Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

Juan José Arreola 1918-

Illustration of PDF document

Download Juan José Arreola Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

Varia invención (short stories) 1949

Cinco cuentos (short stories) 1951

Confabulario (short stories) 1952

La hora de todos: Juguete cómico en un acto (drama) 1953

Punta de plata (short stories) 1958; also published as Bestiario, 1958

*Confabulario total, 1941–1961 (short stories) 1962

La feria [The Fair] (novel) 1963

Palindroma (short stories and drama) 1971

Inventario (essays) 1976

Confabulario personal (short stories) 1979

*Includes Varia invención, Confabulario, and Bestiario; English translation published as Confabulario and Other Inventions in 1964.

Melvin Maddocks (review date 16 July 1964)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

SOURCE: “Mexican Fabulist at Play,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1964, p. 5.

[In the following review, Maddocks argues that while Arreola's satire is clever, the author is at his best when he grapples with the inherent contradictions of life.]

The fable is the most charming form that moralizers have invented. Aesop—nourished by experience, stuffed with prudence, paunchy from common sense—would be quite intolerable in any other literary shape.

The fable is for extremists: for those, like Aesop, who are very sure of what they believe—and for those who are very unsure. In this century writers as different as Thurber and Kafka have developed a kind of dark parody of the fable, a sort of antifable. On its shallower levels it is cynical, bitter, given to facile inversions of conventional morality: the gay grasshoppers survive; it is the industrious ants who go under.

But at deeper levels the antifable can be a profound protest that sober, shrewd common sense is not enough. It is Hamlet's objection to Horatio, redirected to Polonius: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Mexican satirist Juan José Arreola, born in 1918, is a brilliant, corrosive fabulist, very much of the modern mood. The 97 pieces in this collection of 20 years of writing (1941–1961) are not all fables. There are letters, diaries, vignettes, sketches—even short stories. But the attitudes of the fabulist dominates. And what, in turn, dominates the attitude of the fabulist is the mocking determination to satirize what Aesop was celebrating: the self-sufficiency of human reason.

For example, pedants—that plodding lower order of the priests of reason—get rough treatment from Arreola. Enough of a scholar at least for purposes of parody, he beats them to a pulp with their own footnotes.

Then, to the basic element of absurdity, Arreola adds the equally unreasonable quality of cruelty. In his bestiary, humanized animals stalk one another with a predatory guile that systematically taunts the moral as well as the intellectual pretenses of rationalists.

All this is clever but obvious marksmanship.

Arreola becomes most impressive when he is driven beyond satire to confront the unreasonable contradictions, not of human nature, but of the universe itself. “The Switchman,” for instance, is a kind of Pilgrim's Progress as Kafka might have written it. For at the furthest limits of suffering—possessed by literal demons, wrestling literal angels—Arreola's people, and Arreola himself, are looking for a meaning behind the cruel absurdity. They are playing a game of brinkmanship with madness. What they fervently wait for, one becomes convinced, is the redeeming sign that will save them from the brink.

If Arreola will not allow reason to be the agent of salvation, neither will he permit love the job. A hardened anti-sentimentalist, he describes sexual attraction in cloying, contemptuous images (“Pyramus and Thisbe gnawing, one on each side, through a thick wall of jam”).

Yet behind the toughness—the refusal to be taken in—Arreola is almost hungrily receptive for experience that might verify more hope than, at present, he can claim. Even now, out of the tart heart of disappointment, he can rather astonishingly produce phrases as alive with the promise of grace as this: “Carefully register the daily miracle.”

It is as if the very choice of the fable form implies—even for a skeptic as determined as himself—wistful capacity for innocence. Three-quarters satirist, one-quarter mystic, Arreola is a gadfly who may one day use his wings as well as his sting.

Donald A. Yates (review date 1 August 1964)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

SOURCE: “Caught in Our Logical Absurdities,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 31, August 1, 1964, p. 32.

