Arreola (1918-2001) has been called Mexico's outstanding 20th century writer of experimental short stories. He began publishing around 1941. His work rejected realism, using elements of fantasy to mock aspects of human nature and convey existentialist themes. His playful humor, erudition and occasional use of the essay-like short story have prompted comparisons with Borges, though he lacked that author's elaborate style or interest in extended metaphysical constructions. A comparison might also be made with the outlook and some of the work of Donald Barthelme.
This book was published in English in 1964. It collected 97 short stories, satirical sketches, fables, vignettes, a bestiary and other writings that Arreola had published in Spanish between 1941 and 1961. Essentially, it followed a similar anthology published in Latin America in 1962.
It was divided into four sections. The first two, a bestiary and the author's shortest pieces, often just half a page in length, could be skipped with minimal loss, in my opinion. It was the works in the last two sections that showed him at his most creative.
These stories were short, from 2-7 pages. The best of them were original and sharply told, showing people incisively in all their irrationality and absurdity, often with satirical or other humor.
In one of the earliest, most serious pieces, "God's Silence" (1943), a narrator wrote to God asking for some sign of reassurance: "I see men all around me leading hidden, inexplicable lives. I see children drinking in contaminated words, and life, like a criminal nurse, feeding them with poisons. I see people who dispute the eternal words, who are called the favorite and the chosen. Across the centuries one sees hordes of bloodthirsty and imbecilic people; then suddenly here and there a soul that seems stamped with a divine seal."
To this, God replied: "To express myself properly, I should employ a language conditioned to my substance. But then, we should return to our eternal positions and you would not understand . . . . What I do recommend to you very strongly is that instead of occupying yourself in bitter investigations, you devote yourself to observing the small cosmos that surrounds you. Carefully register the daily miracle and take beauty to your heart. Receive its ineffable messages and translate them into your tongue . . . . There are so many topics to talk about, that surely in your lifetime you will only manage to discuss very few of them. Let us select the most beautiful subjects."
In "Parable of the Exchange" (1943), a merchant offered to exchange old wives for new, leading all men but the narrator to trade in their spouses. Given the human pressure for conformity, the narrator's inaction had dire consequences at first, before events played themselves out.
In "Small Town Affair" (1952), a man turned slowly into a bull, growing horns, snorting and pawing the ground, and charging at people who stared back. Because he worked as a lawyer, many clients flocked to him at first for his aggressiveness in attack. But eventually life degenerated into a wild fiesta, and he was dragged from the arena.
Some stories were set in the past. One of the most striking of these, "My Daily Bread" (1952), comprised what purported to be extracts from the letters of one of Spain's best-known Baroque poets. It consisted entirely of persistent, wheedling attempts to extract money from his benefactor. An equivalent for Americans might be if, say, Walt Whitman were revealed in his writing to be a whining beggar.
Another, "Sinesius of Rhodes" (1952), mocked the intricacies of medieval religious doctrine, as represented by a theologian who believed angels and demons were the hidden movers behind all human events. What happened to the man in this story was darkly humorous, showing maybe what the passage of time metes out to such beliefs.
Other stories were set in the present but looked backward, such as "On Ballistics" (1952). Here two academics standing on an old battlefield somewhere in Europe discussed what was known about ancient war machines. Among other things, the story seemed to be saying how little we can truly understand the past despite our never-ending attempts and fascination with its trivia, and how little human nature changes.
Some stories satirized the superficial values of contemporary society. "Baby H.P." (1952) took the form of a commercial for an improbable device to be strapped to babies, for the conversion of their nervous energy into electricity. It seemed to mock the desire for ever-increasing improvement and efficiency that some may associate with Latin America's northern neighbor.
"Announcement" (1961) was a public service message promoting a certain type of life-sized doll for the convenience of men: "Our Venuses are guaranteed to give perfect service for ten years -- the average time any wife lasts . . . [each] is provided with a device which only you can violate . . . . She consumes as much electricity as a refrigerator, she can be plugged into any household outlet . . . . When [the use] becomes popularized we will witness the birth of feminine genius, so long awaited. Women, freed then from their traditional erotic obligations, will establish forever in their transitory beauty the pure reign of the spirit." It can be admitted that in this author there was sometimes a hint of misogyny.
For me, the above were by far the most impressive stories in the collection. Some other interesting ones commemorated Villon the poet, or took the form of a diary in which a good-hearted but narrow-minded man gradually came to look beyond society's opinions and decide things for himself. Others were narrated in the first person and went on a bit too long, with no particular point that impressed or was grasped.
Another satirized the state of the railway system in what was taken to be the author's home country, as well as bureaucratic systems and modern life in general. This last tale, "The Switchman" (1951), is the one that's appeared occasionally for this author in major English-language anthologies for Latin America, and it's been called his best-known tale. Yet in their different ways, others of his are its equal or better.