Juan Rulfo is perhaps the best writer of fiction in Latin America today, and a writer to be reckoned with on a universal scale, as his fame continues to spread beyond his native Mexico. If we take soundings here and there of his reputation, in Europe—France, Germany, Spain—or in the countries of South America, we find the critical acclaim swelling constantly.
Born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1918, Rulfo published his first short stories in the provincial little magazines of Guadalajara in the 1940's. Later on he moved to Mexico City, where the two books which have brought him such celebrity were published: his collection of short stories El llano en llamas (1953), translated here, followed by his singular short novel Pedro Páramo (1955), which Grove Press brought out in English translation. A second novel, called La Cordillera, which Rulfo evidently has been working on for several years, has long been announced as forthcoming by his Mexican publishers.
Most critics of Rulfo's work have concentrated their attention on his brilliant novel Pedro Páramo, a bold excursion into modern techniques of writing; however, Rulfo achieves some of his finest moments in the short stories, where the elaboration of a single event or the introspection of a single character allows him to illuminate the meaning, often the utter despair, of a man's life.
Rulfo's world is extremely primitive and profoundly alien to us, at least in its outer aspect, though it is plagued within by the same convulsive agony and fears that strike men's hearts everywhere. The atmosphere is full of repressions and is often mute-a paralytic world seemingly beyond the orbits of time and space. Crude and perverse passions, solitude and death stand out as tangible phenomena against the opaqueness of the Indian characters' tragic lives.
The novels of the Mexican Revolution, beginning with The Underdogs (1916) by Mariano Azuela, which dominated the Mexican literary scene for several decades, portrayed a turbulent world where the individual all but disappeared at times. In the 1940's, with such works as Agustin Yáñez's The Edge of the Storm, and in the 1950's, with the novels and stories of Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, and Juan Rulfo, this collective mask is largely stripped away. The Indians who live and die on the burning Plain in Jalisco are usually treated by Rulfo as individuals with interior lives full of anguish as well as exterior lives of struggle against hardship and abuse. Behind their innocent faces often lurk unspeakable horrors of tragedy and violence: murder, incest, adultery, all the violence of need and desire. These characters seem to live on grief and suffering without friends or love. Indeed, love is an emotion which scarcely appears in these stories, though it plays an important role in Pedro Páramo.
Rulfo peels many of his characters down to the core, but some of them, like the landscape, frequently clouded over and hazy, remain blurred, imprecise, and taciturn figures. They are never seen in full face, but always in a silhouette, like the lugubrious, black-garbed crones of "Luvina." The one thing standing forth clear and ubiquitous is death—overpowering life—which seems to hold scant value in this world.
Rulfo has an uncanny feeling for describing the bleak landscape. In the harsh area where his characters live almost nothing stirs or moves, not even buzzards. Life seems to have come to a stop in this paralyzed region, producing a static quality in many of the stories. Macario, for instance, starts out on his rambling monologue, "I am sitting by the sewer waiting for the frogs to come out." And he is still there waiting at the end of the story.
A black, macabre humor of a very special order runs through the collection as a leitmotiv. It is most persistent in "Anacleto Morones," a tale streaked with naturalistic touches: the description of the foetus, and of Pancha's mustache, the vomiting, the women streaming sweat. But the characters' suffering and unhappiness in this bizarre story of a pseudo saint's hypnotic power over ten middle-aged hags occasionally blots out the predominate, acrid humorous tone.
Unlike the novels of the Mexican Revolution and certain Indianist novels of the 1930's, Rulfo's fiction contains no preaching about social abuses, though he refers briefly to the Mexican agrarian question in several stories and sketches the wetback problem most effectively in "El Paso del Norte." Large social ills are commented on dispassionately only when they have bearing on the personal dramas Rulfo is unfolding.
Various techniques which have oriented contemporary fiction along new pathways are present in The Burning Plain. Some stories are one long, sustained, interior monologue ("Macario," "We're Very Poor," "Talpa," "Remember"). In "Macario" the past and present mingle chaotically, and frequently the most startling associations of ideas are juxtaposed, strung together by conjunctions which help to paralyze the action and stop the flow of time in the present. Rulfo succeeds in this excellent story in capturing the sickly atmosphere surrounding the idiot boy, who is gnawed by hunger and filled with the terror of hell, and protected, and at the same time exploited, by his Godmother and the servant girl Felipa.
Dialogues are inserted in other stories that are essentially monologues, sustained by the same person who reconstructs situations and scenes from memory ("Luvina," "They've Given Us the Land," "Anacleto Morones"). In "At Daybreak" and "The Man" the action takes place on several levels simultaneously. In the entire collection the pace is slow and sometimes comes to a halt, giving the static effect of eternity that has so caught the critics' attention. As one Mexican commentator aptly declares, there is a triumph of characters over plot, of persons over acts, of the author over time.
