Arreola, Juan José (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Juan José Arreola 1918-
Mexican short story writer, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Arreola's career through 1994.
Arreola is considered one of Mexico's most important short story writers and is credited with dramatically influencing the direction of Mexican literature in the twentieth century. He is noted for his pioneering work in satire, surrealism, and absurdism, and for his break from the Mexican literary tradition of realism. While Arreola has incorporated the themes and styles of diverse types of literature into his works, he has also retained an element of regionalism, focusing on the experiences of average Mexicans. Arreola's narrative fiction and dramas have influenced Latin American writers since the 1950s, and he continues to nourish young writers with his writing workshops and his efforts to encourage the work of emerging authors.
Arreola was the fourth of fourteen children born to a deeply religious family in Zapotlan el Grande (now Ciudad Guzman), in west central Mexico. As a child he demonstrated an excellent memory and an interest in literature, but his family's financial circumstances forced him to end his formal schooling at the age of twelve to become a bookbinder's apprentice. He worked a series of jobs in Zapotlan before moving to Mexico City, where he enrolled in the Instituto de Bellas Artes to study acting in 1939. He began to focus on his writing during this time and formed acquaintances with other young Mexican writers. He collaborated with Juan Rulfo, a noted Mexican writer, in the creation of the short-lived literary journal Pan in the early 1940s. In 1943 Arreola published his first nationally recognized story, “Hizo el bien mientras vivio.” His acting jobs provided him with an opportunity in 1945 to travel to France, where he was exposed to modern European literature and drama. Upon his return to Mexico, Arreola worked as an editor for the Fondo de Cultura Económica while continuing to write fiction. In 1949 he published his first collection of short stories, Varia invención. The work received little critical response; however, it was read by the literary circle of Mexico City and earned Arreola notice. In 1952 Arreola solidified his reputation as an emerging and important Mexican writer with the publication of Confabulario. The following year, Arreola's first play, La hora de todos. was produced. He has continued to write for the theater and has played an important role in Mexican television throughout his career.
Arreola first garnered attention for his two short story collections, Varia invención and Confabulario. In these stories, Arreola tackles a broad range of themes and subjects from urban life to historic events. The mysterious and absurd nature of life and the human condition is a main concern in many of his stories. Themes emerging in these early works include man's preoccupation with science and technology, the hopelessness of love, the deceptive nature of women, and the loss of poetic sensitivity. His most famous story, published in Confabulario, “El guardagujas” (“The Switchman”), involves an encounter between a foreign traveler and a elderly, mysterious railroad man, who, through his ramblings, provides an allegory about life. The story features several elements characteristic of Arreola's unique writing style: absurdism; reliance on magical realism; artistic and playful manipulation of language and form; heavy reliance on satirical humor; and a dark world view. In 1958 Arreola published a collection of animal allegories entitled Punta de plata. Building on the ancient literary tradition of attributing human characteristics to animals, Arreola modernized the genre through his use of satire, cynicism, and absurdity. He published his only novel, La feria (The Fair), in 1963. The work consists of many vignettes and fragmented stories which together relate the life cycle of a Mexican village. Although Arreola has been known for his incorporation of international literary styles and subjects into his work, this novel focuses solely on regional Mexican culture. Attempting to address questions about form and deconstructionalism, Arreola published Palindroma in 1971; it consists of numerous intellectual puzzles and games that challenge the reader carefully to consider the nature of content and language.
Arreola's first two collections of short stories have earned him considerable critical attention and praise throughout his career. Scholars credit Arreola with transforming the Mexican short story and introducing a new style and international literary elements to Mexican literature. Melvin Maddocks calls him “a brilliant, corrosive fabulist, very much of the modern mood.” Some critics, however, feel that Arreola's writing can be uneven and that not all of his works are noteworthy. Maddocks, for example, argues that Arreola's straight satire is not equal to his writings that focus on the innate contradictions of life in a more indirect manner. Initial critical reaction to Arreola's novel La feria was largely negative, and the illusive nature of this and his other works has sparked heated scholarly debate over the intended meanings of his allegories. Despite these critiques, commentators praise Arreola's introduction of absurdism and existentialism into the Mexican literary tradition, which had been largely limited to realism. Reviewers note Arreola's unique style, his playful and skillful use of language, his melding of international and historic subjects, and his satirical talents. In addition, Arreola has earned recognition for his work in influencing and encouraging other writers. Seymour Menton describes him as “a true man of the twentieth century, an eclectic who at will can draw upon the best of all who have preceded him in order to create truly masterful works of art which in turn will be seized upon by others.”
