Rarely does a writer publish two successful first books within the short span of two years, as was the case with Rulfo. His collection of short stories became an instant success, and although his novel, due to its complex structure, was not well received when it first appeared in 1955, it was later recognized by critics as a work of extraordinary merit, worthy of detailed analysis, not only for its original structure but also for its poetic style and dramatic plot.
Although many years passed before another work by Rulfo appeared, the fame that the two early volumes gave him has not diminished. On the contrary, studies dedicated to his fiction, which now number several books and hundreds of articles, continue to appear, and his works have been translated into the principal languages of the world. No less important are the awards he received, including the Premio Nacional de Letras in Mexico City in 1970, and the Premio Príncipe de Asturias in Madrid in 1983. The Mexican Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, INBA) presented an homage in his honor in 1980 and published a collection of one hundred of his best photographs, for Rulfo was also an accomplished photographer. The same year the Fondo de Cultura Económica edited deluxe editions of his works.
Recognition did not come easily to Rulfo, whose early years were plagued with disappointments and even misfortune. He was born on 16 May 1918, in Apulco, a small community near the town of Sayula in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico. His ancestors had come from northern Spain during the latter part of the eighteenth century and had settled in Nueva Galicia, as the region of which Jalisco was the center was called during the colonial period. There his father, Juan Nepomuceno Pérez, and his mother, María Vizcaíno Arias, were born. He himself explained why he bears the surname Rulfo:
My name is Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo
Vizcaíno. . . . My father was called Juan Nepomuceno, my paternal
[maternal] grandfather was Carlos Vizcaíno; the name Rulfo I have
because of Juan del Rulfo, a "caribe" adventurer, so called because he
served under José María Calleja, alias "El Caribe," who had a daughter
called María Rulfo Navarro, who married my paternal grandfather, José
María Jiménez. This Juan del Rulfo arrived in Mexico toward the end of
the eighteenth century.
(Roffé, Reina, ed. Juan Rulfo: Autobiografía armada. Buenos Aires, 1973)
In the year Rulfo was born the country was still in turmoil as a result of the revolution that Francisco I. Madero had started in 1910. Although Madero had been elected president and the fighting had stopped, he was assassinated in 1913 and the armed struggle was renewed and did not end until 1920, the year Alvaro Obregón was elected president for a four-year term. It was perhaps with the purpose of obtaining greater security that Rulfo's family moved soon after his birth to the city of San Gabriel, not far from his birthplace:
I went to elementary school in San Gabriel, that is my
world. I lived there until I was ten. It is one of those towns that
have lost even their name. Now it is called Venustiano Carranza. There
I and my brothers lived with my grandmother · a descendant of the Arias,
probably from Andalucía.
(ibid., p. 46)
In San Gabriel people told the young boy stories about ghosts, about wars, about crimes. And there, at that early age, he learned the art of the popular storyteller, an art that he was later to utilize to great advantage in his own stories, some of which take place in San Gabriel, as does his novel Pedro Páramo.
Rulfo was in San Gabriel when the Cristero revolt broke out in 1926, a religious war that was the aftermath of the revolution of 1910. As a child he experienced some of the events of this war, which left a permanent impression on him. Speaking of that struggle Rulfo has said that it was
an internal war that broke out . . . against the
federal government. There was a decree that enforced an article of the
Revolution [Constitution] according to which priests were forbidden to
mix in politics and the churches became the property of the state, as
they are today. A set number of priests was assigned to each village,
in accordance with its population. Of course, people protested.
(Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. "Juan Rulfo, or the Souls of the Departed." In Into the Mainstream. New York, 1967).
Before making the above statement he had published the short story "La noche que lo dejaron solo" ("The Night They Left Him Behind"), dealing with that conflict as seen from the perspective of a young boy who accompanies his two uncles, helping them to bring arms to the cristeros, as the rebels fighting the federal government were called due to their war cry, Viva Cristo Rey! (Long Live Christ the King!). As is characteristic in Rulfo's fiction, the story ends tragically, with the two uncles killed by the federales. The boy is mysteriously saved, as he inexplicably falls asleep on the way and is left behind. This tragic sense of life that pervades Rulfo's fiction is probably derived from the fact that his father was assassinated when Juan was only seven years old. Some critics have said that his father was killed by a peon. Rulfo has stated that "they killed him while he was fleeing . . . and my uncle was also assassinated" (Roffé, p. 31).