In "Talpa"—a classic tale of adultery in which the gripping emotion is not love or desire, but remorse—we are told the outcome of the story at the very beginning. But the suspense, rather than being destroyed by this technique, becomes sharper under Rulfo's dramatic handling. Chronology is broken effectively here, too, and time is immobilized.
A few stories are scarcely more than anecdotes, like "The Night They Left Him Alone," when Feliciano managed to save himself from being hanged like his two unfortunate uncles. Rulfo unfolds this tale in all its dramatic force, pruning away superfluous material, but repeating details and reiterating phrases that give punch to the story.
Rulfo's narratives are composed with the greatest attention to dramatic effects. He knows how to begin a story with a sentence or two of the right cadence to grasp and hold the reader. Urgency, tension, conflict fill the air. For instance, the opening lines of "No Dogs Bark" set the tone of mystery and doom in a brief dialogue between father and son, a foreboding note swollen with uncertainty that permeates the entire story. The dramatic effect is intensified by the short, agonizing sentences of the dialogue, and the narrative's principal action between the father's words and the son's silence. Here, as in the majority of these stories, the author narrates in a few, brief pages an intense, intimate drama, terse of language, somber in color, with no exterior character description. With remarkable skill Rulfo succeeds in provoking a static impression with his throbbing, dynamic fragments of life.
The technical complexity varies from one story to another: some are relatively simple and develop chronologically, others have different points of view and shifts and shufflings in time. Flashbacks, interior monologues and dialogues with subtle undertones, and an occasional passage of impersonal reflection are employed to give the effect of simultaneity. Time fluctuates among the levels of the present and the causal past, which is vivid in the characters' memories and usually rancorous in its recollections.
The spontaneity of Rulfo's monologues and dialogues is deceptive and points to a conscientious, hard labor on his part to reach this level of stylistic polish. He writes a splendid prose of firm muscularity, its contours never sagging with long patches of commentary. The language is sparse and laconic, unflinchingly realistic, yet charged with poetic qualities. His imagery has a marked rural flavor: earth, rocks, dust, wind, moon, buzzards, coyotes. This imagery never intrudes upon the narrative; it either serves to point up what he is suggesting or else takes on an essential role in the story. In "We're Very Poor" the central image is the river, bringing perdition and ruin in its wake. The river's presence runs through the story, as Rulfo makes us feel its swirling, filthy waters through all our senses. We hear its lapping waves, we smell the stench it leaves as the flood subsides, we witness and shudder at the dirty tears streaming down Tacha's face "as if the river had gotten inside her."
Dominant in Rulfo's stories are the themes of vengeance and death, and the struggle and desire to live. Human nature must always and inevitably assert itself, and in these tales of Biblical power and simplicity it does so convincingly. Rulfo's characters are moved by greed, hate, lust, revenge; they are hampered by fate and beset on all sides by the problems of daily existence. Reality is unendurable but must be faced. Man is abject and lonely. He seeks communication but usually is thwarted. Several stories in the collection, for example, treat the lack of understanding between father and son with particular poignancy. In the domain of violence Rulfo is supreme, and this is all the more impressive as the tone of his writing never becomes rhetorical. It remains calm and measured, pervaded with a classical dignity.
Rulfo's work has immense literary vitality and extraordinary originality. His stories shock and grip us, and many of them make us feel that we are sharing in his characters' pathetic anxiety just to live, to stay alive ("Tell Them Not To Kill Me," "Talpa"). The elements of the harsh physical environment combine with the Mexican Indian's fatalism to forge almost a symbiosis of man and landscape. The parched, dry plain is overwhelming. The Indian accepts life as it is there, and his acts are almost inevitable. He is perpetually in flight, or wracked by fear, mistrust, and remorse, often losing his few cherished possessions and his peace of mind. Impotence and despair reign, and death rattles in the scorching air, the howling wind, the throttling dust of the plain.
"You up there, Ignacio! Don't you hear something or see a light somewhere?"
"I can't see a thing."
We ought to be near now."
"Yes, but I can't hear a thing."
"Look hard. Poor Ignacio."
The long black shadow of the men kept moving up and down, climbing over rocks, diminishing and increasing as it advanced along the edge of the arroyo. It was a single reeling shadow.
The moon came out of the earth like a round flare.
"We should be getting to that town, Ignacio. Your ears are uncovered, so try to see if you can't hear dogs barking. Remember they told us Tonaya was right behind the mountain. And we left the mountain hours ago. Remember, Ignacio?"
"Yes, but I don't see a sign of anything."
"I'm getting tired."
"Put me down."
The old man backed up to a thick wall and shifted his load but didn't let it down from his shoulders. Though his legs were buckling on him, he didn't want to sit down, because then he would be unable to lift his son's body, which they had helped to sling on his back hours ago. He had carried him all this way.
"How do you feel?"