Varia invención (short stories) 1949
Cinco cuentos (short stories) 1951
Confabulario (short stories) 1952
La hora de todos: Juguete cómico en un acto (drama) 1953
Punta de plata (short stories) 1958; also published as Bestiario, 1958
*Confabulario total, 1941–1961 (short stories) 1962
La feria [The Fair] (novel) 1963
Palindroma (short stories and drama) 1971
Inventario (essays) 1976
Confabulario personal (short stories) 1979
*Includes Varia invención, Confabulario, and Bestiario; English translation published as Confabulario and Other Inventions in 1964.
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SOURCE: “Mexican Fabulist at Play,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1964, p. 5.
[In the following review, Maddocks argues that while Arreola's satire is clever, the author is at his best when he grapples with the inherent contradictions of life.]
The fable is the most charming form that moralizers have invented. Aesop—nourished by experience, stuffed with prudence, paunchy from common sense—would be quite intolerable in any other literary shape.
The fable is for extremists: for those, like Aesop, who are very sure of what they believe—and for those who are very unsure. In this century writers as different as Thurber and Kafka have developed a kind of dark parody of the fable, a sort of antifable. On its shallower levels it is cynical, bitter, given to facile inversions of conventional morality: the gay grasshoppers survive; it is the industrious ants who go under.
But at deeper levels the antifable can be a profound protest that sober, shrewd common sense is not enough. It is Hamlet's objection to Horatio, redirected to Polonius: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The Mexican satirist Juan José Arreola, born in 1918, is a brilliant, corrosive fabulist, very much of the modern mood. The 97 pieces in this collection of 20 years of writing (1941–1961) are not all fables. There are...
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SOURCE: “Caught in Our Logical Absurdities,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 31, August 1, 1964, p. 32.
[Yates is an American educator, editor, translator, and critic, specializing in Spanish literature. In the following review, he appraises the English translation of Arreola's Confabulario total, noting that the work satirizes “man and his entanglements with logical absurdities.”]
In 1962, Juan José Arreola published in Mexico City his Confabulario total. It was, in a sense, his “Collected Works,” since it brought together most of his short stories, including some of the earliest, which date back to 1941; his latest short sketches or fables (from which the book takes its title); his Bestiario of 1958, a satirical, anti-U.S. play, and all of his most recent prose pieces.
The present translation of Confabulario total, as the newest title in the Texas Pan American Series, confers a certain distinction on the forty-six-year-old author, for probably more of Arreola's over-all literary production is now available in English than of any other Spanish-American writer. The intellectual sophistication and imaginative virtuosity of this collection suggest that he is in many ways worthy of the honor.
The most polished and the most given to verbal and conceptual play of his “generation” of Mexican writers—a group that includes...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Confabulario and Other Inventions by Juan José Arreola, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. vii–xi.
[In the following excerpt, Schade surveys the collected pieces of Arreola's Confabulario and Other Inventions, noting the author's stylistic gifts and deft use of humor and satire.]
Arreola, who has lived for many years in Mexico City, was born in Ciudad Guzmán in the state of Jalisco, Mexico in 1918. His stories first appeared in little magazines in Guadalajara in the early 1940's—one of them called Pan he edited with his friend Rulfo—and his first book, Varia Invención, came out in 1949. Confabulario followed in 1952, and in 1955 was published in a second edition together with Varia Invención in one volume. His bestiary appeared in 1958 under the title Punta de plata. In 1962 these books, together with the addition of a large number of new pieces, were all brought out under the title Confabulario total, 1941–61.
