A brief survey of the short story part 52: Juan Rulfo
Rulfo is one of the greatest Latin American writers. His spare, startling short fiction, set in tumultous post-revolutionary Mexico, possesses an elemental, universal quality
Tuesday 27 August 2013 13.39 BST
At the turn of the millennium, the Uruguayan daily El País asked writers and critics to vote for the greatest Latin American novel. The winner, by a clear margin, was Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, the book Jorge Luis Borges called one of the best works of Hispanic literature, or indeed of any literature. If the paper had asked its voters to choose the greatest Latin American short story collection, Rulfo's The Plain in Flames would probably have come second only to Borges. Remarkably, these two books, published in 1953 and 1955, constitute two-thirds of Rulfo's entire bibliography, despite the fact that he lived until 1986. "In my life there are many silences," Susan Sontag quotes him as saying. "In my writing, too."
The silences yawn in Rulfo's writing. Its rhythms seem to slow time, and reality's edges fray into a strange gulf. In a story such as They Have Given Us the Land, where a group of peasants trudge across an arid plain, four pages seem to become a vast expanse. It is a negative space, lacking "the shadow of a tree, not even the seed of a tree, not even a root of anything". We are in the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco, Rulfo's birthplace and the territory in which all his startling, bleak fictions unfold. He was born in 1917, and his father and uncle were both killed in the fallout from the Cristero war, in which priests and Catholics tried to overthrow the officially atheist government that formed following the Mexican revolution (1910-1920). Rulfo wrote of his childhood – part of which he spent in an orphanage – that he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, "because you couldn't go out for fear of getting shot". His work, unsurprisingly, is focused on poverty and violence.
As well as always being situated in Jalisco, all Rulfo's short fiction – written in the 1940s and 1950s – is set in the tumultuous post-revolutionary period of his childhood. It was a time when the countryside emptied as the peasants made their way to the cities, their migration the result of lawlessness, failed land reform and government corruption. In Comadre Hill, the narrator's neighbours "would disappear among the oaks, never to be seen again". "From the ranches", Rulfo writes in Paso del Norte, "the people were coming down to the villages; the people from the villages left for the cities. In the cities the people got lost; they dissolved into the people." If it is sometimes easy to forget or ignore this context, it is partly because Rulfo forgoes any details beyond the immediate confines of the story. Additionally, the haunted quality of settings like the forsaken town of Luvina, which originate in his childhood experience of rural depopulation, situate them in an eerie border zone between life and death, reality and surrealism, that feels less like a specific era than a psychological or spiritual state of being.
As a result of this, many of Rulfo's stories possess an elemental, universal quality. In You Don't Hear Dogs Barking, a father carries his wounded son on his shoulders and repeatedly asks him if he can see the village they're looking for. It is night, and the father can't see where he's going. Samuel Beckett might have devised this scenario, with its blend of absurdity, morality and indeterminate horror. As is true of all Rulfo's best work, the story is pared back to the point of starkness, and invested with a crackling energy. In Tell Them Not to Kill Me!, a bold and brilliant cousin to Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, the impact of this energy is immediate and forceful. In Talpa, by contrast, where a dying man's wife and the brother who is cuckolding him make a long, arduous pilgrimage, the effect is more gradual, as a malignant remorse wells in the unfaithful man like the "yellow water" that spills from his brother's sores:
I had never felt life to be slower and more violent than when we were walking among such an accumulation of people; as if we were a swarm of worms all balled together under the sun, wriggling through the cloud of dust that imprisoned all of us on the same road and had us all corralled. Our eyes followed the dust; they stuck to the dust cloud as if they were bumping into something they couldn't get through. And the sky always grey, like a heavy grey spot crushing us from above.
In stories such as It's Because We're So Poor and the political satire The Day of the Collapse, Rulfo displays his talent for dramatic monologue, a technique he appears to have learned from William Faulkner (who also set his work in a single territory that blended realism and the phantasmagorical). Rulfo brought this technique to a state of extremity in his novel Pedro Páramo (1955), the forerunner of which is perhaps his greatest story, Luvina. In Luvina, an educated and exhausted old man sits in a cantina, warning a young traveller about the town he is heading towards. Like Ivan Turgenev's Bezhin Lea, or Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor, Luvina begins with a transition from the everyday world to a stranger plane, as the harsh landscape lying beyond the cantina is described:
The earth is steep. It slashes everywhere into deep ravines, so far down that they disappear, that's how far down they go. People in Luvina say dreams rise out of those ravines; but the only thing I ever saw rise up from there was the wind, whirling, as if it had been imprisoned down below in reed pipes. A wind that doesn't even let bittersweet grow: those sad little plants can barely live, holding on for all they're worth to the side of the cliffs in these hills, as if they were smeared onto the earth.
A mule driver brings the man and his family to Luvina, then rides off, "as if he were fleeing from a place of the devil". Though the town appears deserted, there are people there, but only old men and "abandoned women" who spy on the newcomers. The dead, we are told, can be seen, "passing by like shadows, hugging the walls of the houses, almost dragged along by the wind". Is the town cursed? Is it purgatory? Is the teller of the story, as he gets more drunk, speaking metaphorically or telling tall tales when he says that the dead walk the streets, or that the children born there instantaneously become men and "disappear"? The story presents a series of puzzles and potential interpretations, while Rulfo, typically, gives the reader no clues beyond the man's speech and two short, tight-lipped paragraphs of third-person narration.
Luvina is the last stop before Rulfo crosses, definitively, from this world to the next. Pedro Páramo is, as a friend aptly described it, "a journey into death but not out of it". If Rulfo's short stories are bare structures that we must scour for meaning, reading Pedro Páramo is like hunting for a key in a building that is collapsing around you. You can read Rulfo's slight but dense body of work in a couple of days, but that represents only a first step into territories that are yet to be definitively mapped. Their exploration is one of the more remarkable journeys in literature.
Translations from the work are by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum.
A brief survey of the short story
001 Anton Chekhov
002 HP Lovecraft
003 Mavis Gallant
004 Ryunosuke Akutagawa
005 Raymond Carver
006 Julian Maclaren-Ross
007 Etgar Keret
008 Robert Walser
009 VS Pritchett
010 Grace Paley
011 Katherine Mansfield
012 Heinrich von Kleist
013 Franz Kafka
014 MR James
015 F Scott Fitzgerald
016 Donald Barthelme
017 Jane Bowles
018 Stefan Zweig
019 Ray Badbury
020 Nikolai Gogol
051 Sherwood Anderson