Arreola, Juan José (Short Story Criticism)
Juan José Arreola 1918-
Mexican short story writer, novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, and playwright.
Hailed as Mexico's premier experimental short story writer of the twentieth century, Arreola is best known for his allegorical tales that explore the nature of human existence in a haphazard, dreamlike, and sometimes insane world. He is also recognized as one of the first Mexican writers to abandon realism in favor of fables and parables; in his stories he uses elements of fantasy to underscore existentialist and absurdist ideas and offers readers bewildering yet humorous glimpses into complexities of the human condition. Arreola's short fiction has been compared to that of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Although he is little known outside his native Mexico, Arreola has served as literary inspiration for a legion of Mexican writers who have sought to transform their country's realistic literary tradition by introducing elements of magical realism, satire, and allegory.
Arreola was born in Mexico in 1918, the fourth of fourteen children. As a youngster, he earned such a reputation for his ability to memorize stories and poems he had either read or heard that he was given the job of announcing all public functions in his hometown of Zapotlán. His family's financial difficulties forced him to leave school at age twelve, but Arreola's appetite for reading, memorizing, and reciting continued as he apprenticed for a master bookbinder and printing press. In 1939 Arreola moved to Mexico City to study drama, but his theater career was short-lived because of severe post-performance depressions. He took a job as a secondary school teacher in 1940, the same year his first short story was published in his hometown newspaper.
In 1943 Arreola and a group of literary friends, including the distinguished Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, created their own literary journals, Pan and Eos. The publication in Eos of Arreola's short story “Hizo el bien mientras vivió” (“He Did Good While He Lived”) marked the fledgling writer as an important new voice in Mexican literature. The following year Arreola married. When the relationship ended in divorce soon thereafter, Arreola suffered a nervous breakdown and became seriously ill. In 1945 he left to study drama in France on a scholarship from the French government, but bad health and attacks of depression forced him to return to Mexico City in 1946. For the next few years Arreola worked as a proofreader, French translator, and writer of dust jacket blurbs for Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico's largest publishing company.
In 1949 Arreola produced his first volume of short stories, Varia invención (Various Inventions). Despite its commercial failure, his employer, the Fondo, released a second collection, Confabulario. In 1954 his play, La hora de todos (Moment of Truth), about a man who must sit in judgement of his own life, won the Xavier Villaurrutia Theater Prize despite being dismissed by critics. The next year he released Confabulario y Varia invenció (Confabulario and Other Inventions), which combined new stories with previously published pieces. In 1958 new stories appeared in Punta de plata, and in 1962 Arreola republished all his existing work along with many new stories under the title Confabulario total. Arreola's only novel, La feria (The Fair), a semi-autobiographical work about growing up in Zapotlán, appeared in 1963.
For the next thirty-five years Arreola produced few new works, but his fame in Mexico as a writer of supreme wit and erudition continued to grow. He also earned a reputation for his frequent public appearances on television and interviews in which he would respond with ironic humor and storytelling—and without preparation—to questions put before him. Two books of Arreola's witticisms and reflections were published in the 1970s under the titles La palabra educatión (The Word Education) and Y ahora la mujer … (And now, Woman), and in 1976 he released Inventario (Inventory), essays on life and literature. Throughout the 1980s he appeared on television, resumed teaching, and frequently published stories and essays in Mexican magazines. He lives in Mexico City.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Arreola published three separate volumes of short fiction in his career. He would continuously combine, revise, and resequence those pieces in later compilations. All the stories in these collections exhibit Arreola's trademark brevity, humor, and sense of the absurdity of life. None is simple or straightforward, and the stories often leave the reader with more questions than answers. Varia invención, a collection of eighteen tales, explores the broad themes of paranoia, alienation, love and religious faith, but each is written in such a radically different style that it becomes clear Arreola means to mimic a variety of literary techniques. Confabulario, a collection of over thirty short stories, also displays Arreola's talent for writing in a range of styles, and include stories of magic realism, Kafka-like tales of existential dread and absurdity, fables, and pseudobiographies. Punta de plata, a collection of short lyrical prose descriptions of wild animals that are intended as allegories of the beastly qualities of man, is the only volume that seems to be held together by a strong thematic focus.