After his mother died of a heart attack in 1927, Rulfo and his two brothers lived with their grandmother until they were sent to Guadalajara in 1928, to be placed in the Luis Silva School for orphan children, where he was to remain until 1932. "When the cristeros ran us out of there I arrived in Guadalajara. I was already an orphan. For thirteen pesos a month they registered me in the Orfanatorio Silva, a kind of correctional school" (Cortés Tamayo, 1959, p. 4). Before leaving San Gabriel, however, he had begun to develop an interest in reading, since the town's priest had left his private library with his grandmother for safe keeping while he was away with the cristeros.
Upon completing his secondary education Rulfo registered at the University of Guadalajara but was unable to remain because a student strike was declared. "The strike began the same day I entered together with a cousin, a Vizcaíno, and lasted about a year and a half. Because of that I went to Mexico City to continue my studies" (Roffé, p. 47). That year was 1934, when Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of the republic for a six-year term.
In Mexico City Rulfo attended the national university for a short time, with the financial aid of an uncle. Soon, however, he had to seek employment, for his relative stopped the meager allowance he received. These were difficult times for Rulfo, who by that time had decided to give up the study of law, a career he had chosen because his grandfather had been a lawyer, "and someone had to use his books. But much time had passed, and I had forgotten a great deal. I was unable to pass the qualifying exam to which we were submitted. Thus I had to go to work. I left school because I was not interested in the study of law" (ibid., pp. 49-50). In 1935 he began to work as an immigration agent with the department of the interior, first in Mexico City, then in Tampico, from where he was sent to Guadalajara.
Having decided by this time to be a writer, he read extensively, especially European fiction. He told the poet José Emilio Pacheco, in a later interview, that he had chosen the writing of fiction because what is important in a writer is his imaginative power. "I have read Sillanpää, Björson, Ian Mail, Haupmann, and the early Hamsun. In them I found the basis of my literary faith" (Pacheco, 1959, p. 3). While working at immigration in Mexico City he met the short story writer and novelist Efrén Hernández, who encouraged him to write a novel. His first effort as a fiction writer was El Hijo del Desaliento (Son of Affliction), a novel he destroyed because he considered it mediocre. The manuscript, according to the author, dealt with the theme of solitude:
I had to be a writer. The novel that I wrote soon
after I arrived in Mexico City, dealing with solitude . . . contained
biographical materials, events that had actually happened to me, but
applied to another personage. . . . But I did not like it. I don't
think I saved any of it. It seems that a periodical, many years ago,
published a fragment as a short story. As for the rest, I threw it
away. It was a rather conventional novel, very high-strung, in which I
tried to express certain solitary feelings
(Roffé, p. 52)
The story was published in the Revista mexicana de literatura in 1959 under the title "Un pedazo de noche" (A Night's Fragment), and is dated January 1940. It was reprinted in his Antología personal (1978) and is considered Rulfo's earliest known writing. Although it was intended to be part of a longer work, it has the structure of a short story; however, it is difficult to know if changes were made by the author between the year it was written and the publishing date. It is the only one of his prose writings in which the action takes place in Mexico City, except for a short scene in the story "Paso del Norte," which was eliminated in the 1980 revised edition. "Un pedazo de noche" contains traces of style and technique that Rulfo was to develop later in his most famous stories. Noticeable are the aura of vagueness that surrounds the characters and objects and the prevailing indecisiveness of the people in the world that Rulfo creates. Equally important is the tendency, perfected in later stories and novels, of personifying the emotions, as when Pilar, the prostitute-protagonist, says that "fear is the thing that fears solitude the most, according to what I know" (Antología personal, p. 144). Also of importance is the distance that Rulfo establishes between himself and his characters, a form of self-effacement that allows the characters to tell the reader about themselves. Pilar reveals her profession by saying, "One night a man approached me. That was not important, for that is why I was there, to be sought by men" (p. 144). Claudio, the other important person in the story, tells about his life in a conversation with Pilar. Even the child he carries in his arms becomes a person. Pilar says of him, "I kept looking at the baby, who kept on squirming in his arms. His eyes were those of grown-up people, full of malice and bad intentions. He seemed to be the reflection of our vices . . ." (p. 145).
