How to Read Short Stories Like an Underdog

Departing from a fixed form, some Latin American writers employed the short story as a laboratory of writing.

When someone asks you, “What are you reading?” while you are reading short story writer Juan Carlos Onetti’s “A Dream Come True,” you will have to think twice. You’ll probably reply something like: “A story about a woman who had a dream and then commissions the bankrupt owner of a theater to stage a play called ‘A Dream Come True’ to recreate a scene she dreamt in which nothing happens—merely because she is looking to feel the happiness she felt while dreaming.” And the person who asked the question will probably stare at you in confusion and wonder why you are reading such a thing.

Short stories are supposed to be brief and to tell a story. As a genre, they are often measured against an ideal parameter of rules for how they should be composed: a short story must be fully developed within a limited number of pages, it must assemble the plot in a coherent structure with no gratuitous elements, and the reader must be able to finish the tale in one sitting.

But what happens when the rules of short stories are broken? In Latin America, this rupture is embodied by two of the most prolific and famous writers of short stories of the 20th century: the Uruguayan Onetti (1909–94), whom we met above, and the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro (1929–94). In spite of having been relatively successful writers, they are often regarded as outcasts, underdogs, or obscure authors. They are always seen in the shadow of their most successful counterparts of the Latin American Boom generation, who mastered the art of storytelling by following the rules or publishing successful long novels.

Instead of thinking about the story as a genre with boundaries and a particular form, Ribeyro and Onetti employed the short story as a laboratory of writing, a space where they could explore certain themes without necessarily being conclusive or encoding information. Certainly, they did not know where any particular plot would lead. What mattered to them was the journey, not the destination; the telling of the tale, not its closed form or its ending.

To celebrate the recent publication of collections of each of their oeuvres—A Dream Come True by Onetti, published by Archipelago Books, and The Words of the Speechless by Ribeyro, published by New York Review Books, both masterfully translated into English by Katherine Silver—as well as their own rule breaking, I propose five counterintuitive rules for reading the tales of these unusual storytellers for the first time. The first three rules will be directly related to Onetti and his unique way of constructing stories, and the last two to Ribeyro and his marginal characters with unfortunate fates.

Broadly speaking, the rules are intended to help the reader enjoy the stories regardless of their defiance of rules. Allow yourself to not take seriously the limits of a genre in which, for Ribeyro and Onetti, a story always ends up badly and in an unexpectedly expected tragedy. Read the stories as they are told, as small figments of the imaginations of these atypical Latin American writers who refused to be imprisoned in the “perfect form” of the short story. See how they refuse to believe that a short story should be short, or, indeed, that it should even tell a story.

What mattered to these writers was the journey, not the destination; the telling of the tale, not its closed form or its ending.

What Onetti and Ribeyro rebelled against were claustrophobic rules of writing, which unduly constrained their genre. Surprisingly, these rules were often offered by writers of short stories themselves. And it is these rules—touted by the more successful writers of the Boom and other canonical authors—that Onetti and Ribeyro rejected.

In “Manual for the Perfect Storyteller,” Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga writes that “a story is a novel with the unnecessary waste removed.” He gives the storyteller this fatherly advice: “Take your characters by the hand and lead them firmly to the end of the story, without deviating from the path that you traced for them.”1

Meanwhile, Julio Cortázar claimed that the short story has a “closed form,” that of a perfect sphere. He believes that “an awareness of the sphere must somehow precede the act of writing the story, as if the narrator, surrendering to the form he has chosen, were implicitly inside of it, exerting the force that creates the spherical form in its perfection.”2

Similarly, the Dominican writer Juan Bosch says that the “story is a simple literary genre, and to that end a story should not be built upon more than one event.” He defines the story as “the narration of an event of undeniable importance,” in which the storyteller, “like the aviator, doesn’t take flight to go wherever, or even to two places at once; he is forced to know where he’s going with certainty before he puts his hands on the levers that move his machine.”3

For Ricardo Piglia, the narration of this event of undeniable importance can be split into two parts. Piglia’s first thesis is that “a short story always tells two stories.” The art of writing a good story consists of “knowing how to encode Story Two in the interstices of Story One.” Ultimately, the revelation of the secret of the tale results in a “profane illumination.” This has become the preferred form of the modern short story.4

We can conclude that these Latin American authors isolate three principles of the short story: an economy of means, a purposeful structure, and the encrypting of information. All three of these principles were completely overturned by Onetti and Ribeyro. But how are we to read their short stories without clinging to these expectations? These rules will serve you as a roadmap into an unknown territory.


