Juan José Arreola

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971

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 this dreamlike story, Arreola, like Franz Kafka, suggests that everything—family, friends, work—is part of the imagination and nothing more.

“The Prodigious Milligram”

In “El prodigioso miligramo” (“The Prodigious Milligram”), Arreola continues to work with metaphors in the form of a modern allegorical fable involving an ant colony. Like the previous story, it is one of the author’s best-known and cleverest pieces. Arreola’s main concern is with human social behavior and the nature of human values. A nonconformist ant known for wandering out of line at work time discovers “a prodigious milligram” (it is never defined otherwise) and joyfully carries it back to the colony. There, she is greeted with derision, suspicion, and disapproval for disrupting the routine and introducing something unusual of her own free will, an act that would have led to her execution but for the intervention of a psychiatrist who promptly declares her mentally incompetent and suggests that she be locked up in a cell. The ant dies in her cell while admiring the splendid, glowing milligram. Legends begin to spread about her, and hundreds, then thousands of ants give up their assigned tasks to go out and find prodigious milligrams as she had, carrying them back to a central room in the colony. Conflicts arise between different groups of ants over the quality of the milligrams and their safeguarding. Wealthy ants form private collections. Thievery becomes rampant. War erupts and many ants are killed. Famine follows, for no one has been storing food for the winter. At the end of the story, the entire species is on the verge of extinction.

As in a good fable, ambiguity abounds in this one. Arreola plays with the notion of how arbitrary value can be, starting from an absurd premise and carrying it logically to its extreme conclusion in a convincing fashion. Readers can think about this story in terms of politics, religion, and economics, exploring with the author the tragic consequences to society when people behave in ways that stifle originality, creativity, independence, and human dignity. In many ways, the story is open-ended, for it easily lends itself to myriad interpretations. Whichever conclusions readers may draw, there is a clear sense that definite truths about human nature are represented here.

“Baby H.P.”

On an entirely different note, Arreola carries on the theme of the way that human beings allow themselves to be degraded in their embrace of the progress presumably brought by technology in a bizarre short piece written in the form of an advertisement that bears the title in English of “Baby H.P.” This is meant as a dig at the capitalist model par excellence of the United States, with its emphasis on utilitarianism and a more comfortable life made possible by the ingenious uses of practical contraptions. Arreola has come up with a “Made in U.S.A.” device that is strapped to babies and small children in order to harness their natural energy when they kick, thrash, and run about, funneling their “horse power” into a special transformer that can then be used for operating small appliances such as blenders and radios. An accompanying warning label downplays the possibility that the baby can electrocute itself; as long as the parents carefully follow the directions for proper use, there is no risk. This is Arreola’s way of criticizing the excessive interest that people have in functionalism, especially when their self-worth is subordinated to its pursuit.

“Small Town Affair”

A more controversial theme that at times seems to consume Arreola is presented in several of his stories, which dramatize the difficulty that men and women have in maintaining harmonious relationships, whether married or not, because of the human tendency toward infidelity and what the author sees as a basic fear that men have of women. In “Pueblerina” (“Small Town Affair”), a husband who discovers that his wife has a lover decides to encourage the affair rather than try to block it. The upshot is that the passion and excitement quickly fade for the lovers when they are no longer stimulated by the risk of getting caught by the husband. In “Eva” (“Eve”), Arreola represents the notion that originally the platonic human being was complete and bisexual until a primordial split occurred that left male and female feeling incomplete ever since. The flesh component was distributed to the woman, while the man received the spirit. The male, being most vulnerable, seeks to reunite with the woman, an impossible and tragic dream that can end only when a new species is formed through the female reincorporation of the male spiritual component.

“The Bird Spider”

A kind of existentialist horror story, “La migala” (“The Bird Spider”) shows Arreola’s skill at creating and maintaining a suspenseful mood in a condensed text. Rejected by the woman he loves, a lonely and insecure man copes with his despair by purchasing a huge spider with a poisonous bite. Deliberately letting it loose in the house, he distracts himself from his despair over his lost love by substituting for it the threat of immediate death, wandering about the house in his bare feet, never knowing when the spider will strike. Arreola’s depiction of the strange coping mechanisms that human beings devise for themselves is a grim commentary on the lives of quiet desperation that people are both driven to lead and to which they allow themselves to succumb.

Finally, in another type of text that allows the author to deal more whimsically with his existential concerns, animals are cleverly used to display human traits and weaknesses. Modeled after traditional beast books from medieval times, Arreola’s psycho-zoological portraits allow him to unleash his imagination once again as he pokes fun by focusing on what he sees as human in such diverse animals as the hyena, the toad, the monkey, the boa, the seal, the rhinoceros, and a bevy of other creatures. Most of these pieces are a tour de force for their penetrating symbolism, startling use of language, and acerbic wit.

Clearly, a reading of only a sampling of Arreola’s texts reveals creative instincts that are unique and multifaceted. A true artisan, he makes skillful use of structure, point of view, brevity, and the power of suggestion in a minimalist fashion, providing readers with just enough detail to trigger their own imaginations so that they will follow his in several possible directions and beyond. His obsession with the threat to the human spirit that excessive materialism and technological progress represent has driven Arreola to display this main theme in kaleidoscopic fashion in a variety of experimental, and for the most part highly effective, literary texts. His success is owed largely to his imaginative approach to reality, his highly creative use of the Spanish language, his colorful imagery, and his bizarre, daring, and even scandalous sense of humor. In the long run, Arreola seems to suggest, the line between the real and the unreal may be just as tenuous as the line between laughing and crying when one contemplates the psychodrama of the human condition.

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Arreola, Juan José (Contemporary Literary Criticism)