It was not until 1945 that Rulfo published his first short story with the help of his friend Efrén Hernández, who was a member of the group of writers who published the periodical América. It was there that the story "La vida no es muy seria sus cosas" (Life Is Not Very Serious About Things) appeared but was forgotten until 1978 when it was included in his Antología personal. It cannot compare with two of his other stories published the same year in Guadalajara in the literary review Pan, "Nos han dado la tierra" ("They Gave Us the Land") and "Macario," both included in The Burning Plain and highly praised by critics. Although "La vida no es muy seria" is not so rich in stylistic devices as "Un pedazo de noche," it is in this story that the theme of death, a constant in Rulfo's fiction, appears for the first time. Present also is the recurrent element of irony: the mother's tragedy is the result of her preoccupation with the life of her unborn child.
About the same time that he was busy publishing his first story, Rulfo associated himself with two writers from Guadalajara, the fabulist Juan José Arreola and the critic Antonio Alatorre. Together they published the short-lived but first-rate literary periodical Pan. The second number, which appeared in July 1945, contains Rulfo's short story "They Gave Us the Land," and the sixth number, November 1945, has the story "Macario." They are his first significant works, for they show a remarkable improvement in the writing of his short fiction.
"They Gave Us the Land" deals with a social reform introduced by the revolutionary governments, the distribution of land to the campesinos (farmers). By 1940 land distribution in Mexico had reached 63 million acres. By the year the story was published, however, the distribution had declined considerably, and the land distributed was not always suitable for cultivation. In the story a group of poor farmers are to receive land from the government officials. Soon they realize that they are not to receive the good land near the river but a dry, hard lot that not even a sharp plow can penetrate. They finally give up hope of ever having any land and go to the town by the river protesting that the revolution has not been for the farmer; during the fighting at least they had horses and rifles, while now they have nothing. The plight of the farmers is made more intense by the description of the desolate land in the plains of southern Jalisco, the first description by Rulfo of his native region, the llano grande (great plain). The oppressive nature of the llano is described with images that cut deeply into the nature of the people through metaphorical associations. Their taciturn nature is expressed with these words by the narrator, one of the peons in search of the promised land: "If you start a conversation here the words get hot in your mouth with the heat from the outside and they dry on your tongue until they take your breath away" (Tezontle ed., p. 12). And as for the land they have received, he makes this observation: "Yes, they have given us this land. And in this hot grill they want us to sow some seeds, to see if something grows. But nothing will come up here. Not even buzzards" (ibid., p. 15). The social protest in the story is not stated explicitly but by the actions and conversations of the characters themselves. This technique is effective, for the reader gets an excellent picture of the failure of the revolution in treating the problem of land reform. Important also is the story's mythical structure of death and resurrection. The journey of the campesinos through the llano is like a journey through hell, while their arrival at the community by the river is symbolic of their resurrection. This element, combined with the sociopolitical nature of the subject, gives the story, as in all of Rulfo's fiction, a universal character.
The second Pan story, "Macario," was selected by the author as the lead story for the collection The Burning Plain, except for the last (1980) edition, where "They Gave Us the Land" has been placed first. "Macario" is doubtless one of Rulfo's best pieces of short fiction, not only because of its new technique · new in Latin American fiction · but also because of the treatment of the subject matter, characterization, and style. Using the technique William Faulkner employed in The Sound and the Fury (1929), wherein Benjy describes the world from the perspective of a mentally retarded person, Rulfo allows Macario, a boy of limited intelligence, to express his fear of being punished by his godmother if he lets the frogs disturb her sleep.
I'm sitting here next to the sewer opening waiting for
the frogs to come out. Last night, at supper time, they made a lot of
noise and did not stop croaking until dawn. My godmother also says
that the frogs' uproar scared her sleep away. And now she wants to
sleep well. That's why she ordered me to sit here, near the sewer,
with a board in my hand to squash every frog that comes out to jump
(ibid., p. 81)
During his night watch, Macario reconstructs in his mind his relationship with his godmother and the people of the community, all of whom, except for the servant Felipa, who feeds him with her own milk, torment him. In this story, within a limited space and a limited time, Rulfo has created a rich unity of impression from a very simple plot.
In 1947, the year he married Clara Aparicio, with whom he had four children, Rulfo accepted a position in the publicity department of Goodrich-Euzkadi, a position he held until 1954, that is, one year after publishing his collection of stories. In 1952 he had received a fellowship from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores, which helped him to complete the manuscript of The Burning Plain, published in 1953 by the prestigious Fondo de Cultura Económica. The book became an immediate success, and as a result the fellowship from the Centro was extended for another year in order to allow him to complete the novel he was writing, pages of which he had read at the literary sessions of the Centro. In 1983 its executive director, Felipe Beraza, recalled how Rulfo "brought the first drafts of Pedro Páramo to the critique sessions at the Center" (Fishman, p. 29).
