In Praise of Juan Rulfo: Carmen Boullosa, Yuri Herrera, and More…
On the Centenary of a Great Mexican Writer
Born in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a region acutely affected by the violence of the Mexican Revolution, Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) was an unlikely candidate to become one of his nation’s most significant writers of fiction. At six he witnessed his father’s body laid out in the family home after an assassin’s bullet took his life. He was only ten and living in a boarding school in Guadalajara when he received the delayed news that his mother had died—perhaps out of sadness—and had already been placed in the ground. If Rulfo’s familial circumstances were truncated, his academic career fared little better. He entered and abandoned a seminary, was unable to register at the university, and took a short-lived job that he despised as a foreman at one of tire-giant Goodrich-Euzkadi’s production factories. Through it all, Rulfo was nurturing a creative spirit that would burst onto the literary scene when he published a collection of short stories (The Plain in Flames, 1953) and a novel (Pedro Páramo, 1955) that would help usher in the so-called boom of Latin American literature that included Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru).
Rulfo’s rise to the top of Mexico’s literary scene in the 1950s was as startling as the writer’s silence that followed. Critics and aficionados waited for further publications that seemed never to arrive as a myth was born—never accurate—that Rulfo’s expressive output was limited to two books of fiction. The reality is more complex: Rulfo was a talented photographer, for example, and explored creative opportunities in Mexico’s film industry. Surprisingly, the author’s second novel, The Golden Cockerel, was largely overlooked when it appeared belatedly in 1980 and was misidentified as a “film text” (it was penned between 1956 and 1957 and adapted to film in 1964).
Through the years, Rulfo has emerged as one of Latin America’s most beloved and iconic writers, having created one of the more distinctive literary representations of Mexico’s land and people. The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings provides a unique opportunity to look beyond Rulfo’s established volumes. The Golden Cockerel anchors the collection, and it appears in English for the first time. This short novel revels in the world of fairs and festivals that dot the Bajío region of Mexico without succumbing to a folkloric veneration of that domain. The “other writings” of the anthology are an eclectic mix of 14 short texts, including one with a poetic structure, a travel narrative, stories not anthologized in The Plain in Flames, story-like fragments of three novels (two never published), and a letter that Rulfo wrote to his fiancee. All of these items are unique explorations that fit well into Rulfo’s literary oeuvre and often reflect the personal tragedies the author endured as a young child.
My own association with Juan Rulfo dates to the mid-1980s, only months before he died of complications associated with lung cancer. Unaware that the author was living out his illness in a modest Mexico City apartment, I asked a Mexican friend to help me pick out a book or two to take back to the States. In a small bookstore in northern Mexico, that friend pulled from the shelves The Underdogs (Los de abajo), Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the Mexican Revolution, and Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. I read both works and fell immediately in love with Mexican literature. Years later, many of the highlights of my career as a professor and researcher of Latin American literature are connected to Juan Rulfo, including the opportunity to appear in a documentary series (with the working title Juan, the Nomad… 100 Years with Rulfo) that Juan Carlos, the author’s youngest son and Sundance-award-winning filmmaker, just completed to honor his father.
The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings offers English-speaking readers the opportunity to explore one of Mexico’s greatest writers. Its release coincides with the centennial of the author’s birth in May of 1917.
–Douglas J. Weatherford, translator
Guadalupe Nettel: I first encountered The Plain in Flames when I was not yet fourteen, a teenager. At the time I was a great fan of fantastic literature. I had already read Poe, Stevenson, Huxley, and I was devouring Kafka. Our Spanish teacher had assigned Rulfo at the beginning of the school year. But I had decided to postpone the read as long as I could, as I was quite wary of school assignments and preferred to devote myself to books which I considered more interesting. One morning, however, our teacher had announced that some of our parents had complained of its immorality and demanded that the book be banned. The Plain in Flames had suddenly turned into a prohibited read—one that, for that very reason, I absolutely had to get my teeth into. That day, as soon as I got home, I ran straight to my bedroom and read “Macario,” the short story which had caused much of the fuss at school. It was a first-person account of a country boy’s life in which, with complete nonchalance, were recounted the circumstances of his abandonment and the semi-erotic relationship he had developed with his nanny, in whose bosom he would frolic every night. I couldn’t put the book down till I finished it.
