainty, are reading now.
These stories are translations from Shua’s third book of short shorts Botánica del caos (Botany of Chaos). A bilingual anthology of all four of her books, Quick Fixes: A Collection of Sudden Fiction by Ana María Shua, translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan and published by White Pine Press, is forthcoming.
From Botánica del caos (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by Ana Maria Shua. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2006 by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan. All rights reserved.