The first edition of The Burning Plain contained fifteen stories, six of which had already been published in periodicals: "Macario," "They Gave Us the Land," "La cuesta de las comadres" ("The Hill of the Comadres"), "Talpa," "El llano en llamas" ("The Burning Plain"), and "Diles que no me maten!" ("Tell Them Not to Kill Me"). The rest appeared for the first time: "Es que somos muy pobres" ("Because We Are Very Poor"), "El hombre" ("The Man"), "En la madrugada" ("At Daybreak"), "Luvina," "La noche que lo dejaron solo" ("The Night They Left Him Behind"), "Acuérdate" ("Remember"), "No oyes ladrar los perros" ("No Dogs Bark"), "Paso del Norte," and "Anacleto Morones." There is no appreciable difference between the published and unpublished stories, either in technique or style. The two stories "El día del derrumbe" ("The Day of the Landslide") and "La herencia de Matilde Arcángel" ("Matilde Arcángel") were added to the second revised edition of 1970, and one, "Paso del Norte," was eliminated. Asked why he took out that particular story, Rulfo replied that it had been the editor's decision, but that he did not mind since he considered it to be flawed:
It had two transitions difficult to unite: the moment
when the man goes to look for work as a bracero [farmhand] in
the United States and when he returns. There is an internal theme that
is not well elaborated, that is not even worked out. I would like to
have worked on that story more.
("Juan Rulfo examina su narrativa." Escritura 2:305-317 (1976), p. 309)
Actually, the story has three transitions, the third being when the protagonist goes to Mexico City to earn money to pay the unscrupulous agent (the coyote) to transport him across the border without documents. This episode had been eliminated from the latest version of the story but was reinserted in the most recent edition, that of 1980.
The year 1955 saw the appearance of the novel Pedro Páramo, considered to be Rulfo's best work. The public was by then aware of its forthcoming publication, as two of its fragments had appeared in periodicals the year before; one, "Un cuento" (A Tale), was published in the January · March issue of Las letras patrias, with a notation saying that it was a chapter of the unpublished novel "Una estrella junto a la luna" (A Star Near the Moon); and the other, "Los murmullos" (The Murmurs), in the Revista de la universidad de México, as a fragment of a novel by that name. When it was finally published by the Fondo de Cultura Económica, the title selected was Pedro Páramo, the name of the protagonist. The action takes place in San Gabriel, the town where Rulfo had passed his early years, although in the novel it is called Comala, which is much more appropriate, since it helps to create the image of the furnacelike atmosphere that prevails in the town. Rulfo explains it this way:
The name does not exist, no. The town of Comala is a
progressive, fertile town. But the derivation of comal · a
comal is an earthenware utensil that is placed over the embers
for the purpose of heating the tortillas · , and the heat in that town
was what gave me the idea of the name Comala: the place over the
(Roffé, p. 61)
Gabriel García Márquez has said in El olor de la guayaba (The Fragrance of Guava) that he wrote Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967) in less than two years, but that he spent fifteen or sixteen years thinking about the book before he sat down at the typewriter. The same thing happened to Rulfo, who said that Pedro Páramo was planned about ten years before the actual writing of the book:
Although the idea was with me, I had not written a
single page. And then something happened that gave me the key to
unravel that thread that was still woolly. It was my going back to the
town where I had lived thirty years earlier, and I found it abandoned.
It is a town I had known, of about seven to eight thousand
inhabitants. When I arrived there were only 150 persons there. . . .
The doors were locked up. The people had left.
(ibid., pp. 60-61)
The novel is the result of a desire to bring the town back to life; it lives again in the imagination of the personages. The town San Gabriel appears under its own name in the story "At Daybreak" and under the name of Luvina in the story of that name. It is not of great importance that these two towns and the Comala of Pedro Páramo should be associated with San Gabriel inasmuch as the towns are not realistically described and could be one of many similar small towns in Mexico.
