Talpa by Juan Rulfo, 1953
by Juan Rulfo, 1953
A segment of a distinguished but small literary production, the story "Talpa" contains many elements that characterize the fiction of the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. Like his landmark novel Pedro Páramo (1955), the 1953 story collection The Burning Plain and Other Stories (El llano en llamas) depicts characters doomed to roam an arid landscape while bearing the weight of their sins. "Talpa," a tale of adultery, death, and remorse, is an integral part of Rulfo's Dantesque scheme.
The stories of The Burning Plain fall into the category of regionalism, a prominent subgenre in twentieth-century Latin American literature. Behind the realistic, clearly Mexican topo-graphic, social, and cultural elements, however, a strong mythical reality imbues Rulfo's unique world, recalling William Faulkner's phantasmagoric landscape. Rulfo, like many other Latin American writers of his time, greatly admired his American predecessor, but he went a step further to create the atemporal perspective of "wandering souls" whose raw emotions he conveys in strong visual images. He is successful in incorporating the afterlife with his characters' existence amidst an ethereal, yet strongly delineated, reality.
By means of an interior monologue the protagonist of "Talpa" traces the progressive intensification of his guilt at his brother's death. In a quiet, understated manner that belies his inner torment, the narrator describes Tanilo's severe disease, his own physical relationship with his sister-in-law, Natalia, and the trio's journey to Talpa in search of a cure.
The five-part story opens with the protagonist's shocking self-accusation as his brother's killer, a technique that reveals the outcome from the beginning. Since the reader soon finds out that Tanilo succumbed to his leprosy-like illness, the author removes the expected element of suspense that we usually find in a crime story. Instead, he shifts the tension toward the causes of the guilt. As the action unfolds in a series of flashbacks, the focus turns toward the adulterers' feelings of remorse and suffering. The narrator discloses the events that have led to the "present," including the pilgrimage, the love triangle, Tanilo's horrible death, the quick burial, and the two surviving characters' hell on earth.
Tragic irony pervades the narrative, revealing an insight into the characters' psyche in a manner intensified by the unexpected and by the force of the rural environment. The arid and hostile landscape, vividly and tersely portrayed, communicates the characters' inner world with immediacy. The understated and sparse, yet highly suggestive, imagery hides tense and dramatic conflicts. Moreover, the tension between stark reality and complex passion creates a powerful sense of movement and dynamism.
The six-week pilgrimage to Talpa, a place of redemption and salvation, takes priority in the narrative space. The arduous trip, including the 20-day lag that takes the unfortunate trio only as far as the road, seems to last an eternity. Rulfo stretches time by shifting the reader's attention to the characters' perception of the landscape and away from their feelings. His rural characters have no perspective on their own situation. They see everything in literal terms, visible and concrete. As the couple drags Tanilo unwillingly toward his death, a fine dust clings persistently onto a caravan of pilgrims that they have joined. The sky above them hovers "like a heavy gray spot crushing … from above." Passion and desire come from "the heat of the earth" rather than from their psyches.As the adulterers give in to their guilt, they feel "bent double" as if "something was holding [them] and placing a heavy load on top of [them]."
The narrative contains an oscillation between Talpa and Zenzontla, invented places that sound real. Talpa becomes a shrine and a mecca, home to the Virgin of the same name, where the sick and the dying seek a miracle. Sustaining his ironic mode, Rulfo presents the journey to the town as the cause of Tanilo's death. A pathetic figure ravaged by wounds and "giving off a sour smell like a dead animal when he passed by," he dies shortly after the group reaches Talpa. It is at that moment, toward the story's end, that the narrator reiterates what he stated earlier as he admitted his crime: "But we took him there so he'd die, and that's what I can't forget."
Like Talpa, Zenzontla is "home," where Natalia seeks solace and a chance to cry in her mother's arms. The narrator speculates, nevertheless, that this town is only a place where they are "in passing, just to rest." Their guilt and the memory of Tanilo have turned Zenzontla into an alien place, a living hell from which none of Rulfo's characters seems to escape.
Time in the story manifests itself in only two dimensions—the present and the immediate past. This technique serves to stress the characters' flat and simple perceptions of their actions and consequences. The past incorporates the affair, the journey to Talpa, the quick burial of Tanilo, and the return. The "now" (a word that is repeated to underscore the protagonist's living hell) is more of a consciousness than a time frame. The then and the now interweave with Talpa and Zenzontla to blur the boundaries between paradise and hell, salvation and damnation. Only the guilt, which has taken on a life of its own, survives, giving Tanilo the best revenge possible.
In "Talpa" Rulfo portrays a world that is clearly identified with Jalisco, his native state—the arid landscape, the stoic people, the belief in miracles, the moral customs. With that strong identification with his homeland he proceeded in all of his work to combine his vision of Mexican rural life with a view of humanity's great capacity to confront death, alienation, and guilt with dignity and courage.
—Stella T. Clark