BORN: 1918, Apulco, Mexico
DIED: 1986, Mexico City, Mexico
GENRE: Fiction, drama
The Burning Plain and Other Stories (1953)
Pedro Páramo (1955)
The Golden Cock, and Other Film Scripts (1980)
Although Mexican author Juan Rulfo's literary production was meager, it has had an impact on Latin American narrative fiction. His popularity, not only in Latin America but also in Europe, may be explained by the fact that his collection of short stories The Burning Plain, and Other Stories (1953) and his novel Pedro Páramo (1955) capture the essence of rural Mexico and its people in a powerful way.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Marred by Loss Born Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno on May 16, 1918, in Apulco, Mexico, he was the son of Juan Nepomuceno Pérez, a civil servant, and María Vizcaíno Arias de Pérez. Soon after Rulfo's birth, his family moved to nearby San Gabriel, the city that left an indelible image in his mind and was later integrated into his fiction.
In San Gabriel, Rulfo attended elementary school with his two brothers and experienced the Cristero revolt (1926–1927), a religious war that broke out in central Mexico between armed Catholics and the anti-Catholic Mexican government over anticlerical provisions of the
1917 Constitution of Mexico. His father was assassinated in 1925, which left a profound emotional wound in the young boy, and two years later his mother died of a heart attack. In 1928, Rulfo and his brothers were sent to Guadalajara and were placed in the Luis Silva School for orphans, where Rulfo remained until 1932. Though Rulfo's life was unstable, the Mexican government had become politically stable with the formation of what became known as the Industrial Revolutionary Party.
Moved to Mexico City Wishing to continue his education, Rulfo registered at the Universidad de la Guadalajara, but on the same day he entered school, a strike was declared by the students and the university was closed. Because of the strike, he went to Mexico City early in 1934, where he attended the national university to study law. As soon as his financial aid provided by an uncle stopped, Rulfo abandoned the university and began to seek employment. From 1935 to 1945, he worked in the Department of the Interior as an immigration agent.
In Mexico City, Rulfo soon wrote a novel, of which little is known except the title, Son of Affliction, and a short fragment, “A Piece of Night,” dated January 1940 but not published until 1959. Although this fragment seems to be a chapter of a longer work, it has the structure of a short story. The fragment reflects the style and narrative technique of later stories by Rulfo, such as the aura of vagueness that hovers over the identification of people and things, as well as the indecisiveness of the characters, who are surrounded by a sense of mystery.
First Publications Rulfo had the good fortune to have as an immigration coworker Efrén Hernández, an accomplished short-story writer from whom he learned a great deal about the art of writing. Hernández introduced Rulfo to Marco Antonio Millán, the editor of the literary periodical América, where in 1945 Rulfo published his first story, “Life Is Not Very Serious about Things.”
The story, at one time rejected by Rulfo as unworthy of his ability, can only be considered inferior when compared with the two others he published the same year, 1945, while visiting Guadalajara. There he joined Juan Joseé Arreola and Antonio Alatorre in the publication of the literary periodical Pan, where two of Rulfo's best stories, “Macario” and “They Gave Us the Land,” appeared in July and November of that year. In these two stories Rulfo demonstrates a mastery of technique and style not present in his earlier efforts. These two Pan stories are his first significant works.
Balanced Work, Family with Writing In 1947, Rulfo married Clara Aparicio, with whom he had three sons, Francisco, Pablo, and Juan Carlos, and a daughter, Claudia. Back in Mexico City that same year, he took a job as a publicist, a position he held until 1954. Meanwhile, in 1952 he received a fellowship from the Centro de Escritores Mexicanos, which made it possible for him to dedicate more time to writing. It was around this time that he decided to collect his stories, both published and unpublished.
This first book, which was an immediate success, was published the following year under the title of one of the stories, El llano en llamas, y otros cuentos (The Burning Plain, and Other Stories) (1953). The Centro fellowship was extended for another year, and it is assumed that during this period he wrote the novel Pedro Páramo (1955). In 1955, he accepted a position with the government to develop the Papaloapan River basin in southern Mexico. The project was discontinued in 1956, and Rulfo was back in Mexico City. Two years later, he returned to office work, this time in charge of the archives of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística. He apparently liked this type of work, which was suitable for his rather quiet, withdrawn nature.
Brief Foray Back to Guadalajara Dissatisfied, though, with life in metropolitan Mexico City, in 1959 he went back to Guadalajara with his family in search of peace and tranquility. However, in this state capital, things went from bad to worse, his life being complicated by his heavy drinking and ill health. While working at Televicentro, he found time to write a short novel, The Cockfighter, which he did not publish, and the script for a short film, The Plunder. But in 1962, he went back to Mexico City, this time to stay for the rest of his life.
The public had to wait until 1980 to read another new book of fiction by Rulfo. The Golden Cock, and Other Film Scripts is a slender volume of only 143 pages that consists of his two major works of fiction and his film scripts. It is not clear whether these texts were reconstructed from the films, from the original scripts, or if they are the original versions written by Rulfo during the early 1960s.
Skilled Photographer In 1980, Rulfo also published Inframundo, which includes his photographs that primarily focus on the countryside of his native region, the southern, bare, arid, economically deprived part of the central Mexican state of Jalisco. While Mexico had become politically stable, expanded economically, and seen the rise of the middle class after World War II, there was still general neglect of the poorest segments of the population. Many peasants, like those who lived in Jalisco, were not much better off than they had been in 1910.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rulfo's famous contemporaries include:
Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007): Swedish film and stage director widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of modern cinema. His films include Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): Argentine writer responsible for the “Boom,” a literary movement of which Rulfo was part. His short-story collections include The Garden of Forking Paths (1941).