It has been pointed out that the story "Luvina" can be considered "the strongest evidence available regarding the gestation of the ambience of Pedro Páramo, and perhaps it could be stated that it contains the germ from which the novel grew" (Estrada, p. 117). While it is true that the ambience in both stories is similar, the plots differ. In "Luvina" a teacher who has lived in that ghost town for some years tells about his life there to another teacher who is on his way to replace him. He remembers Luvina as a desolate place, more like a dead town than a community where human beings can live. The few inhabitants living there have remained in order to guard their dead. Luvina, located at the top of a hill, is covered with gray dust that is blown in by a constant wind. That black wind "scratches as if he had nails; one can hear him morning and afternoon, hour after hour, without rest, scratching the walls, tearing off the plaster, digging with his pointed shovel under the doors until you feel him stirring inside you, as if trying to shake the moorings of your bones" (Tezontle ed., p. 126). Luvina is, indeed, a sad place. "I would say it is the place where sadness nests, where smiling is unknown" (p. 128). The teacher finally says, "San Juan Luvina. The name sounded to me like the name of heaven. But the place is purgatory. A dying place where there is no one to bark at silence, for even the dogs have died" (pp. 135-136).
In Luvina there are still a few people living there. In Comala, Rulfo has extended the realm of death to include all the inhabitants, even the narrator, Juan Preciado, Pedro Páramo's son, who is recalling his experiences from the grave. He had gone to Comala in search of his father, who had abandoned him and his mother after having appropriated her land and properties. When Juan Preciado arrives in Comala he finds a dead town, but its people, although dead, are capable of remembering and reliving their tragic lives from the grave. The town had died when Pedro Páramo, the local overlord and owner of all lands surrounding it, decided to punish the townspeople for holding a fiesta instead of mourning the death of his beloved Susana San Juan. In Pedro Páramo, as he had done earlier in "Luvina," Rulfo creates a magic atmosphere by combining realistic and fantastic elements and motifs. As the novel unfolds, the reader passes from the real to the unreal, from the objective to the subjective, to the phantasmagoric. The author has said that the village is the central character. But above it and its inhabitants stands the figure of Pedro Páramo, the cacique (political boss) of Comala, whose life is reconstructed from three perspectives: that of his son Juan Preciado (who bears his mother's name), that of the omniscient narrator, and that of the inhabitants of the town. This technique helps the author to give his antihero depth and complexity and at the same time engages the attention of the reader, who must assemble the parts to get the full portrait.
Although there are many Latin American novels dealing with the cacique, so prevalent in Latin American society, the best characterization to be found is Rulfo's Pedro Páramo because he has all the characteristics that define a cacique: he operates behind the scenes, never in public; he is despotic, greedy, cruel, shrewd, and, of course, macho, an indispensable qualification. In Rulfo's fiction the cacique is also found in the short story "At Daybreak." Don Justo, in that story, could be considered the precursor of Pedro Páramo. However, Pedro Páramo is the fictitious character that has become the prototype in Latin American fiction. His life, unlike that of Don Justo, unfolds from his youth in poverty until he becomes the most powerful person in Comala: his marriage of convenience to Dolores Preciado, his great love for Susana San Juan, his defense of his properties from the revolutionaries by bribery and deceit, his troubles with his dissolute and violent son Miguel, his control of the local priest, and finally his death at the hands of his illegitimate son Abundio, who hated him. As for the origin of this cacique, Rulfo has said:
I do not know from where the personage Pedro Páramo
came. I never met a person like that. I do not consider it easy to
classify him. I believe he is a cacique. Caciques are plentiful
in Mexico. But their attitudes, their acts, are medals with which the
people decorate them. I mean, I do not know if there ever was a
cacique who made his own revolution to defend himself from the
Revolution. But he can be classified by other means: he is, for
example, never generous; on the contrary, he is an evildoer. He forms,
with others, part of a consciousness, a way of thinking, a mentality
that most likely does exist.
(Roffé, p. 65)
The Latin American cacique often becomes a dictator, a character common in the novel of that region. Some of the most famous novelists have written about them, from the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias to the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, both Nobel Prize winners. The difference between a cacique and a dictator is to be found in the domain they rule. The cacique dominates a town or at the most a county, while the dictator governs a country. The cacique is a local figure, while the dictator attains national and often international stature. Some of Latin America's greatest dictators began life as simple caciques. The psychology of both, however, is the same. Under favorable circumstances Pedro Páramo could have ruled the entire country instead of the town of Comala.
The year 1955 was an eventful one for Rulfo. In addition to his novel, the film "Talpa," based on his short story of that name, was released. It was directed by Alfredo B. Cravenna. Rulfo also published two additional short stories, "The Day of the Landslide" and "Matilde Arcángel." That year also saw the birth of his third child, Juan Pablo.
