Luvina by Juan Rulfo, 1953

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by Juan Rulfo, 1953

"Luvina" stands out as a special case in The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas), the single short story collection by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. Of the 15 pieces gathered in the slim but celebrated volume, it is "Luvina" that has enjoyed the greatest critical acclaim and, along with "We're Very Poor" and "No Dogs Bark," that has been most often included in world literature anthologies and classroom readers. Justly so, for "Luvina" represents Rulfo's narrative craft and artistic vision at their most subtle, poised, and elegantly distilled.

The first novelty in "Luvina" is its surprise beginning. From the darkly beautiful and resonant title, we might assume that the eponymous subject is a woman and that some exotically romantic love tale is in store for us. With the opening line we realize, however, that Luvina is not a person but a place. As we read on, moreover, we find out that Luvina is not an attractive spot but a decaying rural scar whose desolate physical environment invades the human spirit, racks social existence, and reduces its inhabitants to passive and fatalistically cynical old men and women. As the narrator himself laments in his final summation, "San Juan Luvina. That name sounded to me like a name in the heavens. But it's purgatory. A dying place where even the dogs have died off…. And that gets you down."

What plot there is to the story is minimal. The narrative setting is a cantina, a bar somewhere on the road approaching the hardscrabble ridge that bears the name Luvina and where Luvina the town is also located. Seated at a table, beer glass in hand, a mature fellow who once spent some 15 years working there is chatting with a younger man now headed for the same place, presumably on a similar mission. He describes to him the harshness of the milieu—the bare, rocky soil, the relentless, ashy wind, the yearly storms that for a few days "whip the earth and tear it away." And he evokes for him the human wreckage—the old folks who sit around waiting for death, the absence of any youthful residents, the all-pervasive feeling of hopelessness and defeat.

Halfway through his soliloquy, the nameless narrator recounts an episode amounting to the only significant physical action in the story. He recalls his initial arrival in Luvina, together with his wife Agripina and three small children, and their mule driver's refusal to stay after he drops them off, the lack of any inn or restaurant, the women who peer furtively at them through the cracks of the door, Agripina's shoulder-shrugging apathy, the night spent inside a ramshackle church, and the bizarre account of women filing down the road to fetch water in the predawn darkness.

The episode functions as a three-page flashback within what is itself an extended flashback. The story actually begins with an objective third-person narrator providing a physical description of the tall, craggy cerro called Luvina. In the third paragraph the story shifts to the nameless man at the bar table, whose engaged, distinctive, third-person voice dominates the remainder of the piece as he talks about Luvina, the village. Here and there in the course of the first few pages the original omniscient narrator returns and reminds us of the more immediate surroundings—the sounds of a nearby river and of rustling almond trees, the children at play just outside the barroom door, the advancing night. Early on the unnamed speaker orders another round of beers from the bartender, a man named Camilo. The objective viewpoint soon recedes, however, and it makes a brief comeback only on the last page to inform us that the raconteur has slumped over the table and fallen fast asleep.

These narratives within narratives resemble what is sometimes known as the hall-of-mirrors or Chinese-boxes effect. The structure of the story consists of three things: the description of Luvina by an present-day outside voice and, within that, a lengthy retrospective description of Luvina by a former community participant and finally, at the center of his remembrances, the man's recollection of his first night in Luvina. With only one of these viewpoints the piece would have been static and flat, a mere sketch, however lyrical and poetical, of a particular time and place. Rulfo's ingenious play of artifice is what brings "Luvina" into the realm of literature. On the other hand, we are denied access to the speech of the young traveler, whose queries and comments are relayed to us by the older man. Rulfo surely sensed that adding yet another voice would have hurt the delicate balance and unity of tone he had achieved in the story. Still, we can infer that the young man, too, will follow in the footsteps of the elder and end up similarly wasted.

In this regard the narrative content and procedures of "Luvina" bear noting. The story consists mainly of description, not action, and what action there is is subsumed by and incidental to the descriptive materials. This, of course, goes against our established notions as to what short fiction usually does. To tell a story is to relate what happened. By contrast, in "Luvina," for the most part, not much happens. What we see happening is an older man reminiscing to a younger one about a godforsaken village. As a result, his account is studded with such markers as "Well, as I was saying" and "You probably think I'm harping on the same idea." His is the seemingly oral performance of a sensitive though bitterly disillusioned sort who had hied himself to Luvina with youthful ideals and fond hopes of aiding its people. He is also an educated man who speaks in correct Spanish and who, in the culminating scene toward the end, is addressed by one of the dazed inhabitants as "professor" ("teacher" in the English translation).

This little debate with several stolid elders is, in fact, the climax of the piece, its emotional and structural high point, in which the man earnestly, passionately tries convincing the men to pack up and abandon Luvina. "The government will help us," he naively insists. But the oldsters know better. They understand that the fabled government is indifferent to their plight and that its officials remember them only when it needs to bump off a wayward bureaucrat. Unblinking and with their toothless grins and somber wisdom, they inform him "that the government didn't have a mother." This sentence is a play on a common proverbial expression in Spanish, for to say of someone " no tiene madre " (he has no mother) is a humorous way of hinting that he is evil, unprincipled, or simply no good. The old men even defend the dark wind by asserting that without it the sun would suck up all of their blood and body moisture.

"Luvina" encapsulates many of Rulfo's key themes and techniques. First, there is the power of nature, the harsh desert landscape of his native Jalisco, where the elements pose a constant threat and are its impoverished inhabitants' greatest enemy. (This is seen vividly in "We're Very Poor.") There is also an underlying disenchantment with the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, its degeneration into banditry, gangsterism, and corruption through the 1920s as dramatized in the stories "They Gave Us the Land" and "The Burning Plain." Finally, there are the larger themes of memory and remembrance. Most of Rulfo's fiction is suffused with a painful nostalgia for a lost paradise, and his characters are often caught up in recollecting the past, which is the case here. One of the author's shortest pieces is entitled simply "Remember" ("Acuérdate").

The process of remembering in turn squares perfectly with Rulfo's expert adoption and assimilation of techniques such as interior monologue, fractured chronology, and shifting points of view, which he learned from William Faulkner. Most of the stories in The Burning Plain make fruitful use of at least one of these devices, and the author's only novel, Pedro Páramo, consists of a single long flashback distributed among some four narrators and four dozen fragments. In so doing, Rulfo definitively broke with the deadweight of conventional nineteenth-century linear realism, although it was never a vital or legitimate tradition in Latin America. He thus helped pave the way for the so-called narrative Boom of the 1960s and its greatest figure, Gabriel García Márquez, who, in turn, was much inspired in his early 30s by his reading of Rulfo.

With its sights, sounds, and speech rhythms, "Luvina" is like the rest of Rulfo's dense if meager output in being a story deeply rooted in the region of his birth and upbringing. Still, Rulfo is the furthest thing possible from a regional writer, for through his suggestive art a local countryside takes on universal resonance. The precarious economy and fallen humanity memorialized by him in "Luvina" could just as well be noted in many other places on earth, in the decaying, deindustrialized Rust Belt cities of the Northeast of the United States, for instance. Formerly prosperous towns such as Buffalo, New York, and Worcester and North Adams, Massachusetts, have been blithely abandoned by employers and politicians, and the cynical despair of their remaining inhabitants is comparable in kind if not in degree with that of Luvina's grim peasants. Rulfo's immediate reality may be the Mexican hinterland, but his preoccupations are by no means parochial and speak to First World readers as well.

—Gene H. Bell-Villada