The Shortest Story

One of the best short stories is just one sentence long- The Dinosaur by Augusto Monterroso. Here it goes:
When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

This enigmatic short story, considered to be the shortest one ever written, has inspired many a doctoral thesis!

Mario Vargas Llosa, the master Peruvian storyteller, uses the story as an illustration in some of his Letters to a Young Novelist. Here is an extract from the letter titled Levels of Reality.

What is the point of view in terms of level of reality in this story? You’ll agree that the narrative is situated in the plane of the fantastic, since in the real world you and I inhabit, it is improbable that prehistoric animals that appeared in our dreams–or in our nightmares–would turn up as an objective reality, and that we should encounter them in the flesh at the foot of our beds when we opened our eyes. It’s clear, then, that the level of reality of the narrative is an imaginary or fantastic reality. Is the narrator (omniscient and impersonal) situated on the same plane? I’d venture to say that he is not, that he establishes himself instead on a real or realist plane–in other words, one that is essentially opposite and contrary to that of the narrative. How do I know this? By the tiniest but most unmistakable of indications, a signal or hint that the careful narrator gives the reader as he tells his pared-clown tale: the adverb still. The word doesn’t just define an objective temporal circumstance, indicating a miraculous occurrence (the passage of the dinosaur from a dreamworld to objective reality). It is also a call to attention, a display of surprise or astonishment at the remarkable event. Monterroso’s still is flanked by invisible exclamation points and implicitly urges us to be surprised by the amazing thing that has happened. (“Notice, all of you, what is going on: the dinosaur is still there, when it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be, since in true reality things like this don’t happen; they are only possible in a fantastic reality.”) This is how we know the narrator is narrating from an objective reality; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t induce us through the knowing use of an amphibious adverb to take note of the transition of the dinosaur from dream to life, from the imaginary to the tangible.

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10 thoughts on “The Shortest Story

  1. tom

    curiously, the link you provided for that author contains a slightly different translation:

    “Cuando despert, el dinosaurio todav a estaba all” – “When it woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” The enigmatic work has given rise to numerous doctoral theses.

    When IT woke up.

    What is the “it” that woke up? The dinosaur? In which case, where is the there?

    By the way, I’ve been meaning to thank you for some time for introducing me to the works of Roberto Bolano.

    Reply
  2. readerswords Post author

    Hmm… I did not notice the translation at the link. I don’t know Spanish myself, so cannot say which is the right one. Llosa’s book has the one with “he”, and so does another one where I first came across this story. I think it was called “The Vintage Book of Latin American Short Stories” or something like that (one of the editors was Carlos Fuentes). I am inclined to think that “he” rather than “it” makes more sense.

    Llosa discusses the story in an earlier Letter called “Time” in the same book, but I could not find an online version of this one.

    Glad you liked the links to Bolano!

    Reply
  3. LUIS

    Even if you speak Spanish, you can’t understand who is the subject, because “DESPERTÓ” is a conjugation of the verb “DESPERTAR”, and that conjugation is for third person. The subject is implicit, so, the subject could be He, She or It.

    And the short story is:
    “Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba ahí.”

    Bye.

    Reply
  4. Another Luis

    The first Luis is right… the original text is:

    “Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí”

    translated: When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there”

    but the alternative is quite interesting as well…

    Reply
  5. Robby

    This article does not touch upon the fact of the ambiguous “he.” He could be a child, or a man, or most intriguingly, the dinosaur himself. This last possibility places us in the dinosaur’s time so very long ago, and introduces the idea that perhaps dinosaurs could dream too, and perhaps this dinosaur even dreamed of our present time, when he no longer existed, and then woke, relieved, to find himself still there, in his own present time. It’s a whole epic journey of the mind that can potentially be inferred from this one sentence. Amazing.

    Reply
  6. kris Bista

    Hey hey! Thanks for the show up! Don’t worry about the translation version. Nothing is actually translated and some thing always get missed in between the translation.

    BTW, this short story tells much bridging the gap between past and present, wake and sleep, was and is, imagination and reality!

    More the reader is to understand!

    Kris
    Troy University
    AL, USA

    Reply
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