Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Téllez’s writing is distinctive for its economy of words. Descriptions and explanations are kept to a minimum, and superfluous adjectives are eliminated. Suppressing information is a technique used to hold the reader’s attention. For example, the remarkably short opening sentences establish several unknowns: Who came in? Where is he? Why does he inspire fear? Who is sharpening a blade, and why? As one reads on, some questions are answered as new ones emerge.

The conversation between Torres and the barber consists of scant, but key, facts. The reader must play close attention not to miss any important clue. After building interest with just enough information about the two characters, the author introduces suspense as another technique to hold the reader’s attention. At first, only limited knowledge is granted. Then an abundance of detail is supplied, thus suggesting its importance to the plot. For example, minute focus on the captain’s hair growth and texture, his cheeks, chin, neck, the consistency of the lather, and even the angle of the blade as it is maneuvered over the customer’s face creates expectations in the reader.

Throughout the narration, the barber reiterates just how good he is with a razor while he reminds himself of this customer’s crimes. The reader is thus convinced of both the barber’s ability and motive to kill Torres. “And how easy it would be to kill him,” thinks the barber, “he deserves it.” The barber also repeatedly expresses ambivalence, highlighted by his fear, nervousness, and profuse sweating. The following sequence illustrates the protagonist’s wavering, which keeps the reader in suspense: “I could cut this throat just so, zip! zip! . . . But I’m trembling like a real murderer. . . . I’m sure that one solid stroke, one deep incision, would prevent any pain. . . . But what would I do with the body?” This inscription of self-doubt keeps the reader guessing and interested in the resolution. Another ingredient that maintains suspense in the story is the race against the clock. Considering his skill at shaving, it should not take the barber long to finish his task.

The surprise ending is another technique that prevents the plot’s intrigue from dissolving. The ending paradoxically eliminates the possibility of an end to the story. There is no closure to the situation, as there seems to be no end to the violence in Colombia. As if coming full circle, the captain’s exit from the barbershop arouses as many questions for the reader, and as much fear for the barber, as does his arrival at the beginning of the story.