[Yates is an American educator, editor, translator, and critic, specializing in Spanish literature. In the following review, he appraises the English translation of Arreola's Confabulario total, noting that the work satirizes “man and his entanglements with logical absurdities.”]

In 1962, Juan José Arreola published in Mexico City his Confabulario total. It was, in a sense, his “Collected Works,” since it brought together most of his short stories, including some of the earliest, which date back to 1941; his latest short sketches or fables (from which the book takes its title); his Bestiario of 1958, a satirical, anti-U.S. play, and all of his most recent prose pieces.

The present translation of Confabulario total, as the newest title in the Texas Pan American Series, confers a certain distinction on the forty-six-year-old author, for probably more of Arreola's over-all literary production is now available in English than of any other Spanish-American writer. The intellectual sophistication and imaginative virtuosity of this collection suggest that he is in many ways worthy of the honor.

The most polished and the most given to verbal and conceptual play of his “generation” of Mexican writers—a group that includes Agustín Yáñez, Juan Rulfo, and poet Octavio Paz—Arreola performs generally in the guise of satirist—a curious type of satirist whose professed pessimism is more cultivated than convincing. The piece that deals with the hyena in his bestiary is a descriptive gem: “The limner boggles and sketches only with difficulty the gross mastiff head, the hints of pig and degenerate tiger, the sloping line of the body, slippery, muscular, dwindling.” But the bite of the final line penetrates only the flesh and not the bone: “He is perhaps the animal that has made the most converts among men.” The observation amuses, as does the previous description of the boa as nothing more than a digestive process.

Arreola's target is man and his entanglements with logical absurdities; but the paradox inevitably interests him more than the plight. “The Switchman,” wherein the fantastic mismanagement and downright arbitrary deceptiveness of an imaginary national railroad system acquires, over the space of a few pages, the stature of a magnificent allegory of the human condition, is possibly his finest short story; it also happens to be one of his gaiest. The originality of Arreola's satire provokes surprise together with delight: he suggest that if all the rich men of the world were to pour their joint wealth into the construction of an inconceivably complicated and expensive machine designed to disintegrate a camel and zip him through the eye of a needle, then they would indeed most likely come to pass through the gates of Heaven.

Arreola shapes up as a better stylist than moralist: beauty of form often eclipses the substance of an idea. Consider the opening lines of his short story “Liberty”:

Today I proclaimed the independence of my acts: Only a few unsatisfied desires and two or three wornout attitudes gathered together at this ceremony. A grandiose proposal that had offered to come sent its humble excuses at the last minute. All took place in a frightful silence.

I believe the error consisted in its noisy proclamation: trumpets and bells, firecrackers, and drums. And to finish off, some ingenious pyrotechnical stunts concerning morality which burned only halfway through.

The excellence of the translation by George D. Schade is evident in these lines. He has done Arreola a humble and faithful service. Schade has taken certain liberties with the organization of the original Confabulario total, some of which he acknowledges. He has mysteriously shuffled a few of the stories about, but has wisely excluded the undistinguished play La hora de todos.

The most disconcerting feature of this book, however, must be charged to Arreola himself, who arranged the contents of the Mexican edition in such a way that his most recent fiction comes first in the book and his earliest, least controlled, and least impressive work appears last.

The reader gets the odd impression that he is witnessing a gifted writer irrevocably and unaccountably losing his touch right before his eyes.

Kessel Schwartz (essay date 1971)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337

SOURCE: “The New Novel, IV: Juan José Arreola,” in A New History of Spanish American Fiction, Volume II, University of Miami Press, 1971, pp. 292–95.

[Schwartz is an American educator, editor, and critic who has written extensively on Spanish literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses Arreola's focus on morality, absurdity, and irrationality in his short stories and his novel, The Fair.]