In Mexico, the urban and the rural are two separate worlds segregated by many invisible barriers. When I was fourteen I used to take trips to the countryside with my parents, but always with that ever-present prudent attitude of someone venturing in uncharted territory. There I had heard those rural folks speak, though from a safe remove, and therefore I could recognize some features of that slightly different parlance, immune to time—above all, that way of saying things in whispers, that way of never spelling things out completely. The Plain in Flames furtively touched on issues which I already sensed myself: the poverty, the discrimination, the inequality rural people have always suffered. In Rulfo’s stories there were no hospitals or schools, just an expanse of land as dry as “cow skin,” where even birds of prey had a hard time finding food. They made you uncomfortable, and, as I understood it, that was their power and beauty. Don’t ever recoil from the aberrant and always confront the reader with uncomfortable truths he would rather not see—these are two lessons I learnt from that book.
As always with an author that moves me, my reaction after reading Rulfo was to reach for pen and paper and write something trying to imitate his style. But I couldn’t match even one of his sentences. His language was unique: It didn’t belong to the countryside, but it wasn’t urban either. Like Juan Preciado in Comala, Rulfo was a liminal being, he was trapped midway between the rural world where he spent his childhood and the city where he always felt a stranger—those who knew him will confirm this. By means of his language, he conjured up an interstitial space where these two irreconcilable worlds could meet. As a rule, the gateways connecting two independent dimensions are impermanent but dazzling, and that’s exactly how I would describe the two books Rulfo left to us.
—Guadalupe Nettel, author most recently of The Body Where I Was Born, now out in paperback. Text translated from Spanish by Bartolomeo Sala
Carmen Boullosa: I first read Juan Rulfo when I was 15, and attending high school. By then I had already started fashioning my personal pantheon of writers. Emily Brönte was my first pick—she was queen of the gods. I added others (greedily, speedily) to my cult—Cortázar, Arreola, Borges, Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo with their The Book of Fantasy (anthology of fantastic literature). Then Onetti;,Lezama Lima, Octavio Paz, Rosario Castellanos. Then Cervantes, Lope de Vega and, on the top shelf, Quevedo, who made me laugh to tears.
I knew—as we all did—that Pedro Páramo was a masterpiece, but I added Rulfo to my set of gods reluctantly. Not that I didn’t appreciate his novel, but it was a mandatory text at school, and that was a heavy minus—those were the late 1960, we couldn’t trust a recommendation from anyone over 30.
The fact that it was a ghost story was a plus, as was its semi-fragmentary form, and its tough, raw, beautiful prose, but to add to the minuses were his short stories. Though El llano en llamas was no doubt great, I didn’t really feel seduced by its world; to my teenage eyes, its short stories reeked somewhat of the Mexican movies of the 40s, with their “ranchos,” braided señoritas, and gun-toting mustachioed machos, and that was not my thing. I was more into ghosts, enigmas, women’s liberation, sex; I wore miniskirts (then scandalous), read MS, adored Angela Davis, thought of the Revolution…
The pluses won (I did have literary taste), and Rulfo joined my collection.
Three or four years passed. Then one day, I stumbled into Rulfo himself. He was browsing in the bookstore that was closest to my home (“El Ágora”). I followed him surreptitiously, as if I were one of the ghosts of his narrative. And I kept doing so on subsequent visits. I used to walk a couple of steps behind him, keeping my eye on the books he seemed to like. I did the same for weeks, adding (thanks to Rulfo) Cesare Pavese (maybe) and others to my Pantheon.
By then I was in my early twenties. I received a fellowship at the Centro Mexicano de Escritores. Rulfo was one of the three tutors with whom we met monthly through an entire year. It was thrilling to see his reaction to the pages we young writers brought to the sessions. The animosity he and Salvador Elizondo, our second tutor, had, reached mythical heights. If Elizondo loved something, Rulfo rejected it on the spot, and the other way round. When Elizondo kept his mouth shut (too many whiskeys, maybe), then Rulfo expressed love for the same pages he had said he had not liked, only adding minor commentaries. Following the same dynamic, when Rulfo spoke first, Elizondo expressed the contrary opinion. It was a lesson I learned too soon: literary texts are perpetually linked with their context.