The short story "The Day of the Landslide" is of interest because there Rulfo makes use, for the first and only time, of political satire to ridicule the inflated, vulgar politician who deceives the people for his own gain. In this case it is a governor who visits a small town to survey the damage done by an earthquake. What he and his entourage eat and drink turns out to be much more costly than the damage done by the earthquake. The townspeople laugh at his table manners, but are overpowered by his rhetoric. They "were breaking their necks to see the governor and commenting how he had eaten the turkey and if he had sucked on the bones and how fast he was scooping up the tortillas one after another and spreading them with guacamole . . . and he so quiet, so serious, wiping his hands on his socks . . ." (Tezontle ed., p. 177). The governor's after-dinner speech is a masterful parody of the empty talk characteristic of the politician who uses the rhetoric of the revolution to cover up the prevailing inefficiency and lack of ideas. The people became entranced with the speaker's oratorical ability: "The great moment came when he began to speak. We were so moved at hearing him talk that we got goose pimples all over" (ibid., p. 179).
After the appearance of those two stories in 1955, Rulfo stopped publishing for reasons unknown. Since then his works have attained universal recognition. The German translation of Pedro Páramo appeared in 1958, and the English and French in 1959. In that year he returned to Guadalajara with his family where he remained until 1962, and then went back to Mexico City where he began to work for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. During those years he also wrote several film scripts and announced that he was to publish a new novel, "La cordillera" (The Packtrain), which never appeared, although short excerpts were published in periodicals, and some critics have analyzed its content and style. Rulfo himself said that the novel dealt with the history of a town in central Mexico during the colonial period that he wanted to bring to life through the experiences of a family, not unlike what he had done for San Gabriel. On 13 March 1974 Rulfo, in a dialogue with the students of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, said that he had written many pages of a work he called "La cordillera," but that he had problems with it and had therefore decided to destroy the manuscript. ("Juan Rulfo examina . . .," p. 316).
El gallo de oro (The Golden Cock), as it appeared in book form in 1980, is not a film script but a novelette of eighty pages. The narrative technique is that of a work to be read, since there is an omniscient narrator who describes the landscape, makes comments about the characters, and passes judgment on them. As in the film, folkloric elements predominate. The protagonist, Dionisio Pinzón, is a cockfighter and later a gambler, and his wife Bernarda is a carnival singer. The story deals with the adventures of these two in their travels from town to town in central Mexico to take part in the activities of the carnivals. When Dionisio becomes a gambler, his wife brings him luck; when she dies, he loses all his properties. Although the novelette lacks depth, it is characteristic of Rulfo's fiction: the world is that of his native region, the tone is tragic, and his technique of characterization is similar to that found in his other works. The protagonist, Dionisio, represents the best treatment done of a popular Mexican folk character, the cockfighter.
Another of Rulfo's scripts, "El despojo" (The Plunder), is very much like some of his short stories. It is a stark tale of the plight of an Indian, Pedro, his wife Petra, and their child, who are persecuted by the local cacique, Don Celerino. Of interest in the script is the technique used by Rulfo in freezing the character while the action continues. Most likely Rulfo was influenced by the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce, which was made into a movie for television. As in Bierce's story, the actions of Pedro continue after he has been killed by Don Celerino. The viewer does not know that he is dead until the end of the film, when it is revealed that the action had taken place in the mind of the character before he died. The same technique was used by Jorge Luis Borges in his story "El milagro secreto" ("The Secret Miracle"). Unlike Borges, Rulfo takes advantage of the Indian's plight to denounce the cacique system prevalent in rural Mexico to this day.
In addition to his fiction, Juan Rulfo published a number of articles on literary criticism and gave numerous interviews in which he expressed his views about writers and writing, especially the novelist and the novel. From these materials Reina Roffé assembled a unique "autobiography" of Rulfo and published it under the title Autobiografía armada (A Reconstructed Autobiography). Although it is well known that Rulfo never published an autobiography, the account of his life as given by the excerpts collected by Roffé are so ingeniously organized that it gives the impression of having been written by Rulfo himself.
One of the most important lectures given by Rulfo was the one he delivered in 1965 at the Instituto de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas in which he revealed his preferences for certain writers and certain books. In another lecture, or rather discussion with the students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, he spoke about his life, work, and favorite authors. When he was admitted to the Mexican Academy of Letters in 1980, Rulfo spoke about the poet José Gorostiza , whose chair he then occupied; but as a critic he gave preference to the novel, a genre with which he was very well acquainted. Rulfo wrote, and expressed his ideas in interviews, about the Mexican, Latin American, Anglo-American, and European novels.
