Douglas J. Weatherford on Juan Rulfo and Mexican Literature

Gabriel García Márquez wrote his most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), in Mexico rather than in his home country of Colombia. Years later, the Nobel Laureate would explain that he finally found inspiration to write his masterpiece when a friend introduced him to Pedro Páramo by Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1917-1986). García Márquez devoured Pedro Páramo and read the novel so many times that, as he claimed, he had the work memorized. Although García Márquez would find an enthusiastic audience in the United States, Rulfo’s reception among those same readers has been more muted. This year (2017) Mexico celebrates the centennial of Rulfo’s birth and it is my hope that English-language readers here will give this writer another look and celebrate with our southern neighbors the literature of one of their most beloved figures and one of the most significant writers of the Americas. My list begins with Juan Rulfo’s three published works of fiction before presenting a small but significant selection of other works, appearing in chronological order, that offer a strong introduction to the past one hundred years of Mexico’s rich literary tradition.

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 El Llano en llamas (1953)

The Plain in Flames, BY JUAN RULFO  (1917-1986) (University of Texas Press, 2012)

Translated by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum

In 1910, Mexicans took up arms to oust a strongman who had remained in power for more than three decades. The Mexican Revolution ushered in a new pantheon of national heroes (including Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa) and the ideals of that movement provided a useful narrative in the years following the Revolution for artists (including Diego Rivera), intellectuals, and politicians to craft a unifying national creed. Others were more skeptical, however, and their work reflects a growing sense that the nation faced major problems. With the publication of The Plain in Flames, Juan Rulfo rejected the tendency to remember the past nostalgically and he emerged as one of the most discerning observers of life in the Mexican countryside. Rulfo’s volume is not lighthearted; rather it captures the harsh reality of a Mexican landscape and people still marked by the violence of war and the weight of poverty and injustice. Rulfo’s stories are, at the same time, experimental masterpieces that locate The Plain in Flames, along with Ficciones by Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, as one of Latin America’s most important and influential collections of short fiction.

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Pedro Páramo (1955)

Pedro Páramo, By Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) (Grove Press, 1994)

Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Often considered Mexico’s most important novel, Pedro Páramo is an innovative work that challenged traditional narrative forms and helped usher in the so-called “Boom” of Latin American literature that would include such renowned writers as Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), and Nobel Laureates Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) and the already mentioned Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia). Although Pedro Páramo returns to Rulfo’s fascination with issues of history and national identity, the novel strays somewhat from the more regionalist grounding of The Plain in Flames. The novel, which begins with a death, a descent, and a journey in search of a lost father, is a complex archetypal experience that overflows with allusions to mythic figures and stories from classical, biblical, pre-Colombian, and Mexican traditions. The narrative style of this novel is fragmented and polyphonic, broken and staccato, and often full of poetry. Although adapted admirably by Margaret Sayers Peden, Pedro Páramo is a novel that is still waiting for a translation that renders its full vigor into English.

El gallo de oro (1956-1957)

The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, By Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2017)

Translated by Douglas J. Weatherford

Rulfo’s first two publications changed the destiny of Latin American letters and his readers waited anxiously for new writings that never seemed to come. Although it is often said that Rulfo is the author of only two works of fiction, the reality is more complex. Indeed, Rulfo penned a second novel, The Golden Cockerel, between 1956 and 1957, that was adapted for film before appearing in print in 1980, but mislabeled as a film text (“texto para cine”). More traditional than the author’s previous publications, this short novel revels in the world of fairs and festivals that dot the Bajío region of Mexico. Typical of Rulfo’s writing, however, the work does not succumb to a folkloric veneration of that domain. Dionisio, by playing games of chance, rises from poverty to wealth only to lose it all. Rulfo neither sanctifies nor demonizes his protagonists, but offers through them a commentary on the failings of an economic system where hard work is insufficient to achieve a dignified life. The Golden Cockerel will appear in English translation this year for the first time. The “other writings” that accompany Rulfo’s second novel in this publication are an eclectic mix of short items that offer an intriguing look into the author’s creative production beyond the stories canonized in The Plain in Flames.

Read The Arkansas International's capsule review of The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings, out May 16, here.

Los de abajo (1915)

The Underdogs with Related Texts, By Mariano Azuela (1873-1952) (Hackett Publishing, 2006)

Translated by Gustavo Pellón

Considered the first and most iconic “Novel of the Mexican Revolution,” The Underdogs was published originally in serial form in a newspaper in El Paso, Texas. The Underdogs was a provocative and timely witness to a violent upheaval that would ultimately claim the lives of a million Mexican soldiers, rebels, and civilians. The Underdogs follows the fortunes of a small band of insurgents who eventually form part of the División del Norte, the powerful northern army of Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Azuela, who had served as a medic in that very force, was the perfect candidate to write about the men and women who joined the Revolution. His account was anything but heroic or idealized, however, and The Underdogs lays bare the violence and opportunism of a moment that ravaged a nation. The Underdogs is a regionalist novel that depends heavily on a local language and flavor that can prove challenging for translators. I recommend Gustavo Pellón’s translation —one of several that exist— for its strength and for the appendices and “related texts” that can enrich the experience for English-language readers less familiar with Mexico’s history.

