Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Octavio Paz’s “The Blue Bouquet”

Read the story.

Or read it in Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe).

Suprematist Composition (with Blue Triangle and Black Rectangle) by Kazimir Malevich

According to Eudora Welty, “So the first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see the mystery again. Every good story has mystery– not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful.”

Welty’s words apply well to Paz’ three page chiller. The story exhibits the mystery of allurement and strangely in many ways it grows more beautiful and more complicated and certainly more terrifying with each careful reading.

The disturbing story is about a nameless man in some hot and sweltering insect-filled unidentified place who goes for a walk alone late at night. In a bit of foreshadowing, the one-eyed boarding house owner warns him not to go out into the night.

But the man goes anyway and the environment soon turns threatening. On this walk he encounters a man who puts a knife to his back and tells the man he’s going to cut his eyes out, if they are blue. The knife-wielding man says that his girlfriend, on a whim, wants a bouquet of blue eyes and the boyfriend intends to fulfill her desire. Lucky for the narrator his eyes are brown so he is able to walk away from the terrifying encounter.

But the mystery of the story remains after the story is read. Is this depiction a random act of senseless violence or part of a greater design? Why would a woman desire such a thing as a bouquet of blue eyes? Under what circumstances or under what order are we selected to live or die? The questions are not answered but in the beginning of the story the narrator has this idea:

“I thought that the universe was a vast system of signs, a conversation between giant beings. My actions, the cricket’s saw, the star’s blink, were nothing but pauses and syllables, scattered phrases from that dialogue. What word would it be, of which I was only a syllable? Who speaks the word? To whom is it spoken?”

Paz presents a mystery and an interpretation that the narrator is perhaps a syllable in a dialogue spoken by giant beings. At first the narrator “feels free, secure between the lips that were at that moment speaking me with such happiness.” It is after this statement that he notices that “the night itself was a garden of eyes.”

The contents of a garden are harvested, so Paz again provides a bit of effective foreshadowing here. In this case man with the knife, the gardener, harvests rare blue eyes which are not common in his area. He doesn’t intend to kill his victims, just means to take their blue eyes for his girlfriend’s bouquet. At the beginning of the story a one-eyed man is introduced—the boardinghouse owner who warns the narrator to “stay put” and not go out into the night. Perhaps he too was a victim of this harvester. The possibility is not spoken but is certainly suggested.

Behind this scenario is a woman who has a whim. Cherchez la femme. She is the one who wants the bouquet of blue eyes and her boyfriend is working to get it for her. The “feminine” is introduced in the first paragraph when the narrator says “One could hear the breathing of the night, feminine, enormous.” I wonder whether or not the narrator considers the feminine one of the giant (and perhaps malevolent) speaking and dialoguing beings.

At another point in the story the narrator mentions breathing the air of the tamarind trees. In some areas the smell and shadow of the tamarind is considered dangerous and malevolent–the home of dangerous powers and influences. Some believe tamarind trees are to be avoided at night because the spirits of the dead reside in them.

The nameless man in the story is reduced to nothing more than his eye color. And it is his eye color that finally saves him. Lucky for him his eye color was not the color being harvested that night. He runs back to the boardinghouse where the one-eyed owner is still sitting at the front door and he says nothing to the man as he passes by. After his close call, the narrator is determined to leave this place as soon as possible.

The story is disturbing and mysterious on several levels. And always, despite several readings, the enigma, the mystery of the story, of life, death, and being remains. What syllable of what word are we? Who speaks us and to whom, and what is the word that we form? In the beginning was the Word, was the Syllable . . . .


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Octavio Paz: Octavio Paz Lozano (1914-1998) was a Mexican poet and diplomat. He was the winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Image: Suprematist Composition (with Blue Triangle and Black Rectangle) by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). Oil on canvas. 22.4 x 26.1 inches. 1915. Public domain.