Adam Thirlwell


A Jukebox of Augusto Monterroso

Discussed: The Meaning of the Miniature, Lamentations of Guy Debord, Poles Stranded in Buenos Aires, Literary Safari Parks, No Escape from the Full Stop, Contempt for the Person Who Writes “Little Nothings,” The Snow Globe Fixation of Walter Benjamin

For Jorge Herralde


Recently, I began to want to be sudamericano. It was a time of lethargy and safety, in the soft gray rain of London—and I was reading the very short stories or essays of Augusto Monterroso. I basically wished I had this name Augusto. But while it’s quite normal for me to want to inhabit other people, even going so far as to want to adopt their names, I was wanting all the more to imagine what it would be like to write and think like Augusto Monterroso, since the stories I was reading by him were in a French translation of his Spanish originals. We were triangulated. Even more than usually in this life, therefore, I felt adrift, or estranged.

So to console myself I began to imagine a possible experiment with these thirds, or triangles.

I knew only a few of Monterroso’s facts. He was Guatemalan. In his youth, he was associated with the revolutionary government of Jacopo Arbenz, the government that disappeared after the CIA coup of 1954 (a coup—this was my only other Guatemalan fact—that was lamented by Guy Debord in Paris as an early proof of the society of the spectacle). And so in the brief era of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, Monterroso then emigrated to Mexico City, where he lived for the rest of his life, perfecting his style of writing short pieces of prose that sometimes seemed like stories, and sometimes seemed like essays. This, I realized, exhausted the facts I knew about Augusto Monterroso—as I sat there in the safety and lethargy of London, reading in French his 1972 collection, Movimiento perpetuo.[1] But then, I didn’t really want more facts. No, I wanted to inhabit the ways in which Monterroso might think, the reasons why he wanted to think in his miniature way. And so in the soft gray London morning, which was really, I decided, now the humid and caffeinated green and concrete landscape of Mexico City, I tried to appropriate his experiments.

And this meant also proving something about this principle of the third language—in other words, about translation. I needed it to be true that there is no reason why translation should always be modeled as a process involving only two languages and a solitary translator. So I rehearsed the prior examples. There was Witold Gombrowicz, stranded in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, translating his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish with his friends, even though his friends spoke no Polish, and he spoke almost no Spanish: and no Spanish–Polish dictionary existed. Or there was James Joyce gradually assembling a team including Samuel Beckett and Philippe Soupault to translate the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of his Work in Progress into French. Or Christopher Logue’s account of Homer’s Iliad, based on other translations and the notes of Donald Carne-Ross—because he spoke no Greek at all. Yes, I thought. As well as one-to-one translation, there was surely also the possibility of a collective, of the rewrite: the multiple.

To read several of Adam Thirlwell’s translations of works by Augusto Monterroso, visit

  1. Augusto Monterroso, Mouvement perpétuel, Christine Monot trans. (Passage du Nord/Ouest, 2004).

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Adam Thirlwell is the author of two novels and a novella. He is the guest editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly issue 42—a compendium of multiple translations—to be published in the fall.

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