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.
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...
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