Monday, October 4, 2021

Juan Rulfo by Carmen Boullosa

Juan Rulfo

On the Centenary of a Great Mexican Writer

Juan Rulfo


By Carmen Boullosa

May 17, 2017

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).


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