For Juan Rulfo’s centenary last year, Dallas-based Deep Vellum Publishing released Douglas Weatherford’s translation of The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Consisting of previously untranslated works, it includes Rulfo’s second novel The Golden Cockerel with shorter pieces that were not included in The Plain in Flames, Rulfo’s groundbreaking collection of short stories. For its Days of the Dead production, Teatro Dallas’ Cora Cardona directed “Anacleto Morones,” adapted for the stage from Rulfo’s short story by Dallas writer Anyika McMillan-Herod. During the show’s run, an ofrenda to Rulfo was exhibited in the theater lobby. Considering that most days Dallas feels like a literary backwater, what these organizations and artists put together to celebrate Juan Rulfo was nevertheless impressive.
And so months later, the date May 16th came and went—the day to celebrate one hundred one years of Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Pérez Rulfo Vizcaíno. By commemorating the Mexican writer’s birth in 1917, we seem to be saying that the potential for his work, what he is known and revered for around the world, was inherent, albeit in some kind of larval state, in the person at birth. We pay no attention to the fact that he wouldn’t become Juan Rulfo the writer until he was thirty-six years old, or that he would almost immediately, within a couple of years, stop writing literature altogether. When he died January 7, 1986, at the age of sixty-eight, he left only three short books: El llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames, 1953), Pedro Páramo (1955), and El gallo de oro y otros textos para cine (The Golden Cockerel and Other Texts for the Cinema, 1980).
Rulfo’s literary legacy in English suffers from ambivalence
Rulfo’s literary legacy in English suffers from ambivalence. He is credited, perhaps mistakenly, for inventing the Latin American strain of magical realism despite the fact that Jorge Luis Borges was born eighteen years before him and Alejo Carpentier had begun developing his theory of lo real maravilloso in 1949. But though he most certainly was one of the genre’s co-creators, the anthology Magical Realist Fiction, a required text for classes taught by Wendy Faris, one of the leading American scholars of magical realism, glaringly omits Rulfo. Nor is he even mentioned in passing in Magic(al) Realism, an introductory guide to literary criticism of the genre.
The criticism that does exist in English is insufficient and defective. It offers little insight into Rulfo’s work. No one bothers to examine, for example, one of the most obvious traits of Rulfo’s writings, which is not so much that there is an ongoing life after death but that this ongoing postmortem “life,” too, is blighted by the specter of another death. His characters not only continue to live beyond the grave but they also crumble, decay, and perish again (and again). Disney/Pixar apparently did take notice, however, by building the plot of its award-winning 2017 animated film Coco around this structure of the afterlife. Apart from this death-after-death framework, there is no mention of Rulfo in the film.
In the Spanish-speaking world, Rulfo’s presence is inescapable in spite of the fact that the Mexico that Rulfo wrote about no longer exists. His stories from half a century ago were at that time already elegies for the landscape and rural ways of being that have long since been abandoned. In the ensuing years, the villages he wrote about have become ghost towns many times over. The books that survive now find themselves in a precarious purgatory that Juan Preciado, Pedro Páramo’s son and one of the principal characters of that book, knew all too well: how to live beyond one’s own death and yet remain alive long enough in that death to complete one’s quest.
Rulfo economized language to allow the landscape space enough to exist as language. He refused the baroque tendency to fill in negative space with verbiage and explanation. The expanse of Mexico, its arroyos, deserts, and mountains, serve as the subtext to his writings without ever congealing into pastoral pastiche. He taught Mexican—and not only Mexican— writers how to write. How difficult to imagine Carmen Boullosa and Yuri Herrera, among many others, without his tutelage of restrained narrative, of dialect inflected by geography.
The particularities of his writing (the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, the Jaliscan terrain) exceed their discrete, distinct borders, thereby offering an abiding deathlessness for Rulfo’s works by allowing something transcendent and universal to show itself. Still today, you can pick up one of his books and immediately become immersed in its environment, its totality of terseness. As long as we have his literary heirs and a cluster of artists and organizations (even in seemingly far-flung Dallas) devoted to honoring him, Juan Rulfo will continue to live on, almost in spite of his somewhat ambivalent legacy.
Frank Garrett is a writer and translator. He has a PhD in philosophy and literary theory from the University of Texas at Dallas. He trained as a translator at UTD's Center for Translation Studies and at Philipps-Universität Marburg after earning advanced certification in Polish philology from the Catholic University of Lublin. His work appears in 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, Minor Literature[s], Spurl Editions, and Transitions Online. Outpost19 published his translation of Robert Rient's bestselling memoir Witness in 2016. He is a Contributing Theater Writer for TheaterJones; and he blogs at mycrashcourse.net and tweets from @limmoraliste. Frank lives in Dallas with his husband.
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