Juan José Arreola, the fourth of fourteen children, was unable to attend school. He undertook a variety of physical and intellectual positions in a bank, on a newspaper, and in the theater, partly through the efforts of Louis Jouvet who met him in Mexico and took him to Paris. On his return he became a member of the publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica, where he was able to continue the close association with books and reading which he loved so much. In 1952 he founded the publishing house Los Presentes, through which Carlos Fuentes first came to public attention, and he has continued to inspire young writers through his “Taller literario” and his review Mester. In 1961 he was named coordinator of literary publications for the Presidencia de la República. In the 1950s a polemic took place between his supporters and those of Rulfo about the relative merits of a national novel as opposed to the novel of special stylistic techniques. Because he eschewed an hermetic nationalism Arreola was considered heir to the traditions of the Contemporáneos and similar groups. Arreola found many new Mexican novelists to be vulgar and extreme and longed for a return to classic perfection. Less regional than Rulfo, Arreola, for all his universal and intellectual pretensions, superficially foreign to Rulfo's elemental problems of daily life, is as intensely Mexican in many ways. Primarily a short story writer, he has been called “el cuentista más rico, extraño y singular de los que escriben en nuestro idioma.” Seymour Menton, a friend of Arreola, shows [in Hispania, 1959] how the latter moved from anguish, despair, and the struggle of lonely individuals to “the placid skepticism of magic realism.” Menton also insists that Arreola, beyond any cosmopolitan intellectualism, exhibits a very definite “Mexican spirit whose roots go as far back as Lizardi.”

In Arreola, who concentrates on the sexual, the ethical, and the aesthetic, one sees in varying degrees the interplay of moralism, universalism, and magical realism. He fancies himself a modern day moralist who is concerned with social justice, and he is not reluctant to expose the evils of Occidental materialism. More importantly, he carries on the tradition of fantasy in Mexican fiction established by Alfonso Reyes (an intimate friend) and others. Arreola stresses throughout the importance of formal beauty and his preoccupation with literary structures. In these he has tried to combine letters, diaries, commercials, biography, and the medieval fable.

Arreola's first collection of stories, Varia invención (1949), is varied, as the title implies, in both theme and techniques. All nonetheless seem to involve “sutiles casos de conciencia, intrincados problemas intelectuales. Le preocupa la teología, el infinito, en general los problemas metafísicos.” Arreola identifies with famous historical characters and fuses reality and invention to give us animal fables whose protagonists are either humanized animals or men with animal qualities. Of his twenty-three short stories comprising the section called “Bestiario,” each has a name of the significant animal. Arreola reveals an unusual sense of humor, tinged at times with sarcasm and at others with pity for man's foibles. In 1952 his second collection, Confabulario, appeared. More obscure, existentialist, and fantastic than his first volume, with its magic realism and irrational universe it reminds one of Kafka in its reflection of the depersonalized and mechanized life of the twentieth century.

In 1955 the two books were combined to form one artistic unit, having a third edition, Confabulario total (1962), and still another in 1966, in whose prologue Arreola states: “De hoy en adelante me propongo ser un escritor asequible, y no sólo por el bajo precio que ahora tengo en el mercado, sino por el profundo cambio que se opera en mi espíritu y en mi voluntad estilística.” Aware of the absurdity of life, he tells us about lonely individuals, examines Golden Age literature and the function of creative artists, and gives us a general criticism of American society. Typical of one phase of his work is “El silencio de Dios,” where a man must choose between good and evil and tries to establish a dialogue with God in order to relieve himself of the doubts, anguish, and despair he feels at his own life and those of fellow human beings. Choosing good over evil naught availeth, as God tells him to accept what life brings. Man cannot understand God's designs and must face the future with hope. Arreola continues variations on his evangelical themes in stories like “En verdad os digo,” where rich men may enter heaven, as camels, through the use of modern electronic and atomic science and so find themselves able to pass through the eye of a needle. Other stories involve everything from adultery to science fiction. Arreola illuminates his stories with suggestive imagery and makes one wonder at the subtleties of the human mind and at organic existence.

