Rulfo (Viscaíno), Juan

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RULFO (Viscaíno), Juan

Nationality: Mexican. Born: Sayula, Jalisco, 16 May 1918. Education: An orphanage to age 15, Guadalajara; studied law at the universities of Guadalajara and Mexico City. Career: Held various odd jobs including university staff member, clerical worker, and employee of the Immigration Department, Mexico City; publicity worker, B.F. Goodrich, 1945; worked for rubber company, Veracruz, 1947-54; film and TV script writer; accountant, Mexico City; director of the editorial department, National Institute for Indigenous Studies, Mexico City, from 1962. Adviser, and Fellow, Centro Mexicano de Escritores. Awards: Asturias prize. Died: 1 January 1986.


Short Stories

El llano en llamas. 1953; revised edition, 1970; as The Burning Plain and Other Stories, 1967.


Pedro Páramo. 1955; translated as Pedro Páramo, 1959, and 1992.


Autobiografía armada, edited by Reina Roffé. 1973.

Obra completa, edited by Jorge Ruffinelli. 1977.

El gallo de oro y otros textos para cine. 1980.

Para cuando yo me ausente. 1983.

Donde quedo nuestra historia: Hipotesis sobre historia regional. 1986.

Editor, Antologia personal. 1978.


Critical Studies:

in Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, 1967; Paradise and Fall in Rulfo's Pedro Páramo by George Ronald Freeman, 1970; Home as Creation: The Influence of Early Childhood Experiences in the Literary Creation of Gabriel García Márquez, Agustín Yáñez, and Juan Rulfo by Wilma Else Detjens, 1993.

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Juan Rulfo's El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and Other Stories), his sole collection of short stories, was published in 1953. Successive editions have added further stories, numbering 17 in all. The title places his fiction in the harsh, dry plains of Jalisco where Rulfo was born and that condition the lives of the mestizo (half-caste) peasants, their poverty, and the violence surrounding them. All the stories are linked by this environment, by the inarticulacy of the ignorant people, and by their isolation from mainstream, postrevolutionary Mexican life. For a peasant, place is more meaningful than history or culture.

His primitive characters live through impulse and instinct rather than reasoning. Rulfo called these illiterate Jalisco peasants "hermetic," with "limited vocabularies," who "hardly talk." Most of Rulfo's stories end in disaster, with outbursts of violence the only form of communication. In this survival world people fend for themselves, unable to feel pity for others. Rulfo claimed that "life matters little" to these people who show no sense of society, tenderness, or love.

This view of his protagonists is reinforced by the techniques used, beginning with a dependence on solitary voices, often a first-person narrator or a monologue. There is little description and no attempt at psychological understanding or exploration of motivation. Rulfo tends to work with images, vivid physical details suggestive of the economy and suggestive power of a poem. He offers minimal information, forcing the reader to enter the peasants' opaque mentality. The absence of authorial intervention makes it hard to assess Rulfo's own attitudes towards his protagonists. His short stories work effectively because he links an intense dramatic urgency, a poetic concision, and sparks of black humor.

The opening story "Macario" (first published in 1945) sets the tone by throwing a reader abruptly, without explanation, into the mind of the village idiot, Macario, who tells his own tale. We sense his hunger, his inability to recall; he bangs his head and hunts frogs to eat. He depends on Felipa and feeds on her breast milk. His age, his relationship with Felipa, who he really is, we never know.

The second story of the collection, "They Gave Us Land," is narrated by a peasant in a group walking to claim their plot of land in the wake of the 1917 revolutionary constitution's promised but never realized land reform. In this ironic story the land given was just a patch of dust. Rulfo emphasizes the aridity, the lack of rain, the heat. The plains are compared to dried cow hide, to a hot stone for cooking tortillas, to a crust. The story is based on negatives. The absence of rain, symbol of fertility (and hope), becomes the protagonist of the story when a black cloud passes over and one drop falls to the ground: "making a hole in the ground and leaving a paste rather like a gob of spit." This is no meteorological description, but a damnation, the flames of hell implicit in the title of the collection. When the peasants complain to an official he tells them to write it down and not to attack the government but the old land owners. The first-person narrator does not complain, just accepts his fate.

The title story, "The Burning Plain" (first published in 1950), situates the reader directly in the Cristero revolution where priests and enraged Catholics took up arms against the official atheist postrevolutionary government in the late 1920s, a reactionary war that cost Rulfo's father and an uncle their lives. From the opening sentence we see this revolution as horror, in the midst of an unexplained skirmish. Pointless violence links all the episodes together as the characters themselves do not understand why they are fighting: "We all looked at Pedro Zamora asking him with our eyes what was happening to us. It was as if speech had dried out in all of us, as if our tongues had turned into balls." It gives the so-called revolutionaries a sadistic pleasure to watch the maize fields burn. At the end the narrator returns to his woman (whose father he killed) and meets his son. But unlike the symbolic meeting of father and son in Mariano Azuela's classic account of the revolution, The Underdogs (1916), the narrator here confesses his guilt, ending the story with "I lowered my head."

"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" exemplifies Rulfo's world of hermetically sealed beings. In this story a wretched old man clings on to his life at the expense of everybody and everything else. He confesses, "I didn't want anything. Just to live." Juvencio kills his compadre (buddy) Lupe, for when it comes to survival compadre means nothing. The story narrates the breakdown of Juvencio's life; his wife leaves, he loses everything, and he lives in terror on the run. He claims that he had to kill don Lupe, implying some alien force, or fate, that absolved him of responsibility. But we learn that don Lupe was viciously hacked down by a machete, found with an ox pike stuck into his belly. The story ends with Juvencio's son chatting with his father's corpse. Instead of the "mercy killing" promised, Juvencio's face was riddled with bullets. In this hallucinatory story, with long monologues, we see how words are used in deceitful ways that typify Rulfo's peasants from Jalisco.

The world of these outcasts echoes William Faulkner in technique (monologues in As I Lay Dying), the marginalized geographic area (Yoknapatawpha), as well as surrealism's dismissal of reason and logic as ways to understand behavior. Despite these sources Rulfo has created a pessimistic fictional world on the wane, where Luvina, and later Comala (in his only novel Pedro Páramo), stand for the ghost towns created by the revolution and the drift to Mexico City. Rulfo is both nostalgic about the passing of this world and critical of its reactionary peasants.

—Jason Wilson

See the essays on "Luvina," "Talpa," and "We're Very Poor."