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OPINION

Twice as brief

The joys of aphorisms

We are told that when the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci was dying, he was asked if he repented of anything he had done in life. He answered admirably: "Yes, I repent of everything." Then they asked him if he could be a little more concrete. And he replied: "Yes, I repent of having written in four words what I might have written in three."

In this sense, Merlina Acevedo has nothing much to repent of. Who is Merlina Acevedo? Well, I admit I had never heard of her before. Her chief, indeed only, work seems to be a collection of aphorisms titled Peones de Troya (Pawns of Troy). In reading these small gems of brevity, you often feel the sort of lightning flash that betrays a writer of quality. To discover a writer is always a pleasure; all the more so if you never heard of her before, and she writes in your own language.

On the internet I find that Merlina Acevedo is 43, Mexican, a painter, a composer and a player of chess. For the qualities of short and sweet, try these: "No one knows what he doesn't know, until he has to invent it." Or: "In childhood we were all immortal." Or: "Exaggerated pessimism is optimism in its purest expression." Or: "Self-love always falls in love with the wrong person." Another bullseye: "Brevity is an approximation to the infinite."

I have never taken much of an interest in cars, but this summer, as I crossed Germany in a rented gas-guzzling speedball, spending money I haven't got, visiting car museums and taking a turn at suicidal speed on the Nürburgring circuit, I felt like the happiest guy on the third planet from the sun. I was with my son, who inherited car mania from my father, and I often thought of a story a friend had told me. He had once dined with a Mexican magnate - reputed to be one of the world's richest men - whom he lightly asked if he would switch places with anyone, or envied anyone. To my friend's surprise the magnate took the question very seriously. He thought a while, his brow contracted in a frown. Who could he envy, this man who had everything? But presently his brow cleared and he said: "Yes. I envy my son."

One morning long ago Mr Fuertes, our teacher of French and Castilian in my school days, launched into a flight of eloquence in praise of brevity, as fervent as Merlina Acevedo's, copied above. Amid the hubbub of the classroom, he got so entangled in his own words as to produce a memorable pleonasm that some of us who heard it can never forget, and which I think deserves the humble posterity of the title of an article: "The brief, if brief, is twice as brief."

 

In spite of my exceptional modesty, I consider myself the world heavyweight champion in the field of guilty conscience. I was always in agreement with Spinoza when he affirms that remorse is one of the worst enemies of the human race (the other is hatred).

Remorse is a something repugnant and sad, that diminishes our capacity for action and in the long run destroys us. But this summer, while crossing Germany from end to end with my son in a rented speedball, I never spent a day without reading Wislawa Szymborska, a tremendous Polish poetess. And one night I came to an amazing poem titled In praise of a bad opinion of oneself . Here you read that the predatory eagle regrets nothing, that the black panther is devoid of scruples, that the piranha never doubts the decency of his actions. It concludes: "On the third planet of the sun / a conscience clean and calm / is the primordial symptom of an animal nature."

Then, as well as being immensely happy, I felt brutally intelligent. The second feeling was a brief one.