Arreola's first and to date only novel, La feria (1963), winner of the Villaurrutia prize, is made up of bits and pieces as varied as his stories, parts of which he inserts into his longer narrative. He uses monologues, flashback, counterpoint, a diary form, and dreams. Biblical texts, memoirs, social commentary, history, and experiences from his youth, intermingled with allegory, fable, apologues, sociology, philosophy, the absurd, and the logical, are superimposed on the life stories of people in an imaginary town of southern Jalisco. Compassionately yet skeptically, Arreola views man's insistence on moving towards his own self-destruction. The true protagonist seems to be the town of Zapotlán itself. Its multiple dwellers give us an accurate picture of the religious and social life, the humdrum of daily living, and the semianonymous inhabitants, who number thirty thousand more or less. The Mexican Revolution has neither helped nor changed their languid and stagnant town, left largely unmoved also by Indian attempts to recover their land and by the cristero revolts. The town's economy is based on corn. Through a shoemaker and would-be writer and agriculturist, we learn about the sowing, cultivation, and reaping involved. Arreola includes a number of legends about corn, combining the telluric theme with those of religion and sex, the latter done as a series of confessions and involving onanism, the reading of pornographic literature for sexual excitement, adultery, and homosexuality. In man-woman relationships the former seems superior, but both need love and suffer from sensual frustrations and the loss of ideals. Poor Concha de Fierro, a prostitute, cannot lose her virginity in spite of her best efforts, until the ragged bullfighter, Pedro Corrales, makes good use of his sword. During an earthquake the frightened town residents indulge in a general confession which overburdens the priest's capacity.

Religion and humor seem to be two of the constants in Arreola's novel. The town's patron saint is Saint Joseph, brought there in 1745 by a mysterious muleteer. Every year a fiesta is celebrated in his honor, and this year several prelates will crown Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and poor Saint Joseph, who for all his importance, is outranked in his own town. The town lives almost by its saint's calendar rather than by historical event. The fair, a transitory event as man in the world is a transitory being, is burned to the ground at the end, and so man will disappear also. Arreola seems obsessed by man's inexplicable need to pervert, corrupt, and destroy, not only others but also himself. Man has become a victim of his own rhetoric and incredible inventions. He foolishly substitutes words and machines for harmony, love, and reinforced human values—the only hope for survival in an increasingly dehumanized and absurd world in which man has refused to accept responsibility for his own self-destructive tendencies. (pp. 292–95)

Theda M. Herz (essay date Spring 1975)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6261

SOURCE: “Continuity in Evolution: Juan José Arreola as Dramatist,” in Latin American Theatre Review, Spring, 1975, pp. 15–24.

[In the following essay, Herz traces Arreola's contributions to the dramatic form.]

Despite his renown as a writer of fiction, Juan José Arreola's predilection for the theatre spans a period of approximately forty years. He first studied drama with Rodolfo Usigli and Xavier Villaurrutia, performing as an actor under the latter's direction. From 1945 to 1946 he held a scholarship which permitted him to travel to Paris where he acted in the Comédie Française. During this formative period, he came under the influence of two innovative director-producers, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault.1 At least tangentially Arreola has also ventured into the theory of stagecraft with his translation of Vie de l'art théatral, des origines a nos jours (1932).2 Although between 1939 and 1940 he composed three one-act farces (La sombra de la sombra, Rojo y negro, and Tierras de dios),3 they have never been produced or published and to date his endeavors as a playwright consist of two one-act dramas: La hora de todos (1954) and Tercera llamada ¡Tercera! o empezamos sin usted (1971).

