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.

Before going further, I'd like to post the piece - but there’s a problem here, because The Dinosaur is untranslatable in English (that is, without gross interference* by the translator or an extended caveat like the one you’re now reading). It’s untranslatable because the Spanish language allows you to drop the personal pronouns that English requires before conjugated verbs - the subject of the verb normally being clear from the context. Not so with The Dinosaur:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

Which means:

When (he/she/it: you decide!) awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

And that’s it.

Critics have been creative in their tributes. Vargas Llosa dwelt at length on the use of the word ‘still’ and hovered reverently over the comma, while Calvino found The Dinosaur matchless among sentence-long stories. Others promote its unresolvable ambiguity and multitude of possible interpretations, or praise its grammatical and temporal ‘balance’.

A cynic, however, could argue that the effects described above are achievable by piecing together any semi-random selection of words, as long as they’re combined in a coherent yet meaning-shy fashion. And Vargas Llosa’s views highlight the wonder of language rather than anything intrinsic to The Dinosaur itself. A convincing elucidation of The Dinosaur's eminence remains elusive, and probably always will.

But so what?

For me, the marvel of the piece lies right there in its ever-amplifying impact: its ends more than justify its means. Because not only has The Dinosaur revealed to countless writers the possibilites of ultra-short fiction, but it has also sprung a cascade of mimicry, parody and allusion.

Death by Dinosaur (Hector Ranea)

When Monterroso died, the dinosaur was still there.

(José Luis Zárate)

When (he/she/it) awoke, they were still writing about the dinosaur.

The Cultured Lady (José de la Colina)

I asked the cultured lady if she was familiar with Monterroso’s story titled 'The Dinosaur'.

‘Ah, it’s a delight,’ she answered. ‘I’m reading it right now.’

It appears that Monterroso – often asked about The Dinosaur’s meaning and classification – never gave a straight answer, although he did once state that his arguably best-known piece contributed to the false impression that he wrote only minifiction and only with humour. In this respect, Monterroso, a writer of many fantastic stories, was overshadowed by his dinosaur. At the same time, his dinosaur succeeded in attracting a spotlight to minifiction. So thanks, Monterroso, for keeping it short.

*This, for example, is just plain wrong.


  1. I have another minifiction based on Monterroso famed text:
    Cuando despertó el dinosaurio, todavía estaba allí
    When the dinosaur awoke, (he/she/it) was still there
    (the comma in another place changes the meaning) :]

    1. ...I wonder if, even with the comma shifted, the text doesn't STILL retain a good deal of ambiguity! Could that not translate to: "When (he/she/it) woke the dinosaur, (he/she/it) was still there"?
      Thanks for the comment, Hector.