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990): American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer, and pianist best known for his long conducting relationship with the New York Philharmonic. He wrote the music for Broadway musicals such as West Side Story (1957).
Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): One of the most well known Latin American fiction writers, Márquez has cited Rulfo as a major influence. His novels include Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).
Carlos Fuentes (1928–): Mexican writer with whom Rulfo collaborated on his screenplay for The Golden Cock. Fuentes's novels include Aura (1962).
Works in Literary Context
Rulfo's favorite authors were novelists, especially the leading Russians, Scandinavians, Italians, Americans, and Brazilians. His interest in literature, and above all fiction, had its roots in his early years in San Gabriel. The local priest had left Rulfo's grandmother a small library that Rulfo utilized. The first novels he read were the books of adventure by Emilio Salgari and Alexandre Dumas. He then became interested in English, American, and northern European novelists. Among the contemporary French writers, one of his favorites was Jean Giono; among the Germans, Günter Grass; and among the Italians, Vasco Pratolini.
The Importance of Place and History in Pedro Páramo Rulfo said that the idea of writing a novel about San Gabriel, the town where he had spent his boyhood, came to him “from an earlier period. It was, it can be said, almost planned about ten years before. I had not written a single line when it was already turning in my mind.” The setting, the characters, the tone, and the narrative devices found in his short stories appear in the novel. The great difference is that in the novel all the people are dead. The idea of creating a ghost town where the inhabitants continue living after they have died came to Rulfo after a visit he made to San Gabriel, where, instead of finding the idealized town he had carried in his mind for years, he found a ghost town. The novel, Pedro Páramo, is the result of a desire to bring this town back to life.
Death In the novel Pedro Páramo the presence of death predominates. This preoccupation with death as a theme is also characteristic of most of Rulfo's short stories. In the town, the dead talk about killings and death, and in their graves, they continue their conversations about death. Rulfo's preoccupation with death and violence was perhaps due to the many encounters he himself had with death—the revolution, the Cristero revolt of the late 1920s, and the violent deaths of some of his relatives. Both his father and his uncle were assassinated, and his grandfather was strung up by his thumbs and lost them.
Works in Critical Context
Although critics frequently categorize him as a regional writer, many commentators have acknowledged that his work transcends strictly regional concerns, embodying universal themes as well as metaphysical, social, and political questions. His literary reputation is based only on the stories in The Burning Plain, and Other Stories and the novel Pedro Páramo. Both garnered critical and popular praise, first in Mexico, then abroad.
Pedro Páramo Critics are in agreement that with the publication of Pedro Páramo the Mexican novel reached a high degree of perfection. In his essay “Landscape and the Novel in Mexico,” Octavio Paz writes, “Juan Rulfo is the only Mexican novelist to have provided us an image—rather than a mere description—of our physical surroundings. Like [D. H.] Lawrence and [Malcolm] Lowry, what he has given us is not photographic documentation or an impressionist 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.” In The New Spanish-American Novel, Carlos Fuentes writes, “The work of Juan Rulfo is not only the highest expression which the Mexican novel has attained until now: through Pedro Páramo we can find the thread that leads us to the new Latin-American novel.”
Responses to Literature
- In a group, discuss which ghosts in Pedro Páramo are most helpful and which are not. Why might this be?
- Research San Gabriel, Mexico, the place that Rulfo most often wrote about. What do you think attracted him to the area? Write a paper that offers your findings and conclusions on the matter.
- Does The Golden Cock seem like a film or a story? What's the difference? Write an essay that answers these questions.
- In an essay, compare Pedro Páramo to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. What do the towns have in common?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is about a town full of dead people. The ghosts in this novel are seeking to tell their tales of death and betrayal. Here are a few other stories that feature ghosts as important characters:
Hamlet (1599–1601), a play by William Shakespeare. The ghost of Prince Hamlet's father returns one night to tell Hamlet he was murdered by his brother, King Claudius.
The Changeling (1980), a film directed by Peter Medak. In an eerie Victorian mansion, a man must unravel the mystery of a child poltergeist and determine what he wants.
Beloved (1987), a novel by Toni Morrison. In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, a ghost comes back to haunt her mother, an escaped slave.
The Others (2001), a film directed by Alejandro Amenábar. This story of a woman and her children who move into an old mansion spirals out of control when supernatural events begin happening inside the house.
Foster, David William. “Juan Rulfo.” In Mexican Literature: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1981.
Freeman, George Ronald. Paradise and Fall in Rulfo's “Pedro Páramo”: Archetype and Structural Unity. Cuernavaca, Mexico: Centro Intercultural de Documentación, 1970.
Fuentes, Carlos. La nueva novela hispanoamericana. Mexico City: Mortiz, 1969.
Leal, Luis. Juan Rulfo. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Paz, Octavio. “Landscape and the Novel in Mexico.” In Alternating Current. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking, 1973.
Borgeson, Paul W., Jr. “The Turbulent Flow: Stream of Consciousness Techniques in the Short Stories of Juan Rulfo.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 13 (1979): 227–52.
Ekstrom, Margaret Virginia. “Frustrated Quest in the Narratives of Juan Rulfo.” American Hispanist 12 (1976): 13–16.
Hayes, Aden W. “Rulfo's Counter-epic: Pedro Páramo and the Stasis of History.” Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 7 (1979): 279–96.
Peavler, Terry J. “Textual Problems in Pedro Páramo.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 19 (1985): 91–99.