The tales in Varia invenciónand Confabulario deal with the problem of existential angst, pessimistic portrayals of human possibilities, and make obscure references to literary genres and historical figures. “Peublerina,” about a man who wakes up one morning with bull horns growing from his head, echoes Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Arreola's stories are typically cryptic, as if readers are expected to use their puzzlement to think more deeply about the story's implications. In “El discípulo,” a story about a young artist who asks his master for advice on becoming a better painter, the teacher draws a rough outline of a woman, which he declares beautiful. Yet as he sketches in more and more detail he becomes less satisfied with the outcome. In the end the teacher rips the picture in half and throws the pieces in the fire. The best art, Arreola is apparently saying, is not detailed but only offers the barest outlines that the viewer must complete for himself.
Arreola's most famous short story, “El guardagujas,” is a puzzling tale about a man who wishes to take a train to a certain location, but upon arrival at the station is told by the switchman that his chances of ever seeing a train—let alone of ever arriving at his intended destination—are very slim. The switchman tells how in some places the train tracks are nothing more than chalk lines, and how elsewhere no bridge exists so that passengers must take the train apart and carry the pieces to be reassembled down the line. The passenger eventually becomes so confused that he forgets where he intended to go, at which point the switchman and his toy lantern disappear into the distance. Like most of Arreola's stories, “El guardagujas” can be interpreted in a variety of ways—as a allegory of the pitfalls of the Mexican train system, an existential horror story of life's absurdities and human limitation, and the author's desire to laugh in spite of the insanities of the world and human interaction.
With the exception of the pieces in Punta de plata, Arreola's stories are most remarkable for the writer's mastery of a variety of literary styles. Some stories read like essays, others like diaries or confessionals, and many are based on obscure works from various countries and periods. Plot and character development are usually minimal, with tension created by a series of confusing occurrences or mental crises. Like those works of the absurdist or existentialist writers with whom he is compared, the short stories of Arreola invite a range of interpretations.
The reception of Arreola's first collection of short stories, Varia invención, was disappointing. Not only did the volume fail commercially, but what little critical attention was paid to it tended to stress that the stories had little to do with Mexican politics or social conditions. This was a complaint that continued to be levelled at his works, as Arreola's stories show more concern with unraveling the mysteries of the human condition than offering social commentary on Mexican life. The first volume of stories did, however, raise Fondo's estimation of Arreola, and their publication of Confabulario, with its similarly rich array of subject matter and literary genres, established Arreola as an important Mexican short story writer. The short stories in Varia invención and Confabulario have been compared to the writings of Kafka, Camus, and Jorge Luis Borges because of their thematic similarities. The critical commentary on the second volume was sparse; while they drew praise for their imagination and humor, many commentators did not understand or appreciate Arreola's nonrealistic literary technique. His use of fantasy also again raised the charge that conditions in Mexico demanded a more realistic appraisal of Mexican life and social inequalities. Punta de plata, the collection of allegorical stories based on the physical characteristics of animals at the zoo, was warmly received for its descriptive, lyrical prose.
Despite having established a sure literary standing at home, Arreola remains almost unknown outside Mexico. Scholarly appraisal of the stories in English is limited. The translation of his Confabulario total into English in 1964 prompted a few English-speaking critics to praise his subtle descriptions and wry humor, and a few commentators since then have offered appraisals of his work. Most tend to discuss the meanings of and influences that can be detected in the stories, particularly “The Switchman.” In Mexico today, Arreola's fame has as much to do with his arresting public personality and ability to narrate stories at will—either from memory or extemporaneously—as it does with his written work. Many of his supporters bemoan the fact that Arreola's limited reputation is the result of the secondary consideration that literary circles place on the short story genre in general, a form that Arreola finds most suited to his personal and artistic concerns. He is considered one of the pioneers of nonrealistic Mexican literature, and his influence is clearly visible in the works of younger Mexican writers such as Jorge Arturo Ojeda and Hugo Hiriat, who have expanded upon their master's experimental innovations.
“Hizo el bien mientras vivió” (short story) 1943
“Gunther Stapenhorst” (short story) 1946
Varia invención (short stories) 1949
Confabulario (short stories) 1952
Confabulario y Varia invención Confabulario and Other Inventions (short stories) 1955
Punta de plata (short stories) 1958
Confabulario total (short stories) 1962
La hora de todos (drama) 1954
La feria The Fair (novel) 1963
La palabra educación (nonfiction) 1973
Y ahora la mujer … (nonfiction) 1975
Inventario (essays) 1976
Confabulario personal (anthology) 1979
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SOURCE: “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story,” in Hispania, Vol. 42, No. 3, September, 1959, pp. 295-308.
