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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Augusto Monterroso’s


(from La Oveja Negra y demás fábulas)

(The story can be read HERE, before the comment section.)

Heavy Circles by Wassily Kandinsky

Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003), known for his humorous and ironical style, was an acclaimed Honduran writer who published mainly short stories. His specialty was the microcuento, a form that takes stories, fables, and fairy tales to their bare minimum. One of his shortest stories was “The Dinosaur.” Here it is in full: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”

His fable, “The Two Tails or The Eclectic Philosopher” is not as short as “The Dinosaur” but it is just as potent and thought-provoking.

The story begins with two titles. In the story Monterroso is literally explaining the meaning of two tails; the dog chasing its tail and the snake swallowing its tail. The second title is The Eclectic Philosopher.

While the first half of the title is plain and straightforward, the second half of the title requires more thought. The philosopher is labeled eclectic, which means he draws his knowledge from various sources and mixes this and that. The second title isn’t as easy to understand but is effective in luring a reader to keep reading.

Monterroso’s plain and simple opening sentence effectively sets the tone, the time, and the place. “As the story goes” likely means this account may not be 100% accurate but it’s close enough–and suggests it might not be literal fact but it’s close enough to illustrate . . . something. The philosopher, we’re told, was frequently approached by the populace to settle their most complex conflicts and doubts.

The second sentence kept me reading because I hoped this philosopher might settle some of my own “most complex conflicts and doubts” and want to see what he might come up with and what of it might be of concern to me as a modern reader.

The philosopher has no name and no name is needed. Nor is a particular or specific place needed since the fable that’s created crosses all sorts of borders– isn’t confined to one area only. All we’re told about this philosopher is that his philosophy is eclectic, that he is a keen observer of Nature, and that his opinions were often sought by the people in the marketplace.

The first tail is about a dog’s tail. This is a once-upon-a-time story about a common event—a dog chasing its own tail. This act evoked laughter in a group of children, and the sight is funny. But the act evoked concern in the adults who worried that it might be an ominous sign. They feared it might not bode well for the marketplace.

The philosopher explained that the dog was simply trying to dislodge his fleas. This was a nice, pragmatic, and logical (and likely) explanation. This explanation satisfied the general curiosity and everyone resumed their business as usual. A brief and easy-to-understand explanation was all that was needed to calm the crowd.

The second tail tale involves a snake’s tail. One of the snakes in a snake charmer’s basket was biting its own tail. At this act, the adults laughed and the children were concerned. These reactions are a reversal of the positions taken in the dog’s tail event. A tail-biting snake isn’t funny in the way a dog chasing his tail is funny. But the adults laugh at the sight.

When the worried children asked the philosopher what could be the cause of such a thing, he responded that a Snake biting its tail represents the Infinite and the Eternal Return of people, events, and things. This calmed everyone, children and adults, and all resumed business as usual.

He described to them the old myth of the Ouroboros– the cosmic snake that swallows its own tail. According to an online dictionary,

“The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (compare with phoenix). It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.”

It’s interesting that this explanation satisfied everyone, the children and the adults, and all were tranquil once more–back to business as usual in the busy marketplace. Maybe the explanation satisfied the children because they weren’t familiar with the old myth (and on a simple level it’s a comforting myth that things and people are constantly re-creating themselves and are eternally returning) and maybe it satisfied the adults because it was already part of their understanding of the world and perhaps their laughter might have been at the “ignorance” of the inexperienced and worried children. The eclectic philosopher told just enough for each situation–no more, no less was needed to accomplish his goals of calming the people.

The story itself raises all sorts of questions. My immediate desire was to explore the concept of the Ouroboros more closely and in more depth. I’m a lover of myth by nature so am always looking for an excuse to go researching a myth concept some more. My second reaction was to think about where and how we get our explanations about anything at all. The tiny story calls into question our knowledge base and what explanations and from whom we’ll accept explanations to keep us tranquil and at our tasks. It questions how we decide whether an event is a good sign or a bad sign.

So while the philosopher calmed the children and merchants in the marketplace, he didn’t do the same for me. Instead, he’s unsettled one of my most complex conflicts and doubts–got me again wondering what it’s all about, what it all might mean, and how we come to accept what we’re told. Tiny stories like this end up accomplishing much in the thoughts that come to us after the reading.


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&LPamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

About Augusto Monterroso:
Augusto Monterroso Bonilla (1921 –  2003) was a Honduran writer known for the ironical and humorous style of his short stories. He is a notable figure associated with the Latin American “Boom” generation. Monterroso-Bonilla received many important awards for his writing, including the Prince of Asturias Award in Literature (2000), the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature (1997), and the Juan Rulfo Award (1996).

Image: Heavy Circles by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Oil on canvas. 22.5 × 20.5 inches. 1927. Public domain.

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