It is not surprising that Arreola opts for the brief dramatic form since conciseness characterizes his entire artistic production. However, it does seem striking that he chooses to write plays since many essential qualities of his creativity are markedly non dramatic. In Confabulario4 Arreola tends toward an expositive rather than a narrative focus. This collection reflects a preference for static compositions with little preoccupation for plot, in-depth characterization, or dialogue. Communication is often reduced to the self-revelatory persona monologue. The aforementioned traits adequately suit the author's satirical intention but they do not correspond to traditional theatrical technique (emotion, story, conflict, change, chiseled dialogue, and dynamic personalities) nor do they suggest a nascent play-wright. Nevertheless, Arreola's dramatic compositions should not be isolated from his prose. They form a continuum of subject matter, characters, and tone. The technical links between the two modes include the use of caricature, the unexpected blending of elements, the manipulation of external references from the realms of the plastic arts, literature, music, and everyday life. Despite this similarity, the plays signal an aesthetic shift. Arreola's stationary world become charged with vitality when he enters the medium of the theatre. At the same time he matures as a dramatist during the seventeen years which elapse between the appearance of La hora de todos and Tercera llamada.

La hora de todos reveals a Continental orientation which is easily explained by Arreola's stay in France and his cosmopolitan leanings. Pirandellian devices proliferate. The structure centers upon a “director” who maneuvers the other characters as if they were puppets. Harras fulfills a narrative function, particularly during the prologue which serves as a résumé of the action. His staged program, a typical play within a play,5 provides the retrospective exposition of the plot—a dissection of the Horatio Alger myth. Arreola's exposé resembles the commedia dell'arte in its pretense to improvisation and to a play in preparation. Diverse internal references classify La hora de todos as theatre and many attempts are made to draw the audience into the action. Similar both to Pirandello's formal organization and satirical procedure, a striking antithesis exists between the external, comical tone and the inner, profound problem.6

Arreola himself terms La hora de todos, which in 1955 won first place in the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes competition, an “auto sacramental de la muerte y del asco.”7 Although not a one-act allegory on the Eucharist,8 his designation underlines an attempt to renovate a pre-existent form. This is a common device of Arreola's prose, particularly in his revamping of the medieval bestiary and his pseudo-newspaper items. His classification calls to mind the renewed interest on the part of Latin American dramatists in an old Peninsular mold. Arreola's play resembles two recent versions of final judgment, a traditional auto topic in which the characters are confronted with their own lives and judged.9 These autos, which also concentrate on the question of spiritual authenticity and the falsification of life, are Emilio Carballido's Auto sacramental de la zona intermedia (1950) and José de Jesús Martínez's Juicio final (1962). Both new renditions propose that life after death equals a mere continuation of nothingness. The characters' amoral, voided existence leads only to limbo, an empty reflection of their lives. The plays have in common with Arreola's treatment the absence of salvation or perdition in the conventional sense. The only true parallel between La hora de todos and the Day of Judgment stems from the fact that the protagonist's figuratively dead soul awakens to the truth during the program, his examination of conscience. Like Martínez's protagonist, Hombre, Arreola's Harrison Fish must assess himself instead of passively receiving divine evaluation. Martínez and Arreola center their condemnation of modern man on a single businessman. Like the recurrent flute notes of Juicio final and Hombre's forgotten dream of becoming a musician, Arreola employs the motif of a romantic song, composed by Fish during his youth, to represent a dormant potential for the spiritual which he subsequently perverts and abandons.

Arreola's penchant for reworking literary antecedents10 makes it essential to note a work to which his play has several parallels in design. The title suggests Francisco de Quevedo's prose vision, La hora de todos y la Fortuna con seso (1635), where each individual receives his due according to the yardstick of poetic justice. During one hour on earth, Fortune turns the tables on the characters and Quevedo ridicules Spanish types of the period. Both he and Arreola present satirical versions of final judgment suffered in life. Even though the sound of a trumpet opens and closes Arreola's play, this framework of death remains secondary to the action. The instrument does not emit celestial music but jazz, an indication of the total lack of divine bearing on the process. The play actually takes on the proportions of a human courtroom with defendant, witnesses, a formal indictment, objections, and a prosecuting attorney-surrogate judge.