This book is difficult to classify. Some of the pieces—like “The Switchman,” “The Crow Catcher,” “Private Life”—are clearly short stories in a modern mode, ranging widely in technique and style; a great many others, as the title would indicate, are fables; still others are sharp, satiric, one-page vignettes, and can hardly be called short stories. The tone and language vary...
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SOURCE: “The New Novel, IV: Juan José Arreola,” in A New History of Spanish American Fiction, Volume II, University of Miami Press, 1971, pp. 292–95.
[Schwartz is an American educator, editor, and critic who has written extensively on Spanish literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses Arreola's focus on morality, absurdity, and irrationality in his short stories and his novel, The Fair.]
Juan José Arreola, the fourth of fourteen children, was unable to attend school. He undertook a variety of physical and intellectual positions in a bank, on a newspaper, and in the theater, partly through the efforts of Louis Jouvet who met him in Mexico and took him to Paris. On his return he became a member of the publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica, where he was able to continue the close association with books and reading which he loved so much. In 1952 he founded the publishing house Los Presentes, through which Carlos Fuentes first came to public attention, and he has continued to inspire young writers through his “Taller literario” and his review Mester. In 1961 he was named coordinator of literary publications for the Presidencia de la República. In the 1950s a polemic took place between his supporters and those of Rulfo about the relative merits of a national novel as opposed to the novel of special stylistic techniques. Because he eschewed an hermetic nationalism Arreola was...
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SOURCE: “Continuity in Evolution: Juan José Arreola as Dramatist,” in Latin American Theatre Review, Spring, 1975, pp. 15–24.
[In the following essay, Herz traces Arreola's contributions to the dramatic form.]
Despite his renown as a writer of fiction, Juan José Arreola's predilection for the theatre spans a period of approximately forty years. He first studied drama with Rodolfo Usigli and Xavier Villaurrutia, performing as an actor under the latter's direction. From 1945 to 1946 he held a scholarship which permitted him to travel to Paris where he acted in the Comédie Française. During this formative period, he came under the influence of two innovative director-producers, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault.1 At least tangentially Arreola has also ventured into the theory of stagecraft with his translation of Vie de l'art théatral, des origines a nos jours (1932).2 Although between 1939 and 1940 he composed three one-act farces (La sombra de la sombra, Rojo y negro, and Tierras de dios),3 they have never been produced or published and to date his endeavors as a playwright consist of two one-act dramas: La hora de todos (1954) and Tercera llamada ¡Tercera! o empezamos sin usted (1971).
It is not surprising that Arreola opts for the brief dramatic form since conciseness characterizes his...
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SOURCE: “Expressionism,” in Fantasy and Imagination in the Mexican Narrative, Arizona State University, 1977, pp. 77–88.
[In the following excerpt, Larson discusses several of Arreola's short stories, describing them as efforts to expose “the moral conscience of the individual.”]
Perhaps the most obvious features of Arreola's stories are their stylistic elegance and the extravagance of their action, either of which would be enough to set them apart from the course of the Mexican narrative so long subject to evaluation according to ethical and not aesthetic criteria. Socialist realism values content above form, and encourages direct expression of an impersonal conception of reality. Arreola acknowledges the artist's social responsibility, but he contends that documentary fiction is merely a useless repetition of life and that its task could much more effectively be performed by the newspaper, radio, cinema, or television.
If art is the transformation of exterior reality into aesthetic experience, Arreola is the consummate artist with absolute control over the word—which is for him the material concretion of an emanation from the human soul. He rejoices in the constant accusations that he is manierista, amanerado, filigranista, orfebre, but he rejects the serenity of the ivory tower and specifically urges
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SOURCE: “Absurdist Techniques in the Short Stories of Juan José Arreola,” in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 8, Nos. 1–2, Spring-Fall, 1980, pp. 67–76.
[In the following essay, Gilgen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, compares Arreola's writing to the work of absurdist writers, arguing that while many of the techniques they use are similar, Arreola's work predates that of many dramatists of the theatre of the absurd.]