It took me a decade to realize that the other books of Juan Rulfo are also jewels. It is true they differ from his first, and if they’re not different, their correspondence is frequently dissonant. El gallo de oro and Rulfo’s short stories are not inhabited by living corpses, instead of living beings that die when they die and are born when they’re born. This gives them a dynamic that distances them from Pedro Páramo’s.
I can’t read Pedro Páramo now. The crude reality intrudes. My country has turned into a graveyard, tens of thousands of disappeared have been dumped with no tomb, unidentified. The last accepted official number was 26,898 and we know the figure is much higher. How can I read Comala and enjoy it, given this situation?
What I can fully enjoy is Rulfo’s El gallo de oro. The novel had not been published when I was in my teens. It can be read as a fable of the power of the powerless, and the rotten one of the powerful—even when their roots belong to the powerless. It has many other readings. The novel has gone wild in my mind.
As per Pedro Páramo, could it be it had perversely been chosen as mandatory by the one party State to prepare my connationals for today’s Mexico’s nightmare?
–Carmen Boullosa, author of Texas: The Great Theft (and many more novels).
Dylan Brennan: There is an exquisite sense of tension in the stories and novels of Juan Rulfo. The earthly and the ghostly are interwoven throughout. The first Rulfo story I read was “Talpa” and I’ve been hooked ever since. “Talpa” tells the story of a pilgrimage undertaken by a dying man, his wife, and his brother (the latter two are carrying on an illicit affair). Tanilo embarks upon a doomed pilgrimage in the hope that the Virgin of Talpa can stop his physical suffering. While alive he is riddled with sores and beset on all sides by the stench of death. While dead his presence seems to interpose itself between his wife and brother. In this way, the barrier between worlds begins to fade. A fragmented, non-linear chronology completes the effect. After this introduction, it was not long until I got round to reading Pedro Páramo, Rulfo’s first novel. Without wanting to give too much away to any uninitiated readers, in this masterfully constructed text, the real and the phantasmagorical, the substantial and the ethereal, all jostle for prominence throughout, leading to a startling revelation concerning the nature of both narrator and characters. I remember exactly where I was when I read it for the first time. I suspect most readers of Pedro Páramo feel the same way.
I wrote my doctoral thesis on the cinematic and photographic work of Rulfo and recently co-edited (alongside Prof. Nuala Finnegan, director of the Centre for Mexican Studies at University College Cork) a collection of essays entitled Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World. Prose, Photography, Film. As the title suggests, part of the aim of the book was to draw attention to Rulfo’s powerful interventions in the areas of photography and cinema. As Douglas Weatherford notes, “one of the most persistent myths in the Latin American literary tradition,” is that Rulfo was the author of just two books. I hope my academic work will go some way to redress this glaring gap in Rulfian academia.
As for influence and inspiration in my own work? Well, when it comes to poetry, I have always felt that the only themes that are really worth writing about are life, death and desire. Rulfo explored all of these to startling effect. Most of us trail in his wake, I know I do.
–Dylan Brennan, author of the poetry collection Blood Oranges
Yuri Herrera: The human element is a particle lost in the depths of time, in Rulfo’s work. It contains more than what is apparent: at every given moment, we carry around the weight of our origins and the weight of our mistakes. Perhaps that is why Rulfo’s main ideas deal with where we came from, what kind of fortune has been dealt to us, and how we can attempt to take revenge on all that.
Juan Rulfo does not run away from darkness, he embraces our obscure spot in the universe, conscious that it contains everything: the geometry of the world of senses and the disquiet of the ineffable. He traveled around Mexico as a tire salesman and as a public servant with the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. He used the textures of the country, his understanding of history, and the disillusionment and rage at history to become a storyteller, but his art is not a simple “representation” or (worse) a “reflection” of reality. Rulfo’s “realism” reveals a finely tuned ear and a great talent for observation, but mainly the capacity to put forward the connotations of silence. “Reality” is not the core of his literature, but what allows for the emergence of broader truths.
Juan Rulfo is our most important author. Although he wrote several pieces for film and multiple texts as part of his work as an editor, the base of his work consists of a novel and a book of short stories. They were enough to establish a matrix that keeps illuminating our present-day drama. His characters and stories are not dated, but in fact function as a metonymy of Mexico and of the universal tragedy that art endeavors to illuminate.
–Yuri Herrera, author most recently of Signs Preceding the End of the World
The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, by Juan Rulfo, is available now from Deep Vellum.