Quevedo and Arreola proceed by unmasking both communal and personal hypocrisy. The various episodes of Harras' program juxtapose the reality hidden behind the pretense of the figure of Fish. Despite concentration on a single individual, like the Baroque Master's vision, Arreola's censure becomes wide in scope taking in all of society through the caricaturesque assemblage of witnesses against the central defendant. Gloria, the ingénue, typifies the secretary-boss liaison and personal prostitution for material gain. The collectors represent the vulgarization of art for practical or ostentatious purposes.11 The sudden appearance of “connoisseurs” among the spectators at the performance of La hora de todos sustains an air of verisimilitude and tags the regular members of the audience by association. Not even the unexpecting playgoer escapes Arreola's farcical attack. Roscoe Hamilton turns out to be the most repugnant character. An automaton, he repeats a set phrase six times—“Yo siempre soñé con instalarme en Nueva York.”12 Since he would take Fish's place if he could, Hamilton's self-righteousness thinly camouflages his envy and impotence. All of these secondary characters succumb to an inauthentic system which is taken to task for its dehumanizing bigotry in “El episodio de Joe,” a scene dealing with racial prejudice in a stereotyped South. Even though Fish remains the catalyst, an entire town sacrifices the innocent Black victim and ignores the true culprits simply because they are White. Thus, not only the financial magnate but most of the characters and actions embody an unjust way of life which degrades individual existence and ethical values.

Quevedo's work offers one other important point of contact with Arreola's play. The former's preface suggests an underlying didactic motivation. His exposé on earth serves as a lesson directed at the reader and intended to foreshadow the inevitability of death and the absolute justice to follow for all men: “A todos llega la hora siempre temprano, porque es dama muy madrugona y nada perezosa. Y así, cuando veas la del vecino, no te creas lejano de la tuya, que te está echando la zarpa y entretejiendo el lazo con que ha de ahogarte.”13 Arreola mirrors Quevedo's all-inclusive stance in the final scene when Harras, who like Fortune inverts normal order, asks the members of the audience if they have felt the moral rejection of self that Fish experiences immediately before death: “A propósito … ¿ustedes no han sentido alguna vez … asco? No se olviden de mí, me llamo Harras, y soy especialista en sorpresas … para servir a ustedes” (pp. 141–42).

The figure of Harras can be traced to Franz Kafka. The Czech writer has been a primary influence on Arreola's prose and the latter often sprinkles his work with erudite references to his sources. The epigraph of La hora de todos, “el joven ese ya se ha instalado allí. Su nombre es Harras” (p. 76), intrigues because of its obscurity. Arreola refrains from identifying his exact source. Investigation reveals that the passage occurs in one of Kafka's short stories entitled “Der Nachbar” (“My Neighbor”). Kafka's subjective narrator, also a businessman, relates a brief tale devoid of action. He suffers a neurotic obsession about a mysterious man (Harras) who has rented the adjoining office. Powerless before a “spy” stealing financial secrets, the “I” feels he involuntarily transmits valuable information through the wall which appears to separate the two. He infers that Harras deviously works against him by making use of this hidden material. Kafka's skeletal outline lends itself to various interpretations. More than a person, Harras becomes a fearsome, irresistible force which gradually converts the protagonist into a marionette. In typically enigmatic fashion, the writer suggests that the narrator suffers a feeling of guilt because he senses himself a façade laid bare before Harras, who is perhaps a mere manifestation of imagination or conscience. Arreola carries this open-ended situation one step forward. In La hora de todos Harras conserves all the slyness of Kafka's creation but he becomes a living materialization of Fish's superego. Harras forces Fish to confront himself through various re-enactments of his immoral, yet concealed past. The mask crumbles and the cathartic experience of the program causes Fish to gain self-awareness and, as a consequence, to feel disgust. The true implication of the final question Harras poses to the audience is that each individual will have to answer for the morality of his life to himself, the inescapable judge one carries within his own being.

