Juan José Arreola 1918-
Mexican short story writer, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Arreola's career through 1994.
Arreola is considered one of Mexico's most important short story writers and is credited with dramatically influencing the direction of Mexican literature in the twentieth century. He is noted for his pioneering work in satire, surrealism, and absurdism, and for his break from the Mexican literary tradition of realism. While Arreola has incorporated the themes and styles of diverse types of literature into his works, he has also retained an element of regionalism, focusing on the experiences of average Mexicans. Arreola's narrative fiction and dramas have influenced Latin American writers since the 1950s, and he continues to nourish young writers with his writing workshops and his efforts to encourage the work of emerging authors.
Arreola was the fourth of fourteen children born to a deeply religious family in Zapotlan el Grande (now Ciudad Guzman), in west central Mexico. As a child he demonstrated an excellent memory and an interest in literature, but his family's financial circumstances forced him to end his formal schooling at the age of twelve to become a bookbinder's apprentice. He worked a series of jobs in Zapotlan before moving to Mexico City, where he enrolled in the Instituto de Bellas Artes to study acting in 1939. He began to focus on his writing during this time and formed acquaintances with other young Mexican writers. He collaborated with Juan Rulfo, a noted Mexican writer, in the creation of the short-lived literary journal Pan in the early 1940s. In 1943 Arreola published his first nationally recognized story, “Hizo el bien mientras vivio.” His acting jobs provided him with an opportunity in 1945 to travel to France, where he was exposed to modern European literature and drama. Upon his return to Mexico, Arreola worked as an editor for the Fondo de Cultura Económica while continuing to write fiction. In 1949 he published his first collection of short stories, Varia invención. The work received little critical response; however, it was read by the literary circle of Mexico City and earned Arreola notice. In 1952 Arreola solidified his reputation as an emerging and important Mexican writer with the publication of Confabulario. The following year, Arreola's first play, La hora de todos. was produced. He has continued to write for the theater and has played an important role in Mexican television throughout his career.
Arreola first garnered attention for his two short story collections, Varia invención and Confabulario. In these stories, Arreola tackles a broad range of themes and subjects from urban life to historic events. The mysterious and absurd nature of life and the human condition is a main concern in many of his stories. Themes emerging in these early works include man's preoccupation with science and technology, the hopelessness of love, the deceptive nature of women, and the loss of poetic sensitivity. His most famous story, published in Confabulario, “El guardagujas” (“The Switchman”), involves an encounter between a foreign traveler and a elderly, mysterious railroad man, who, through his ramblings, provides an allegory about life. The story features several elements characteristic of Arreola's unique writing style: absurdism; reliance on magical realism; artistic and playful manipulation of language and form; heavy reliance on satirical humor; and a dark world view. In 1958 Arreola published a collection of animal allegories entitled Punta de plata. Building on the ancient literary tradition of attributing human characteristics to animals, Arreola modernized the genre through his use of satire, cynicism, and absurdity. He published his only novel, La feria (The Fair), in 1963. The work consists of many vignettes and fragmented stories which together relate the life cycle of a Mexican village. Although Arreola has been known for his incorporation of international literary styles and subjects into his work, this novel focuses solely on regional Mexican culture. Attempting to address questions about form and deconstructionalism, Arreola published Palindroma in 1971; it consists of numerous intellectual puzzles and games that challenge the reader carefully to consider the nature of content and language.
Arreola's first two collections of short stories have earned him considerable critical attention and praise throughout his career. Scholars credit Arreola with transforming the Mexican short story and introducing a new style and international literary elements to Mexican literature. Melvin Maddocks calls him “a brilliant, corrosive fabulist, very much of the modern mood.” Some critics, however, feel that Arreola's writing can be uneven and that not all of his works are noteworthy. Maddocks, for example, argues that Arreola's straight satire is not equal to his writings that focus on the innate contradictions of life in a more indirect manner. Initial critical reaction to Arreola's novel La feria was largely negative, and the illusive nature of this and his other works has sparked heated scholarly debate over the intended meanings of his allegories. Despite these critiques, commentators praise Arreola's introduction of absurdism and existentialism into the Mexican literary tradition, which had been largely limited to realism. Reviewers note Arreola's unique style, his playful and skillful use of language, his melding of international and historic subjects, and his satirical talents. In addition, Arreola has earned recognition for his work in influencing and encouraging other writers. Seymour Menton describes him as “a true man of the twentieth century, an eclectic who at will can draw upon the best of all who have preceded him in order to create truly masterful works of art which in turn will be seized upon by others.”