Juan José Arreola

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956

Juan José Arreola (ahr-ee-OHL-ah) ranks as one of the major short-story writers of the twentieth century in Latin America, yet he is rarely studied outside his homeland. Born in Zapotlán, a large town near Guadalajara, Jalisco, he had formal schooling until he was twelve years old, at which point he found his first job as an apprentice with a master bookbinder. Arreola moved to Guadalajara in 1934 and to Mexico City in 1937, working odd jobs, most of which were menial, while attempting to break into the literary scene. He had a brief spell as an actor in the Teatro de Medianoche (midnight theater) while in Mexico City, but this venture ended in failure.

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Returning to Zapotlán in 1940, he began to teach in a secondary school. His short story “Hizo el bien mientras vivió” (he did good while he lived), published in Eos in 1943, attracted some attention in Mexico City. Arreola married in 1944, but his marriage was not a happy one. In 1945, he won a government scholarship to study in Paris but because of ill health was forced to return to Mexico the following year. He subsequently worked at the prestigious publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City, writing blurbs for new books. In 1949, he brought out his first significant literary work, Various Inventions, a collection of eighteen short stories, which attracted positive reviews. This was followed in 1952 by Confabulary, which contains animal tales, existentialist horror and Magical Realist stories, and satiric essays. Arreola reused these two titles later on; rather than invent new titles, he would usually reprint earlier stories and add new work written in the intervening years. Arreola’s literary work thus should be seen as a series of concentric ripples emanating from these two early works rather than as a linear trajectory of separately conceived works.

In 1954, Arreola, always drawn to the theater, published a serious farce, La hora de todos (moment of truth), but it was a flop and convinced him that his talents lay elsewhere. In the early 1950’s, he embarked on two new projects: He founded a book series, Los Presentes, which aimed to publish new Mexican writers, and he collaborated with the Centro Mexicano de Escritores (Mexican writers’ center). In this collaboration, he and Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s most famous short-story writers, agreed to improve the writing skills of a group of promising writers, who received a scholarship from the center. Among the list of writers who learned their craft under Arreola’s tutelage were many who would one day form the backbone of the next generation of Mexican writers; they included Homero Aridjis, Inés Arredondo, Emilio Carballido, Rosario Castellanos, Alí Chumacero, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, Carlos Fuentes, Luisa Josefina Hernández, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, José Agustín, Vicente Leñero, Carlos Monsivais, and Gustavo Sáinz.

Intriguingly, Arreola’s literary output, compared with that of some of the writers he coached, was small. Moreover, some of his short stories are small even by the standards of the genre (barely a page long). In a number of interviews, Arreola admitted to finding it difficult to write; he often needed an external agency (such as a deadline) or an internal event (such as a personal crisis regarding which he needed to achieve catharsis through writing) to force him to put pen to paper. Yet although Arreola’s literary output was slim, it is of high quality. During the 1950’s, for example, he wrote some of his classic short stories, such as “The Switchman,” “A Tamed Woman,” “I’m Telling You the Truth,” and “The Prodigious Milligram.” With these stories, Arreola created a new literary vogue: He encouraged Mexican writers to break out of the straitjacket of realism and inspired them to tap the potential of the magical in their literary works.

Arreola was, indeed, one of the forerunners of Magical Realism, which describes the fantastic as if it were ordinary. His most anthologized story, “The Switchman,” is an excellent example of this new style. It begins with an unnamed “foreigner” who arrives at a railway station waiting for a train to take him to a place called T. He engages in a conversation with a little old man (who is later revealed to be the switchman of the title), who advises him to forget about catching a train, but instead to “look for lodging in the inn.” The traveler is then treated to a long description of how trains are very irregular, how they often do not go where they are meant to, and how the derailment of one train led to the foundation of a village. Finally, a whistle is heard in the distance, and the train arrives. In this story, Arreola builds on an everyday situation (waiting for a train in a train station) that can function simultaneously as an allegory of the Mexican nation (bureaucracy gone wild) and an existentialist tale of metaphysical aimlessness (the train, like life, goes nowhere).

In 1955, Arreola published his two earlier collections Various Inventions and Confabulary in an expanded edition that included some new works written in the intervening years. From the late 1950’s onward, a new emphasis emerged in Arreola’s work; fiction became less prominent and essays more so. In 1958, he published Silverpoint, written to accompany illustrations designed for the zoo in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. In 1962, he brought out an anthology of his favorite selections from world-renowned authors, Lectura en voz alta (reading aloud), and in 1971 he published Palindroma (palindrome), a new collection of short works, combining short stories with satiric pieces and including a one-act play. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Arreola turned his attention to journalism and the television industry. He died in 2001 at the age of eighty-three.

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