[In the following essay, Menton discusses the wide range of literary styles and themes of the short stories in Varia invención and Confabulario, concluding that Arreola is Mexico's greatest short story writer.]
The first half of the twentieth century has seen the emergence and triumph of the short story as a full-fledged literary genre.1 Peculiarly adapted to our accelerated tempo of life and to our mass means of communication, the short story has intrigued and challenged the best writers of our times. In addition to its more varied and polished form, it has been the evolution of subject matter that has enabled the short story to attain its lofty status today. The anecdotal tale with its unexpected ending perfected by De Maupassant and the slow-moving character sketch of Chekhov have given way to more transcendental themes. The twentieth century opened with Horacio Quiroga's presentation of the struggle between man and nature in northeastern Argentina. This criollismo was later extended to include the struggle of man against man, and in many cases the short story became a vehicle for social protest. In the 1930's and 1940's, with the aid of surrealistic techniques and inspiration from Dos Passos' U.S.A., the short story enlarged its...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Confabulario and Other Inventions, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following introduction to Arreola's Confabulario and Other Inventions, Schade praises the scope, wit, and literary technique of Arreola's short stories.]
In the last twenty years or so Mexican literature has been greatly enriched by the works of a group of extremely talented writers both in poetry and in prose. Octavio Paz (1914), Agustín Yáñez (1904), Juan Rulfo (1918), and Rosario Castellanos (1925) have already been translated into English and other languages and their work has been greeted with critical acclaim in Europe and the United States as well as in Mexico and other countries of the Spanish-speaking world. One of the most original and interesting writers among this generation is undoubtedly Juan José Arreola (1918), whose collected short stories, satiric sketches, bestiary, and sundry inventions are gathered together here under the general title Confabulario, which means a collection of fables.
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...
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SOURCE: “The Estranged Man: Kafka's Influence on Arreola,” in Revue des Langues Vivantes Tijdschrift voor Levende Talen, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1971, pp. 305-08.
[In the following essay, Tomanek shows how several of Arreola's short stories echo the literary style and themes of Franz Kafka, with “El Guardagujas” in particular expressing the futility of man's search for identity in an insane world.]
Most of the recent anthologies of Spanish-American fiction include the short story “El Guardagujas” written by the contemporary Mexican writer Juan José Arreola1. This story deserved unanimous praise for its literary eminency. Though many critics commented on Arreola's major work Confabulario2, serious criticism has been replaced by simply linking Arreola with the Existentialists, and his individual style has been taken care of by branding it with the name “magic realism”3.
Confabulario is composed of 110 parts—a special case in Mexican literature—many of them fragmentary, which form an interesting catalogue of themes, forms and styles. It seems that, as in the case of many other contemporary Spanish-American writers of short fiction, the strongest literary influence on Arreola is that of Franz Kafka4. A fairly obvious parallel between Kafka's and Arreola's heroes has not heretofore been noted.
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SOURCE: “Albert Camus' Concept of the Absurd and Juan José Arreola's ‘The Switchman,’” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 6, No. 11, Fall-Winter, 1977, pp. 30-5.
[In the following essay, McMurray contends that “The Switchman” is similar in theme to Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.]
In 1942 Albert Camus published his book of essays entitled The Myth of Sisyphus1 in which he developed his concept of the absurd in an effort to give meaning to human life in a senseless, war-torn world without God. A decade later, in 1952, the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola published “The Switchman,”2 a short story that reveals a philosophical position somewhat similar to that of Camus. This essay attempts to delineate attitudes shared by these two authors, the first a kind of pagan moralist and the second an ironic observer of the human condition.
Arreola is only one of many contemporary writers who have demonstrated a sympathetic response to Camus' assessment of the complex modern environment. An outstanding example of Mexican short fiction, “The Switchman” can be read on different levels and perhaps for this reason has never been completely understood. Briefly summarized, it is the tale of a stranger burdened with a large suitcase who arrives at a deserted station at the exact time his train is supposed to leave. As he gazes at the tracks that...
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SOURCE: “The Little Girl and the Cat: ‘Kafkaesque’ Elements in Arreola's ‘The Switchman,’” in The American Hispanist, Vol. 4, Nos. 34-35, March-April, 1979, pp. 3-4.
