Jan 28, 2012

Cronopio, Cronopio, Wherefore are Thou Cronopio?

I like reading Cortázar. He had a head start imagination and his writing feels fresh despite the 50 or 60 years since its first publication. Last week I took the opportunity to re-read his ‘Cronopios and Famas’ story cycle: 26 short texts that give the reader a glimpse into the parallel world – or parallel Buenos Aires – of the peculiar, colourful, sometimes squeaky creatures known as cronopios, famas, and esperanzas. It’s a bit like Tellytubbies, but for grown-ups.


A tiny cronopio was looking for the front door key on the night table, the night table in the bedroom, the bedroom in the house, the house in the street. Here the cronopio stops; well, in order to go out to the street he needed the front door key.

So you have three different gangs, nations, races – categories, in any event. The cronopios: green, gullible, moist, sensitive and mischievous, and not too keen to put themselves out. The famas: assiduous, organised, and bureaucratic, but fundamentally patient and forgiving. And the esperanzas: well, a little harder to pin down. They all seem to live more or less harmoniously together, although the tales focus on incidents arising when their contrasting natures clash, with consequences that are often humorous.


A fama is very rich and has a maid. This fama uses a handkerchief and then throws it in the wastepaper basket. He uses another, and throws that into the waste too. He carries on throwing all his handkerchiefs into the waste. When they’re all gone, he buys another box.

The maid collects the handkerchiefs and keeps them for herself. As she is so surprised by the famas behaviour, she can’t contain herself and asks him if the handkerchiefs should really be thrown away.

“Great fool,” says the fama, “you shouldn’t have asked. From now on you’ll wash my handkerchiefs, and I’ll save money."

At the same time, we see their customs, habits and priorities: bizarre to us but, of course, the norm in their reality. One thing I found endearing was the slightly off-centre yet somehow flawless logic of the cronopios.

Despite all the labels and stereotypes within, there is one fleeting moment in the book where Cortázar suggests that all of this is not immutable. In the story Eugenics we learn that cronopios never have children with their own kind, as “the first thing that a new-born cronopio does is rudely insult its father, in whom it sees the accumulation of misfortunes that will one day be its own.” For this reason the cronopios, it appears, turn to the famas to ‘fertilise’ their females. Nevertheless the offspring, educated in the ways of the cronopios, lose all similarity with their fama forbears within weeks. So famas aren’t doomed to be famas, cronopios aren’t doomed to be cronopios, and Cortázar, perhaps, gives eugenics a slap in the face and a little wink to behaviourism?

I'm not sure Cortázar would have been keen on the clocks...

Jan 15, 2012

Thanks, Monterroso, for Keeping it Short

It's customary for those with an interest in the world of minifiction to periodically doff their hats to a piece called The Dinosaur (1959) by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso. At a mere nine words including title, The Dinosaur has achieved a status that far outweighs its size.