Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on The Alphabet

This blog post is part of the ‘Why We Like These Stories’ series: a series of personal essays from the staff of Boydell and Brewer and University of Rochester Press on their favourite short stories and why they like them to celebrate Short Story Month. For the full list of essays, click here.

I first read Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Alphabet” while waiting in line for the English Department photocopier with Professor Juana Rodríguez.  She was prepping material for her upcoming course on translation and I was wrapping up the last few tasks remaining to my job as a research assistant.  We started talking about her course and she handed me Valenzuela’s story, which is short enough to read while standing up and holding stack of books with a copier complaining in the background.  It blew my mind. I think Juana hoped it would, as we had very different ideas about literature or, more accurately, different priorities when analyzing text (she sees the forest and I see the trees, tree if I’m totally honest).

“The Alphabet” is about a man (he remains anonymous) who wakes up to his alarm clock one morning and decides to live deliberately and methodically from that moment forth, embracing the alphabet, “the basis of human understanding,” as his life’s organizing principle.

Starting with the letter “A,” he allows the alphabet to rule every aspect of his life: his emotions (“he adored Anna”), where he goes (“airborne from Argentina to Alaska”), what he eats (“asparagus, anchovies, avocado aspic”), his politics (he “attacked abortionists and assassinated his aunt”), etc.  The second month, “B” rules his life and there’s no looking back. Although the burned brassières, blown up balloons, bombed banks, and burglarized bookstores must wreak havoc on his world, “Things were quite neat, alphabetically speaking.” The protagonist’s flawless progression through the alphabet lacks other continuity and causality, and it seems to protect him from the consequences of his actions – strict adherence to its rules makes him exempt from those of rival systems, including the rule of law. The peril of alphabetizing one’s life catches up to him in the fourth month, however, when he abruptly dies of dysentery.

Valenzuela’s story is charming and familiar in its similarity to word games and children’s rhymes, and there’s a certain twisted, structural satisfaction to the brutally deadpan, off-hand ending of the alphabetical experiment, the man’s life, and the story itself all in one fell swoop. The problem for a translator, however, is also immediately apparent – you can’t translate the story word-for-word without losing the absolutely vital alphabetic word play. In the Spanish original, the protagonist could “amó Anna” but he would never have assassinated his aunt (asesinó a su tía) in the first month.  Who, then, was assassinated?  Was anyone at all? So many possible readings and death is literally in the details! Unable to make the usual kind of sense of specific words because spelling was driving Valenzuela’s diction and its translation rather than semantics or even sound, my mind boggled and my brain broke at the copy machine, trying to translate from the English back into Spanish to reconstruct the original from the translation (impossible!) and intuit what was essential to the story that should communicate across disparate languages (nigh on!).  Juana looked worried.

The world that Valenzuela creates for her protagonist takes a proposition like Wittgenstein’s famous “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” ad absurdum. Her protagonist thinks in only one letter a month (or a week in Spanish), and the world of the story becomes limited to that letter. Unbeknownst to him, how far he can take his experiment – and indeed his life – becomes wholly determined by where in the alphabet the word “to die” lies. The fact that the word’s location changes significantly from language to language – en español, the protagonist makes it halfway through his alphabetical experiment before he “murió de meningitis” while in English the experiment ends just as it’s begun – emphasizes just how capricious the protagonist’s “method” really is and how illusory choice or control. (As a side note, Wittgenstein would have made it even further in German than we could in either Spanish or English – he might have starb an einem Schlaganfall or even getötet von Tetanus.)  The world of Valenzuela’s story also seems to literalize Novalis’s monologue on language: “the man who has a fine feeling for its tempo, its fingering, its musical spirit, who can hear with his inward ear the fine effects of its inner nature and raises his voice or hand accordingly, he shall surely be a prophet; on the other hand the man who knows how to write truths like this, but lacks a feeling and an ear for language, will find language making a game of him.”  Valenzuela’s protagonist initially seems like someone who hears the musical spirit of language and raises his hand accordingly, but she reveals that language has always already been making a game of him.

The delightful wordplay that shines on the surface of Valenzuela’s story also reveals its depths – it is a commentary on how we delimit the world in language and so it is existential and philosophical, but her larger critique of ideology applies equally well to other systems, be they political, economic, religious, etc.  Valenzuela sees potential in human intellect and experimentation, but she also exposes the perilous absurdity of holding to any system too closely and unquestionably.  This pithy, playful story confronts us with the limits of our agency and invites us to think critically about why we do what we do and how we make and find meaning in the world. In any language, Valenzuela’s story is charming, inventive, and potentially revolutionary. That’s why I like this story.

I hope you discover “The Alphabet” for yourself, and I do suggest you read it sitting down.  “El abecedario” by Luisa Valenzuela appears in Los heréticos (Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós, 1967): 73-74. It was translated into English as “The Alphabet” in 1976 by Hortense Carpentier and J. Jorge Castello for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and published as Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel. The story has also been translated into German, but I can’t find it anywhere.

Sharon Magnarelli explores much more of Luisa Valenzuela’s work in A Companion to Latin American Women Writers! Check out her chapter and discover a wide range of literary perspectives and styles of Latin American women writers including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Silvina Ocampo, Clarice Lispector, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and Laura Restrepo.

A Companion to Latin American Women Writers is 40% off during our Short Story Month Sale. Use promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.

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