As a means of placing Rulfo's own fiction within the context of the Mexican novel, it is of interest to see how he himself viewed it. According to him, the Mexican novel did not obtain originality until the period of the Revolution. For him, novels written before that time belong more to Spanish (peninsular) than to Mexican literature. The first novel, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot), published in Mexico City in 1816 by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, belongs, according to Rulfo, to the Spanish picaresque tradition. Although he did not elaborate on this statement, it may be assumed that he was referring to the form · the picaresque · a Spanish narrative form with a long tradition, and not its content, which is certainly Mexican. The depiction of the antihero, the boy Periquillo in the Mexico City of the late eighteenth century, the language, the scenery, the nationalistic sentiment, the landscape, are all thoroughly Mexican. The novelist Agustín Yáñez , Rulfo's contemporary, has observed that Lizardi's protagonist, Periquillo Sarniento, is as Mexican as Babbitt is American. Fernández de Lizardi, of course, has been credited with the creation of Mexican costumbrismo (regional writing). However, and this was Rulfo's idea, the creation of a national novel in Mexico · which had been proposed by Ignacio Manuel Altamirano as early as 1868-did not take place until Mariano Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán, Rafael Muñoz, José Rubén Romero, and others wrote novels depicting the revolution of 1910. Rulfo has stated that "the great Mexican novel began with the Revolution. It can be stated that at that time it reached its greatest moments" (Avilés, p. 1).
Besides Azuela, Guzmán, and Muñoz, Rulfo praised other novelists of the Revolution, among them the precursor Heriberto Frías, the author of Tomóchic (1896), a novel considered to be the first in which there is a protest against the repressive Porfirio Díaz government; he also praised Gregorio López y Fuentes, the author of Tierra (Land), one of the few novels about Emiliano Zapata and his revolutionary struggle in southern Mexico; and Cipriano Campos Alatorre, from the state of Jalisco, the author of another zapatista novel, Los fusilados (The Executed). With the works of these writers, Rulfo believed, Mexican literature saw the birth of the contemporary novel, which was to reach its high point with the works of Agustín Yáñez, the author of the epoch-making novel Al filo del agua (The Edge of the Storm), published in 1947. Eight years later Rulfo himself was to write Pedro Páramo, which changed the route that Mexican narrative was to take after 1955.
Rulfo's appreciation of the novel of the Revolution is opposed to that of other Mexican critics, among them Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. For Paz, who began to criticize that novel in the forties, the Revolution as subject matter had forced the writers to reduce Mexican reality to acts of violence, and had therefore "mutilated novelistic reality, the only one that counts for the novelist. . . . All the novels of the Revolution are nothing but reports and chronicles" (Paz, 1973, p. 93). However, Paz has praised Rulfo very highly: "Juan Rulfo is the only Mexican novelist to have provided us an image · rather than a mere description · of our physical surroundings. Like Lawrence and Lowry, what he has given us is not photographic documentation or an impressionistic painting; he has incarnated his intuitions and his personal obsessions in stone, in dust, in desert sand. His vision of this world is really a vision of another world" (Paz, 1973, pp. 15-16).
Another critic and famous novelist, Carlos Fuentes, criticized the novels of the Revolution for their lack of perspective, their testimonial technique, their "documental ballast," and in general their lack of depth in the depiction of characters and the interpretation of events. He gives those novelists credit, however, for having introduced "an original note in the Spanish-American novel: they introduce ambiguity" (La nueva novela hispanoamericana, 1969, p. 15). The technique of the novels of the Revolution, according to Fuentes, was put to rest in 1955 by Rulfo with his Pedro Páramo, who "was able to proceed with the mythification of the situations, the characters, and the speech of the Mexican countryside, closing forever, with a golden key, the documental technique of the [novel] of the Revolution" (ibid., p. 16).
The novelist Agustín Yáñez concurs with Paz and Fuentes in considering Pedro Páramo a deeply Mexican work. His appreciation of the novel, however, is not based on the imagery, but on the use of the Spanish language: "Rulfo transforms colloquial language and gives it an aesthetic category. . . . This has been his triumph; this his path of magical realism open to the future of our letters, of our aesthetic expression, comparable only to that of our great painters" (Yáñez, p. 22). Rulfo, a few years earlier, had reviewed another of Yáñez's novels, La tierra pródiga (The Prodigal Land), having called it "one of the great works of fiction in Mexican literature" (El Nacional, 8 November 1964). Of his contemporaries, Rulfo acclaimed the novels of Vicente Leñero, Carlos Fuentes, Salvador Elizondo, Fernando del Paso, Rosario Castellanos, and Elena Garro. The younger generation of novelists, however, did not receive much of his attention, in writing at least, although he read their works, and often helped them with the art of the novel in the sessions held at the Centro de Escritores Mexicanos, with which he was associated since the 1950's.
