Two Flash Nonfictions

translated by Curtis Bauer
Man writing a note
Photo: Pixabay

These two short meditations by Mexican writer Fabio Morábito both circle back to the same place: language’s confounding determination to elude our dominion.

The Perfect Note

I’m fascinated by the story of that man whose wife asked him to write a note for their son who had been absent from school. While she hurries to finish preparing to leave for school with their child, the man wrestles with the note at the dining room table: he removes a comma, puts it back in, crosses out a sentence and writes a new one, until the woman, who is waiting at the door, loses her patience, rips the page from his hands, and without even sitting down scribbles a few lines, signs her name, and runs out. It was only a school note, but for the husband, who was a well-known writer, there was no such thing as a harmless text, and even the most insignificant thing posed problems of efficiency and style.

A writer is someone who faces the failure of writing and makes this failure, so to speak, his mission, while others simply compose.

He wanted to write the perfect note, the man confessed in an interview, and I’m not surprised, because a writer is someone who faces the failure of writing and makes this failure, so to speak, his mission, while others simply compose. We can stretch this anecdote out and imagine someone who, noose in hand, about to hang himself from a roof beam, prepares to write a few parting lines, picks up a pen, and writes the proverbial phrase that he doesn’t blame anyone for his death. Up to that point things are going well, but he decides to add a few lines to apologize to his loved ones, and, because he is a writer, he stops composing and starts writing. Two hours later we find him sitting at the table, noose forgotten on a chair, crossing out adjectives, and revising the same sentence over and over to give it just the right tone. When he finishes he’s exhausted, hungry, and the last thing he wants to do is commit suicide. Style has saved his life, but perhaps it was because of style that he wanted to end it; perhaps one of the reasons for his action was the conviction that he was a failed writer, and perhaps he is, as are all those who intend to write the perfect note, which are the only ones worth reading. They write to justify that they write, the pen in one hand and a noose in the other.

A Stupid Dictionary

I bought it years ago in an old bookstore, whose owner warned me: “It’s a stupid dictionary. If you’re interested, I’ll give it to you for a good price.” I bought it because it was cheap and I was drawn to the idea of owning a stupid dictionary. Back at my house I opened it and searched for the definition of “house”: “Regular construction, usually with a roof and windows, of different materials and shapes, which defends the human being from the weather and outside dangers.” It seemed to be a very sensible definition. I checked the Royal Academy Spanish dictionary, which defines “house” concisely: “Building for dwelling.” I reread the definition in the stupid dictionary and, indeed, compared to the succinctness of the RASD, it was a bit excessive. Why a “regular” construction? Can a construction be irregular? And why reduce the house to a defensive space? The definition of the RASD was unimprovable. Nothing of regularity or irregularity, nothing of roofs and windows, nothing of defending oneself from the outside. I searched for “yard” in the stupid dictionary: “Part of the home, of different shape and size, with plants and flowers, usually surrounded by a fence and for the pleasure of those who inhabit it.” I searched for “yard” in the RASD and read: “Ground where plants are grown for ornamental purposes.” Concise and to the point, and flowers aren’t even mentioned. I closed the stupid dictionary and put it in the bookcase. It erred on the side of being loquacious and imaginative, but it was nothing stupid. Certainly, of greater stupidity is a dictionary that, when talking about a yard, doesn’t mention flowers and includes “plants for ornamental purposes,” which will compel more than one reader to conduct a new search, while “flowers” is even understood by children. But the use of such laconic definitions that so often imprison us in an endless circle of definitions isn’t so stupid either, because isn’t it true that we all understand the word “flowers,” because maybe, except for children, nobody fully understands any word, neither with the help of a dictionary that, teeming with common sense, seems to be stupid, nor with the other that, for some complete deficiency of it, seems even more so.

Translations from the Spanish
By Curtis Bauer

Fabio Morábito lives in Mexico City and teaches at the Autonomous University of Mexico. He is a celebrated translator from the Italian and the author of more than fifteen books: poetry, short stories, novels, and essay collections, including El idioma materno (The mother tongue), from which this sample is drawn.

Curtis Bauer is is the author of three poetry collections and translator of prose and poetry from Spanish. He is the recipient of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and a Banff International Literary Translation Centre fellowship. His translation of Jeannette Clariond’s Image of Absence won the International Latino Book Award for the “Best Nonfiction Book Translation from Spanish to English.” He teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Texas Tech University.