Literature of the absurd has enjoyed a special prominence in world letters during the past several years. Due in large part to the popularity and critical acclaim of the French Theater of the Absurd, absurdist expression has found its way into the novel and short story as well as into the theater. While there seem to be no concrete or well defined limits to such literature, nevertheless there are certain characteristics which do make it distinguishable from other modern literary approaches.
In a recent essay on Albert Camus (1913–1960) and the Mexican Juan José Arreola (1918), George R. McMurray convincingly shows that Arreola's “Switchman” expresses the concepts of the absurd as outlined in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.1 The purpose of this study is to develop the idea further by illustrating the specific literary techniques that Arreola employs throughout his Confabulario (1952)2 to create...
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SOURCE: “Los de Abajo, La feria, and the Notion of Space-time Categories in the Narrative Text,” in Hispanofila, September, 1983, pp. 77–91.
[In the following essay, Merrell compares Azulea’s Los de abajo and La feria, discussing how both works relate to each other in terms of space and time.]
The objectives set forth in this paper include: (1) a brief inquiry into the notion of a priori formal and esthetic categories, (2) an analysis of Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo and Juan José Arreola's La feria based on considerations of space and time as conditioning factors governing the generation of prose literature, and (3) further speculations concerning the possibility of employing spatial and temporal categories to explicate and interpret narrative texts in general.
According to Kant's theory of knowledge, in spite of man's incessant striving for the absolute, he is, due to his own internal limitations, destined to perpetual frustration. His limitations are determined by invariant a priori categories of thought which impose logical constraints on his knowledge of the external world.1 In the present century theoreticians in diverse disciplines have expounded on the Kantian notion of an a priori foundation of human thought; that is, knowledge derived from self-evident propositions...
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SOURCE: Juan José Arreola, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 33–35.
[In the following excerpt, Washburn discusses Arreola's Palindroma, observing that its contents are presented with a bluntness and cynicism that departs from the author's earlier style.]
In 1971 [Arreola] published his first completely new title in several years, Palindroma [Palindrome]. In general Palindrome is similar to Arreola's previous books: there is the same distinctive style, the same variety of subject matter and form, and—despite Arreola's good intentions in his 1966 prologue—a preponderance of works outrageously scoring the man-woman relationship. There are also some major differences between Palindrome and the bulk of his previous work. Most of the volume is occupied not by short prose creations, but by a one-act play. Moreover, Arreola's malice and cynicism, which previously had been held in check and merely simmered beneath the surface of his writing, are at times escalated to a pitch beyond that of any previous work. Some of the entries have the character of dirty jokes or leers in an all male barbershop, leers loftily couched in the refinements of scholarship and high, prose art. “El himen en México” [“The hymen in Mexico”] purports to be a medicosociological treatise on the indurate hymen of Mexican women, and concludes with a mocking rhapsody to the “secret membrane,”...
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SOURCE: “Juan José Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty,” in Chasqui, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2–3, February-May, 1984, pp. 33–43.
[In the following excerpt, Heusinkveld examines Arreola's “El guardagujas,” “Autrui,” and “El mapa de objetos perdidos” as modern, existential allegories.]
In this century we have seen radical changes in the genres of literature. The Theater of the Absurd breaks theatrical conventions, and the New Novel differs radically from the traditional novel. This article considers a contemporary Mexican writer whose brief prose fiction, like much literature of this century, defies easy classification. The artistic purpose of Juan José Arreola is clearly not that of a traditional short story writer, who keeps the reader's attention with plot development, suspense, climax and denouement. In many of the brief fictional pieces in his Confabulario, Arreola presents only a static situation, usually of a bizarre or fantastical nature, that leaves the reader groping for meaning. In the absence of a traditional story line, the reader may be only minimally interested in finding out what will happen, if indeed anything will happen at all. The more urgent question becomes: “What can it possibly all mean?”
As George Schade pointed out in the introduction to his English translation of Confabulario, the very title of Arreola's famous volume...
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SOURCE: “Artistic Iconoclasm in Mexico: Countertexts of Arreola, Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart,” in Chasqui, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, May, 1989, pp. 17–25.