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RULE #1: Read the stories carefully but don’t try to make sense of the story or struggle to find a plot. Take time off to recover after reading each story, otherwise you run the risk of losing your mind.


Even if it were physically possible to read more than one story by Juan Carlos Onetti in one sitting, I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, be willing to misunderstand, to slowly enter his dreamy and incoherent world where time stops.

The stories collected in A Dream Come True were created over a 60-year span. They range from Onetti’s first story, published in La Prensa in 1932, to his last stories, published posthumously in 1994. You will find that all of the stories, however, function outside of their time, weaving a tangled web made up of many times. Don’t be afraid to read the stories out of order or to skip one that you might not like: you will be disconcerted regardless.

Most of the stories Onetti published around or after 1950 take place in a fictional town called Santa María. The town, with its narrative charm, first appeared in stories—prior to the publication of Onetti’s famous novels, such as “The House in the Sand” or “The Album.” These stories thus served as writing laboratories, contained environments in which a world could initially be created.

But the turning point of Onetti’s literary work can be located in his most complex novel, A Brief Life (1950), which inaugurates the Santa María saga. In this novel, the character Juan María Brausen imagines an entire fictional port town and the characters that inhabit its streets. At the end of the novel, to free himself from his reality, Brausen moves to the town he has created. From that point, the town’s founder disappears from Onetti’s works as a narrator and “writer” of the fiction of Santa María.

As you read each story in A Dream Come True, you will see the reality of Santa María, as a world that exists on its own and is constantly being constructed. From A Brief Life onward, Onetti’s narrative becomes a tapestry of rewritings, where plots, characters, and spaces are displaced and reconfigured in a different light each time they appear.


RULE #2: Never trust the narrator of a short story. He will offer different versions and conjectures, and you will step into uncertainty.


Reading Onetti’s short stories will make you doubt your judgment and your ability to decode a text. When you first read the Uruguayan author’s work, you will fall for his peculiar use of language and his awkward adjectives, which destabilize images. You will be enchanted by the story, but you will be utterly frustrated when you cannot tell what the plot of that story is.

If you are a reader who does their homework, you will try to put the events in order, make lists of characters, and come up with hypotheses about the time and space of the stories. And yet, you will not be able to tell anyone what Onetti’s fiction is really about—because it is perhaps not necessary to try to define it.

As you will find out, his work does not revolve around the plot or theme, or the characters and their motives. Rather, it relies on an unpredictable curiosity and a desire to know the stories and rumors about strange characters who appear to be wandering aimlessly. Every tale in this book has the air of a detective story; it is guesswork. Characters tell tales, of themselves and of others; read traces and clues; listen to gossip; gather the pieces of the puzzling stories. I am certain, however, that even if all of your efforts to reconstruct a plot are unsuccessful and you run out of patience, you will keep on reading.


RULE #3: Assume that nothing is true and there is no final destination. The only thing you can assume to be certain is the telling of the tale.


“Certainties are questionable,” says the narrator of Onetti’s “The Album,” while trying to make sense of the dazzling tales told to him by a mysterious woman who wandered the pier of Santa María. Another narrator concludes: “Everything had been or was like that, just like that, although perhaps otherwise, and every person imaginable could offer a different version. And undoubtedly not only could I not be pitied but I wasn’t even credible.” You will realize that Onetti’s stories are built on conjectures that multiply themselves, minimal details and gestures that partially reveal an aspect of the characters, dialogues that seem not to communicate anything, and imprecise plots.

At times, you will ignore which story you are reading. Guided by the untrustworthy narrators, you will discard options presented by them in your desire to solve the enigma that is defying elucidation. The main twists and turns of the plot often happen within the mind of the characters. Some short stories postpone the revelation of a mystery hinted at in the title—“The Kidnapped Bride,” “Death and the Girl,” “Most Dreaded Hell,” “As Sad as She.”

