Juan José Arreola Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The complex fiction of Juan José Arreola, Mexico’s acknowledged master of the fantastic, is so unique and varied in its content, forms, tones, and strategies that it practically defies classification. Critics have an easier time defining what his texts are not rather than what they actually are. Arreola’s work is definitely not within the current of social realism, which is so characteristic of the bulk of the writing associated with Mexico over the centuries. He eschews the conventional mode that depicts socioeconomic and moral injustices in objectified fashion with its focus on verifiable events and the delineation of typically realistic characters. Like Reyes and Julio Torri, predecessors who also marched to a different drummer, Arreola is an innovator. He looks at reality through a different prism in order to represent its multidimensionality, its irrational side, its unexpectedness, its ambiguity.

It is clear from his short prose fiction that, like a growing number of Mexican and Latin American writers in the years since he began experimenting with writing, Arreola’s interest lies in representing the personal experience of reality. In his variegated texts, he seeks ways to present what has not yet necessarily been sensed, creating mental images of things unseen, yet to be done, unreal. He chooses to experiment with the short story to show the power of imagination and fantasy as well as the flexibility of the genre itself. Texts as he imagines them include previously established possibilities as well as transformations of those possibilities. In his hands, texts stretch limits and change the rules of the literary game.

Short stories, fables, parables, miniportraits, microtexts, literary miniatures, reveries, diary entries, announcements, essays, advertisements, pseudoreports, prose poems, science-fiction pieces, sketches—Arreola writes all of these and more. Their commonality is their creator’s brilliant use of language, penchant for parody, eye for the absurd, outrageous imagery, and relentless sense of humor. Readers are introduced to such figures as a consummate businessman who turns into a bull, a poet who marries a blue whale, a manic-depressive who buys a huge poisonous spider and deliberately loses it in the house, and a man who argues with an angel standing beside him at a urinal, to mention a few of the more memorable. All Arreola’s literary inventions serve as scenarios for calling attention to the nature of value, to perverse and hypocritical behavior, to a world whose very survival is threatened by rampaging materialism. His pessimism, however, is not absolute. Arreola does believe that within every human being lies the potential of becoming a better person, even if the odds are against it. His idea of progress lies in the self-realization of human beings as opposed to scientific breakthroughs or technological achievements. This, in fact, is the underlying message of practically all he has written.

“The Switchman”

One of the most widely read stories by Arreola is “El guardagujas” (“The Switchman”). In it, he develops one of the main themes and preoccupations that he plays out in a number of other stories: the condemnation of a dehumanized world where human dignity is at the mercy of organized technology. An anonymous traveler meets a gnomelike switchman in an empty train station and inquires about a train to T—, discovering through a lengthy and entertaining dialogue the peculiarities of the railway system: There is no guarantee that the train will ever go to a particular destination; passengers are often left in remote areas to fend for themselves; some immobile trains have moving pictures in the windows to convince the passengers that they are going somewhere; sometimes the tracks end at a river’s edge with no bridge, requiring that the train be dismantled and carried to the other side; in some stretches, there is only one rail, and it is on the side of the first-class ticket holders; some passengers end up living in special cars and are taken to a prison car if they misbehave or to a funeral car if they die; spies who work for the company roam throughout the train in disguise; and so on. The lone traveler’s train finally arrives, and the miniature switchman goes hopping down the tracks with his little red lantern, laughing as the man’s answer to his question about his destination rings in his ears. “I’m heading for X—!” Critics have praised this curious story because it lends itself to interpretation on at least three levels: as a criticism of the railway system, as a satire of social institutions in general, and as an exploration of the nature of reality per se. The irony is that the traveler does not know before boarding the train if what he has heard is all imagined, made up by the little man, or real. In...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)