Friday, November 16, 2012

The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo

One of the best short story collections of the 20th century
The Burning Plain is a collection of fifteen short stories by Mexican author Juan Rulfo, originally published in 1953 under the Spanish title of El Llano en llamas. Rulfo is widely considered by his countrymen to be Mexico’s greatest author, even though he only published two books of fiction during his lifetime, this collection of stories and the novel Pedro Páramo.

The stories in The Burning Plain take place in rural Mexico, around the time of the Revolution of 1910, and often focus on the harsh aspects of peasant life. While some of the stories are very specifically Mexican, others are so stark and devoid of detail that their time and place are indeterminate. Common to all is a harsh, desolate landscape whose inhabitants struggle to eke out a living, some by coaxing a meagre crop from the arid soil, others by violently wielding a gun or machete. Poverty and murder permeate these stories, and death is a ubiquitous presence that Rulfo treats with an alternatingly bleak and comic fatalism.

Rulfo’s writing style is as sparse and severe as the land he depicts. No one can say as much with as few words as Juan Rulfo. His characters are often just the faint outline of human beings, his stages set with but a few rocks and trees, yet from these paltry ingredients he manages to craft complex narratives that vividly capture the drama of human existence. His prose is terse and stark, almost crude in its poetic simplicity, yet he also uses modernistic literary devices such as switching from first to third person in mid-story or alternating simultaneous stream-of-consciousness narratives. When Rulfo employs such techniques, it never feels gratuitous or forced, but always effortless and vital to the tale being told. The plots often start out deliberately obscure, sometimes frustratingly so, then slowly coalesce and develop like a figure emerging from a fog.

Reading this collection is like strolling through a gallery of masterpieces. The stories are consistently excellent throughout. In the bluntly titled “We’re very poor,” a flood inundates a rural village, washing away a cow belonging to the narrator’s sister. Without that cow for her dowry, her family fears she will become a “bad woman” like her sisters. In “Tell them not to kill me!”, an elderly man awaits his impending execution, grasping for a shred of hope, as he recalls his past 40 years as a fugitive and the murder that led to his downfall. In the bleak but powerful “No dogs bark,” an old man, carrying his grown son on his back, stumbles through darkness in search of medical attention, lamenting the trouble brought about by his son’s evil ways. “Remember” starts out as a folksy anecdote, with the narrator detailing the personality quirks of his home village’s inhabitants. It then slowly and unexpectedly escalates into an account of a brutal killing. If there’s one brilliant gem to be singled out from this treasure chest it would probably be “Talpa.” Tamilo, whose body is covered in mysterious, disgusting sores, convinces his wife and his brother (or sister, perhaps; I don’t believe Rulfo ever specifies) to take him on a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Talpa, little knowing that the two are carrying on an affair behind his back.

The Burning Plain is a landmark work, not only of Latin-American literature but of literature in general. I can’t think of a better collection of short stories overall. Even for those who have absolutely no interest in Mexico, its history or its culture, Rulfo’s stories transcend their setting to offer profound and unblinking insight into the universal human condition.

Stories in this collection
They gave us the land 
The Hill of the Comrades 
We’re very poor 
The man 
At daybreak 
The burning plain 
Tell them not to kill me! 
The night they left him alone 
No dogs bark 
Paso del Norte 
Anacleto Morones 

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