In most stories, nothing happens. But that nothingness is filled with speculative narratives and an obstinate desire to find thrilling memories. Narrators “lie always,” to make you take a guess and get it wrong.


RULE #4: Hear the words of the speechless, the humble, and the wretched outcast.


When you read Julio Ramón Ribeyro’s stories collected in The Words of the Speechless—selected from 10 different volumes, dating from 1952 to 1993—you will be surprised by the realization that the simple folks we meet every day also have a story to tell. In the Peruvian writer’s stories, as the book’s epigraph states, “those who are deprived of words in life find expression—the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice.” In finding expression, these characters modulate their longings, distress, and goings-on in an environment that is hostile to them.

You will read stories with characters such as: creditors, a grocery store owner who is about to lose everything, a substitute teacher, jealous fishermen fighting over a woman, a foreigner who falls in love but cannot communicate with his beloved, children with overactive imaginations, a relentless smoker, and pretentious bourgeois women who want to appear smart at book club. The lives of these minor characters (victims of modernity), and their circumstances, give Ribeyro’s stories a unique perspective that will make you think twice about the untold stories of the cashier you always run into at the store.


RULE #5: Expect a simple story and never a happy ending. Complement your reading of the stories with a dose of irony.


Ribeyro portrays his characters with such affection, sympathy, and humor that you will not feel that their bad luck and misery is a tragedy. You will find many of Ribeyro’s stories hilarious in spite of the unfortunate outcomes for the characters. These tales are rich in ironies, both subtle and blatant.

In “For Smokers Only,” Ribeyro’s uncanny self-portrait as a smoker, the writer looks back on the moments in his life when smoking led him to take desperate measures: when, for example, he sold the last copies of his first book of short stories to buy cigarettes, or when he threw himself out of the window in “a suicidal leap into the void” to recover a pack of cigarettes he had tossed out the night before after deciding to quit smoking.

In “The Insignia” you will read the peculiar story of a man who finds a silver insignia in a trash can and is then invited to become part of a secret society. After performing tasks whose meaning he ignores, he rises in rank and becomes the supreme leader of the society—all the while living in “total and abject ignorance” of the purpose of the organization.

At the end of the book, in an even more pathetic story, you will witness the demise of a great orchestra conductor, who ultimately ends his career swigging beer at a party, conducting a symphony played from a cassette on the stereo. Ribeyro’s stories have more in common with Chekhov’s or Maupassant’s ironic tragedies than with most of his Latin American contemporaries, who often wrote fantasy stories or portrayed their eras and geographies.


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Ribeyro’s irony and simplicity and Onetti’s plotless stories told by untrustworthy narrators defy our definition of a short story. They provide us with a different way of framing our reading of fiction. Ribeyro’s speechless characters will sprout up in the most unexpected corners of your imagination, just like the lingering higuerilla (wild castor bean) that appears in “At the Foot of the Cliff.”

This plant “germinates and spreads in the steepest and least hospitable places.” In growing, the huigerilla “doesn’t ask anyone for any favors, just a tiny bit of space to survive … [It] keeps growing, propagating, feeding off rocks and garbage.” These stories can become this “tiny bit of space” that the words of the speechless need to survive.

When you read Onetti, you will find that time stops in order that you may explore its meaning. And at those moments, life will seem richer and more intense. Even if you are reading and don’t know what is going on, you will, like the narrator of “A Dream Come True,” begin to “know things” the “way we know the soul of a person and words are useless to explain it.”


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. Horacio Quiroga, “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista,” Todos los cuentos, edited by Napoleón Baccino Ponce de León and Jorge Lafforge (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996), p. 1194.
  2. Julio Cortázar, “On the Short Story and its Environs,” in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Christensen (North Point, 1986), p. 158.
  3. Juan Bosch, “Notes on the Art of Writing Stories,” translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Calque, 2007.
  4. Ricardo Piglia, “Theses on the Short Story,” New Left Review, vol. 70, July/August 2011. The same idea appears in Josefina Ludmer’s book about the work of Juan Carlos Onetti: Onetti, los proceso de construcción del relato (Editorial Sudamericana, 1977), pp. 46–48.
Featured image: Luis Batista Caputo Demarco, Street Scene, Buenos Aires (1939). Color aquatint on buff laid paper, 295 × 365 mm. Art Institute of Chicago