Read more Mexican literature, suggests Caravana de Recuerdos. So I read Juan Rulfo’s two little books, The Burning Plain and Other Stories (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955). Both books are set in the interior of Jalisco, rough country, brush and scrub. In the story “They gave us land,” some peasants – soldiers? – are given parcels in a land reform, land without “even the shadow of a tree, or a seedling of a tree, or any kind of root,” where there “isn’t even enough here for the wind to blow up a dust cloud” (15).
That is more or less the setting of the stories and the novel, too, sometimes in town, sometimes more up in the mountains, but always bad, bad country. Puerto Vallarta is part of Jalisco – it’s a coastal province! Rulfo’s characters have no notion of the ocean. They have enough trouble staying alive. Many do not.
The characters in Pedro Páramo may all be dead. A man looking for his father, the title character, finds a town full of ghosts, and himself becomes a ghost. Or he is a madman who imagines a town full of ghosts. The first option is more fun. The conceit that the ghosts are confused about exactly who else is a ghost is too good to throw away for some “he’s crazy” explanation.
Please see Vapour Trails and six words for a hat and many others I have forgotten for more on Rulfo’s novel. It is a lot like Absalom, Absalom with the narrators replaced by ghosts. Huge debt to Faulkner.
The stories (the novel, too) take place mostly during the 1910s and 1920s, during the Mexican Revolution and a later regional uprising, the Cristeros War, giving plenty of room for social comment and violence, along the lines of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915). The tone is sardonic fatalism. “Everything is going from bad to worse here” (31, “We’re very poor,” yes, that’s the title of the story).
But there is also a weird strain that runs through the stories, anticipating Pedro Páramo, that I enjoyed a lot.
“It was like bats flitting through the darkness very close to us. Bats with big wings that grazed against the ground. I got up and the beating of wings was stronger, as if the flock of bats had been frightened and were flying toward the holes of the doors… I saw all of the women of Luvina with their water jugs on their shoulders, their shawls hanging from their heads and their black figures in the black background of the night.” (“Luvina,” 117)
Or “Talpa,” a grotesque story, where adulterous lovers try to murder the sick husband by accompanying him on a religious pilgrimage, over a month on the road which they hope will do him in, but which means that they are simultaneously, sinfully, blasphemously making the pilgrimage themselves.
At that point people coming from all over began to join us, people like us who turned onto that wide road, like the current of a river, making us fall behind, pushed from all sides as if we were tied to them by threads of dust. Because from the ground a white dust rose up with the swarm of people like corn fuzz that swirled up high and then came down again; all the feet scuffling against it made it rise again, so that dust was above and below us all the time. And above this land was the empty sky, without any clouds, just the dust, and the dust didn’t give any shade. (69)
A mix of close observation and leaps into nightmare.
The translator of The Burning Plain is George D. Schade; of Pedro Páramo, Margaret Sayers Peden.