Ignacio didn't talk much. Less and less all the time. Now and then he seemed to sleep. At times he seemed to be cold. He trembled. When the trembling seized him, his feet dug into his father's flanks like spurs. Then his hands, clasped around his father's neck, clutched at the head and shook it as if it were a rattle.
The father gritted his teeth so he wouldn't bite his tongue, and when the shaking was over he asked, "Does it hurt a lot?"
"Some," Ignacio answered.
First Ignacio had said, "Put me down here— Leave me here— You go on alone. I'll catch up with you tomorrow, or as soon as I get a little better." He'd said this some fifty times. Now he didn't say it.
There was the moon. Facing them. A large red moon that filled their eyes with light and stretched and darkened its shadow over the earth.
"I can't see where I'm going any more," the father said. No answer.
The son up there was illumined by the moon. His face, discolored, bloodless, reflected the opaque light. And he here below.
"Did you hear me, Ignacio? I tell you I can't see you very well."
Falteringly, the father continued. He hunched his body over, then straightened up to stumble on again.
"This is no road. They told us Tonaya was behind the hill. We've passed the hill. And you can't see Tonaya, or hear any sound that would tell us it is close. Why won't you tell me what you see up there, Ignacio?"
"Put me down, Father."
"Do you feel bad?"
"I'll get you to Tonaya. There I'll find somebody to take care of you. They say there's a doctor in the town. I'll take you to him. I've already carried you for hours, and I'm not going to leave you lying here now for somebody to finish off."
He staggered a little. He took two or three steps to the side, then straightened up again.
"I'll get you to Tonaya."
"Let me down."
His voice was faint, scarcely a murmur. " I want to sleep a little."
"Sleep up there. After all, I've got a good hold on you."
The moon was rising, almost blue, in a clear sky. Now the old man's face, drenched with sweat, was flooded with light. He lowered his eyes so he wouldn't have to look straight ahead, since he couldn't bend his head, tightly gripped in his son's hands.
"I'm not doing all this for you. I'm doing it for your dead mother. Because you were her son. That's why I'm doing it. She would've haunted me if I'd left you lying where I found you and hadn't picked you up and carried you to be cured as I'm doing. She's the one who gives me courage, not you. From the first you've caused me nothing but trouble, humiliation, and shame."
He sweated as he talked. But the night wind dried his sweat. And over the dry sweat, he sweated again.
"I'll break my back, but I'll get to Tonaya with you, so they can ease those wounds you got. I'm sure as soon as you feel well you'll go back to your bad ways. But that doesn't matter to me any more. As long as you go far away, where I won't hear anything more of you. As long as you do that—Because as far as I'm concerned, you aren't my son any more. I've cursed the blood you got from me. My part of it I've cursed. I said, 'Let the blood I gave him rot in his kidneys: I said it when I heard you'd taken to the roads, robbing and killing people—Good people. My old friend Tranquilino, for instance. The one who baptized you. The one who gave you your name. Even he had the bad luck to run into you. From that time on I said, 'That one cannot be my son.'
"See if you can't see something now. Or hear something. You'll have to do it from up there because I feel deaf."
"I don't see anything."
"Too bad for you, Ignacio."
"You'll have to stand it. We must be near now. Because it's now very late at night they must've turned out the lights in the town. But at least you should hear dogs barking. Try to bear."
"Give me some water."
"There's no water here. Just stones. You'll have to stand it. Even if there was water, I wouldn't let you down to drink. There's nobody to help me lift you up again, and I can't do it alone."
"I'm awfully thirsty and sleepy."
"I remember when you were born. You were that way then. You woke up hungry and ate and went back to sleep. Your mother had to give you water, because you'd finished all her milk. You couldn't be filled up. And you were always mad and yelling. I never thought that in time this madness would go to your head. But it did. Your mother, may she rest in peace, wanted you to grow up strong. She thought when you grew up you'd look after her. She only had you. The other child she tried to give birth to killed her. And you would've killed her again, if she'd lived till now."
The man on his back stopped gouging with his knees. His feet began to swing loosely from side to side. And it seemed to the father that Ignacio's head, up there, was shaking as if he were sobbing.
On his hair he felt thick drops fall.
"Are you crying, Ignacio? The memory of your mother makes you cry, doesn't it? But you never did anything for her. You always repaid us badly. Somehow your body got filled with evil instead of affection. And now you see? They've wounded it. What happened to your friends? They were all killed. Only they didn't have anybody. They might well have said, 'We have nobody to be concerned about.' But you, Ignacio?"
At last, the town. He saw roofs shining in the moonlight. He felt his son's weight crushing him as the back of his knees buckled in a final effort. When he reached the first dwelling, he leaned against the wall by the sidewalk. He slipped the body off, dangling, as if it had been wrenched from him.
With difficulty he unpried his son's fingers from around his neck. When he was free, he heard the dogs barking everywhere. "And you didn't hear them, Ignacio?" he said. "You didn't even help me listen."