The novels of Latin American, Anglo-American, and European writers were the frequent subject of Rulfo's criticism. Of the Latin Americans he expressed preference for the novels of the Brazilians and the two Nobel Prize winners Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez. Important from the standpoint of Rulfo's appreciation of other novelists have been his remarks about American and European authors. For him, the great American novelists are William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, two other Nobel Prize recipients. He also mentioned J. D. Salinger, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jack Kerouac, and Joseph Heller. Of this group, he considers Heller one of the best North American writers. In general, however, he believed that the new American novel has not surpassed those of William Faulkner.
As has been stated, the European novelists he preferred are those of the Nordic countries, although he spoke well of the Italians, believing that Vasco Pratolini, with his novel Cronache di poveri amanti (A Tale of Poor Lovers, translated in 1949), advanced European narrative fiction considerably. On the other hand, he was frank about his dislike of the French antinovelists. He said that "to write antinovels is, precisely, to avoid all thinking in order to concentrate on seeing and describing what is being observed" ("Situación . . .," p. 116).
The above statement confirms Rulfo's theory of the novel, as observed in his own works. For Octavio Paz, Rulfo did not simply describe what he observed, but tried to give a sense of reality by presenting · by means of verbal images, often poetic · that reality as it impinges on the consciousness of the characters. It is a reality that is ever changing: "The air changes the colors of everything," says Dolores in Pedro Páramo. Paz's observation was confirmed by Rulfo in a statement he made regarding the novel La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear) by Carlos Fuentes. In that statement Rulfo separated the novelists into two groups, those who try to give expression to the world they carry within them, and those who try to get hold of the world of others:
There are novelists who select those aspects of
reality that best fit their ideas or sentiments but who nevertheless
leave a margin of independence between them and their materials. And
there are others, like Fuentes, who take reality in its totality and
transfer to it their own views, to a point where one does not know
where objectivity begins and where the novelist begins.
(Rebolledo, p. 3)
Rulfo's fiction, because of its tragic nature, has been used as an example of the cult of death and violence predominant in Mexican literature. It is true that in his narrative towns are dead, people are dead or waiting for death, or tied down to a place by their dead. This preoccupation with death and violence is the result of Rulfo's personal experiences while a boy and young man in his native province of Jalisco, during the years when revolution and civil war were prevalent. Violent death touched his relatives more than once. However, Rulfo stated that he did not want to continue to write or talk about death.
Death and violence are themes that give Rulfo's fiction a unity unmatched in Mexican literature. There are, of course, other elements that contribute to produce this unity, such as the fact that all the stories take place in his native region of central Mexico; that all the characters belong to the rural class, living in a society in transition between the feudal system inherited from colonial days and the modernization that the Revolution was trying to bring about; the style is always poetic, although never departing from the colloquial speech of the people of Jalisco; the style is elaborated to a literary level characterized by the avoidance of learned quotations, economy of expression, and the use of a vocabulary, rhythm, and syntax that are peculiarly Mexican. Above all, there is in Rulfo's fiction an ever-present tragic sense of life reflecting a violent, often primitive, world. At the same time, his use of a new narrative technique has given his novels and short stories an international status that no other Mexican fiction writer, with the possible exception of Carlos Fuentes, has attained.
In spite of the universal recognition that Rulfo attained, he studiously avoided taking advantage of that prestige to obtain material wealth. His personal modesty was well known. In an interview that took place in 1976 the interviewer made this statement to Rulfo: "Gabriel García Márquez said on a certain occasion that you are the writer who has had the greatest influence on his works." Rulfo answered: "I don't think so. Gabo [Gabriel] is one of those great writers who have found their form of expression: personal and well defined" (Vázquez, 1977, p. 19). Rulfo's answer revealed his modesty, for he himself found his own personal form of expression, which, in turn, influenced other great novelists.
Juan Rulfo died in Mexico City on 7 January 1986 at the age of sixty-seven.
From: Leal, Luis. "Juan Rulfo." Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.