"The Switchman" was published in 1952 in the collection Confabulario. Ten years later it was rereleased, along with the rest of his published work at the time, in the collection El Confabulario total. Arreola invented the word "Confabulario," meaning a collection of fables, and his ability for invention is apparent from the stylistic originality of "The Switchman" as well as the broad range of his other work.
"The Switchman" is a dialogue between an anonymous traveler and a switchman on the railroads, in which the railroader details the horrors of the sub-operational rail system. He describes areas where one or no rails exist, facades of stations designed to trick passengers into disboarding, and the slim odds of the stranger ever reaching his destination. On one level the story operates as a satire on the Mexican transportation system, while on another the railroad is an analogy for the hopeless absurdity of the human condition. At the time of publication, Confabulario was relatively well-received, but over time Arreola's short stories have come to be seen as his strongest work. "The Switchman" in particular has received attention as a piece that is emblematic of the author's mastery of allegory and satire.
"The Switchman" opens at a deserted train station in an unnamed country. The stranger arrives, sweaty and out of breath from the effort of carrying his heavy suitcase, and mops his face with his handkerchief. His watch reads the exact time his train is scheduled to depart, but there is no sign of it; he worries that he has missed the train.
Out of nowhere appears an old man who taps him on the shoulder. The man is dressed like a railroader and carries a red lantern that is so small it looks like a toy. The stranger assumes he is affiliated with the railroad, and the implication is that he is the switchman for whom the story is named. The stranger asks the old man if the train has left, and in response the old man asks him if he has not been in the country long, indicating that the question is ridiculous and that the stranger is clearly not familiar with the system. The stranger insists that he must be in T__ by the following day at the latest, and the switchman responds that the stranger obviously doesn't understand the situation. He advises him to procure a room at the inn, ideally by the month. The stranger argues that he doesn't want to stay, and in response the switchman says he should let him work out his problem himself, but instead he will inform him of the situation. Thus begins their dialogue comprised almost solely of the stranger's questions and the switchman's answers.
According to the switchman, "This country is famous for its railroads." Apparently this fame is due to the poor reputation of the railroads, but the switchman insists that the timetables and ticket sales have been greatly improved. In effect, he reports, it has been improved such that by all appearances there is a working rail system linking every town in the country, but in fact the trains do not adhere to the schedules. In the meantime, he insists, everyone is patient with the system out of patriotism. The stranger learns that although rails do pass through the town, the train doesn't necessarily come through it, although a few have been known to do so, and perhaps he might be lucky enough to get one. The stranger asks if the theoretical train will go to his destination, and the switchman treats the question as if he is asking more than is reasonable. The stranger argues that his ticket is for his destination, and the switchman concedes that although most people would agree with his logic, locals cope with the circumstances by purchasing massive amounts of tickets to locations all over the country and never expect to reach their destination....