[In the following essay, Herz considers Arreola's influence on Mexican writers José Agustín, René Avilés Fabila, and Hugo Hiriart.]
A la virtut presente, mester de clerecía, y a la belleza toda, mester de juglaría. El tiempo es poco y pasa, y a la receta mía sigamos con mesteres, ca son de arreolería.
Jorge Arturo Ojeda, Mester
In 1963, Luis Leal proclaimed that “el desarrollo del cuento mexicano contemporáneo puede dividirse en dos etapas: antes y después de Arreola y Rulfo.”1 Many aspiring, young writers, including José Agustín, Homero Aridjis, René Avilés Fabila, Gerardo de la Torre, Hugo Hiriart, Jorge Arturo Ojeda and Juan Tovar, made their publishing debut in Mester: Revista del taller literario de Juan José Arreola (1964–66). During the '60s, several literary novices composed eulogies to Arreola's tutelage and Ojeda even declared that “toda una época en México se llamará discípula de”2 Arreola. Almost a decade after the 61 publication of Confabulario, Ross Larson offered the following critical delineation of Arreola's pioneering role in the Mexican literary scene:
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SOURCE: “Arreola's La feria: The Author and the Reader in the Text,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 33, No. 1, September, 1989, pp. 57–67.
[In the following essay, D'Lugo discusses the fragmented nature of La feria, its regionalistic aspects, and its universal appeal.]
Juan José Arreola's La feria is a unique blending of regionalism and universality, to the detriment of neither. Its regionalism is most evident in the content: an array of Mexican characters particular to Arreola's native Ciudad Guzmán, formerly Zapotlán el Grande; language replete with mexicanismos so crucial to the text that the translator for the English edition could not bring himself to mutilate the novel by translating certain of them; references to rural life which, although not specific to Mexico in theme (concern for the land, emerging sexuality, local literary groups), in treatment become the quintessence of Jalisco. La feria's universality, on the other hand, can be traced directly to form, for its creative use of fragmentation links Arreola to a family of twentieth-century authors who, through innovative narrative strategies, force their readers into an awareness of the need to work actively with the given text.
Any examination of La feria must take into consideration its fragmented status, for Arreola's treatment of this technique cannot be ignored. While some critics...
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SOURCE: “From Poetic to Prosaic Animal Portraits: Arreola's ‘El Elefante,’” in Romantic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 473–82.
[In the following excerpt, Metzidakis, a professor at Washington University, argues that Arreola's story “El Elefante,” while being built on the foundation of past bestiary poems, constitutes a marked transformation of the genre.]
What shall generally concern me here is the genre known as the “bestiary.” As a codified genre, the bestiary has existed since its first “official” appearance in Le Roman de Renart in 12th-century France. It has taken on many different forms and can be traced to many different cultures. From Aesop to Jean de La Fontaine, and from the French Parnassians to the Surrealists, single portraits of animals have also served as central elements of many literary works outside of the strict context formed by the bestiary. But a striking change occurs in this aesthetic treatment of animals the closer we get to our own time. Following the general shift from poetry to prose visible in most modern Western literatures, the bestiary takes on a whole new look when it assumes—as it does, in the case of the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola—the formally different configuration of a collection of prose poems. This situation gives rise to several critically significant questions: 1) What is implied by this shift from versified...
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Burt, John R. “This Is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola's Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source.” Hispania 71, No. 4 (December 1988): 806–11.
Burt examines how Arreola uses the image of the railroad both literally and allegorically in “El guardagujas.”
Menton, Seymour. “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story.” Hispania XLII, No. 3 (September 1959): 295–308.
Menton, a professor at the University of Kansas and a friend of Arreola's, explores the links between Arreola's work and world literature.
Washburn, Yulan M. “An Ancient Mold for Contemporary Casting: The Beast Book of Juan.” Hispania 56 (April 1973): 295–300.
Washburn discusses how Arreola's Bestiario is linked to the literary tradition of the bestiary.
Additional coverage of Arreola's life and career is available in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113, 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 81;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; Discovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Hispanic Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; and Short...
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