A Rosario Castellanos Reader: An Anthology of Her Poetry, Short Fiction, Essays and Drama, by ROSARIO CASTELLANOS (1925-1974) (University of Texas Press, 1988)

Translated by Maureen Ahern and others

Rosario Castellanos grew up in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state that shares not only a border with Guatemala but also that country’s rich Mayan tradition. Born into a family of comfortable landholders, the future author was raised in an often-confusing provincial world in which she enjoyed the privilege of class and race while enduring the indignity shown to her gender. Castellanos’s destiny changed radically, however, when her parents chose to sell their property rather than resist Mexico’s land reform efforts. Established with her family in the nation’s capital, Castellanos found new opportunities: she studied at the National University, met Mexico’s artistic and literary elite, and published some of her country’s most memorable fiction, poetry, theater, and essays. Castellanos’s oeuvre reflects her own experiences. Her early fiction, for example, is set in Chiapas and examines the difficult relationships between the various members of her diverse home region: Mayan vs. Ladino, man vs. woman, rich vs. poor. Most of Castellanos’s later texts move from rural Mexico to urban centers where the author considers issues of gender and identity. Castellanos’s characters —whether privileged or oppressed— are flawed; but through them she offers a genuine examination of the human condition. Castellanos’s canon crosses many genres and, to encourage readers to explore them all, I am recommending Maureen Ahern’s expansive A Rosario Castellanos Reader.

La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962)

The Death of Artemio Cruz, by CARLOS FUENTES (1928-2012) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Translated by Alfred MacAdam

A perennial on the Nobel committee’s short list, Carlos Fuentes passed away in 2012 and Mexico lost perhaps its best opportunity at gaining a second laureate for literature (Octavio Paz won in 1990). Fuentes followed Juan Rulfo’s literary tour de force of Pedro Páramo with a complex fictional canon that made him Mexico’s leading representative of Latin America’s momentous “Boom” literary movement. The Death of Artemio Cruz is an excellent example of the experimentation that defined “Boom” narrative. Like so many Mexican novels of the twentieth century, The Death of Artemio Cruz examines Mexican society in the aftermath of that nation’s 1910 Revolution. The novel’s homonymous protagonist overcomes humble origins to thrive in the years following that violent upheaval. Artemio Cruz’s story —slowly revealed through three separate and fragmented points of view (first, second, and third)— is not celebratory. Rather, it is emblematic of innocence lost and ideals betrayed. Fuentes admitted that he wrote his novel in large measure in homage to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. The perceptive reader will quickly see that connection, as well as the author’s tip of the hat to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Son vacas, somos puercos (1991)

They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, By CARMEN BOULLOSA (1954-) (Grove Press, 1997)

Translated by Leland H. Chambers

Carmen Boullosa is only one of a number of active writers who continue to expand the concept of Mexican literature. She is also prolific, with nineteen novels in print (not including her poetic, dramatic, and essayistic production). Critics often mention the daring experimentation of her narrative and the variety of her topics. In her two most recent novels, for example, Boullosa examines the 1859 rebellion against Anglo settlement in the Rio Grande Valley by Juan Cortina in the recently lost territory of Texas (Texas: The Grand Theft, Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014) before jumping to pre-revolution Russia to imagine a story involving the children of Leon Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina (El libro de Ana, 2016, untranslated). Despite the eclectic nature of Boullosa’s fiction, one issue that appears with regularity in the author’s work is the past. In her third published novel They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, for example, Boullosa borrows from Alexandre O. Exquemelin’s famous work, The Buccaneers of America (Flanders, 1678), to invent a tale set among a seventeenth century pirate community. Along the way, and in an experimental narrative style, Boullosa explores a number of serious issues, including alienated narrators and the fallibility of language and history. And despite its emphasis on a male-dominated society, the novel is, as Boullosa explains in an author’s note, “a laboratory of things feminine in absentia.”

Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (2009)

Signs of the End of the World, by YURI HERRERA (1970-) (& Other Stories, 2015)

Translated by Lisa Dillman

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is the most recent work in this selection of recommended readings. It is also the only one set on the border between Mexico and the United States. Herrera claims to have been influenced by Juan Rulfo while writing this novel and, in the tradition of Pedro Páramo, his protagonist begins a journey to the “other side” that is as metaphorical as it is literal. To be sure, Herrera reveals that, for many, crossing Mexico’s northern border is more descent than ascent. Although not as richly layered as Pedro Páramo, Signs Preceding the End of the World, like Rulfo’s iconic novel, is a haunting and poetic experience that is grounded in the regional while simultaneously invoking a universal and archetypal realm.

Douglas J. Weatherford is an Associate Professor of Hispanic American Literatures and Cultures at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah). He has developed teaching and research interests in a wide range of areas related to Latin American literature and film, with particular emphasis on Mexico during the mid-twentieth century. Much of his recent scholarship has examined Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s connection to the visual image in film. Weatherford’s translation of Rulfo’s second novel, El gallo de oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings) will appear this coming May (Deep Vellum Publishing), the centennial of that author’s birth.