[In the following essay, Cheever examines the style and theme of uncertainty in Arreola's “The Switchman,” which he argues is modeled after a short parable by Franz Kafka.]
For many people the works of Franz Kafka have become a kind of locus classicus for the delineation and articulation of the problems and obsessions of twentieth-century man. W. H. Auden, for example, has asserted that “had one to name the author who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.”1 Similarly, when the poet Alan Dugan entitles one of his most chilling and effective poems “Tribute to Kafka, for Someone Taken,”2 he does so with the assumption that the name “Kafka” will evoke rich and powerful connotations among his readers, and that those readers will immediately recognize the “kafkaesque” qualities of the experience which the poem creates. However, although the presence of the “kafkaesque” is fairly easy to recognize, attempts to define its essence are sometimes rather distorted and misleading. Angel Flores and Homer Swander have made the following observation: “The critics …...
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SOURCE: “Absurdist Techniques in the Short Stories of Juan José Arreola,” in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, Vol. 8, 1980, pp. 67-77.
[In the following essay, Gilgen maintains that Arreola's Confabulario is one of the earliest masterpieces of absurdist literature and that the humor of Arreola's short stories exposes the absurdities of everyday life and gives the reader the means to laugh at the human predicament.]
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 a uniquely...
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SOURCE: “Juan José Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty,” in Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana, Vol. 13, Nos. 2-3, February, 1984, pp. 33-43.
[In the following essay, Heusinkveld asserts that the short stories of Arreola's Confabulario are best classified as modern 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.1 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...
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SOURCE: “Arreola's ‘The Switchman’—The Train and the Desert Experience,” in Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 85-94.
[In the following essay, Knapp discusses concepts of time, reality, and man's futile attempt to structure the world in Arreola's “The Switchman.”]
Juan José Arreola's short story “The Switchman” (1951) uses the train as an allegorical device to underscore the dichotomies existing between such notions as deception and truth, capriciousness and constancy, eternality and linearity. In its machinelike capacity, the train also serves to heighten the feelings of alienation and powerlessness of finite beings living in the infinite vastness of an impersonal universe. These themes are surely not new. Indeed, they are commonplaces today. What is surprisingly innovative, however, is the manner in which Arreola uses literary devices (pace, imagery, dialogue) to bring his philosophical ideas to the fore; he also skillfully uses satire to focus on the mundane matter of duplicity in the mismanagement of a national railroad.
Enigmatic and cryptic, a whole mysterious world lies hidden beneath Arreola's image of the train, which grows progressively in fascination, dimension, and impact, reaching virtually pyramidic proportions. The train as an object, however, never makes its presence known in Arreola's story. Doubt,...
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SOURCE: “From Poetic to Prosaic Animal Portraits: Arreola's ‘El Elefante,’” in Romanic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 473-82.
[In the following essay, Metzidakis contends that Arreola's “El Elefante” is a perfect example of Arreola's modern approach to the traditional bestiary fables and poems of writers like Aesop and de La Fontaine.]
Although the present topic is somewhat limited by its close reading of a single short work, it relates to a stylistic phenomenon that is, in fact, much more pervasive in, and important to, modern Western literature than is often realized. For this reason, it will be useful, indeed, indispensable to analyze several other related European texts before arriving at the target work. What I propose to do here is to examine a series of textual manipulations that is best described as the prosaic transformation of a centuries-old, transcultural poetic image. The image I have selected is that of the elephant. Lest anyone think this choice is indicative of some hidden theoretical or methodological agenda, let me admit from the start that it is the result of a purely pragmatic concern. The elephant was quite simply the first animal I found to recur in several collections of animal portraits I happened to be examining recently. Writing as a comparatist who has already done a certain amount of work on prose poems,1 and not very much on animals, I wish to...
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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.
Compares Arreola's “The Switchman” to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 story “The Celestial Railroad.”
Herz, Theda M. “Artistic Iconoclasm in Mexico: Countertexts of Arreola, Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart.” Chasqui: Revista de literatura latinoamericana 18, No. 1 (May 1989): 17-25.
Argues that Arreola's “subversions of the artistic tradition … mark the successful insertion of ironic poetic license and of fictional insurgency into Mexican letters” and claims that Arreola's works serve as inspiratio Avilés and Hiriart.
Washburn, Yulan M. Juan José Arreola. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983, 143 p.
Overview of Arreola's life and works.
Additional coverage of Arreola's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113, 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; and Hispanic Writers, Vols. 1, 2.
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