The setting of La hora de todos is an office on the seventieth floor of the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945. At the time, this edifice was the Mecca of economic affairs and the world's tallest man-made structure. Its height and resultant dominance of the surrounding area reflect the predominance of material values.14 The airplane which crashes into it in the final scene represents the vulnerability of this symbol of mundane success and, thus, the meaninglessness of the physical world. As with the majority of Arreola's concrete references, the catastrophe was inspired by external reading and memory, not artistic imagination. A bomber hit the Empire State Building causing death and destruction precisely on the morning of July 28, 1945.15 The play's ending, which on the surface appears objectionably far-fetched, takes on a different perspective because of its factual basis. Harras reappears with a newspaper from which he reads aloud an initial account of the crash. The article lends a realistic tone and ominous character to Harras' insinuation that the audience will be subjected to the same type of examination that has just been seen and heard. This closing scene justifies the earlier attempts to break with dramatic distance and to bring the spectators into the action. More than capricious adherence to a technique in vogue, the speeches directed at the audience and the art collectors represent efforts to universalize the particular action taking place on the stage and they prepare the way for the final question.

Arreola's celebrated capacity for mixing reality and imagination is also substantiated by Harras' indictment which resembles a dream that projects a still-living past into a present in which time and logic no longer hold sway. Every other scene uses pure theatrical elements to eliminate the melodramatic and to mitigate ponderous denunciation. Arreola stages the hackneyed story of Joe “Tap Tap” Smith through a mimed reconstruction à la Al Jolson. By converting the lashback into a silent tap dance of a marionette-like figure backed by music out of Jolson's era, Arreola avoids the pitfalls of pedestrian oversimplification. In “El desaparecido del Hudson,” the dead come back to haunt Fish in the form of Dennis O'Hara. Similar to almost all names of secondary characters, this one's commonness suggests a masked player and, at the same time, relies on the stereotype of the Irish policeman. Although the episode focuses on an actual crime, in essence it represents betrayal and sacrifice of the innocent. O'Hara appropriately appears blindfolded against violet lighting. To avoid histrionics, Arreola promptly directs O'Hara's disappearance in slow motion through a trap door, as if it were part of the re-enactment. To the audience's and the drama critics' relief, Harras decides to incorporate the invalid mother's untimely death offstage into all future productions. “Danza final” updates the medieval danse macabre. Harras forces Fish to foxtrot with his lover, Verónica, a costumed image of decomposition and death. The dance provides a fitting preface to the “holocaustic” end of Fish. Like the manipulation of the auto concept, the scene's effect arises from its novel twisting of a classical literary topic.

Two other elements interwoven into the play's pattern are of special interest. The abstract character called Megáfono, who will reappear in Tercera llamada under the guise of Micrófono, usually provides objective truth. As a mechanical object, it counterbalances the fantastic Harras, giving weight and substance to his moral revelations. However, in certain instances it speaks with verbal irony about Fish. Megáfono comments that “la clave de su fortuna fue el contrabando en licores. En cierto modo, Harrison empezó su carrera con un acto de caridad, dando de beber a los sedientos …” (p. 98). This passage magnifies, true to the function of such an apparatus, the protagonist's failure to adhere to the Christian ethic. Likewise, the painting which first appears as scenery and later forms part of the action serves to underline the play's moral message. Arreola carefully chooses this “Eva” by Lucas Cranach the Elder. A Renaissance artist whose series of nudes and portraits reveals a vital interest in man,16 Cranach stands in direct opposition to Fish's monetary mentality. Moreover, this particular painting symbolically notes the moment when man first suffered the duality of the flesh and the spirit. Of course, Fish evidences contemporary man's submission to the former. The disharmony caused by the conflict between the material and the transcendental will become the focal point of Tercera llamada.

The artistic value of La hora de todos does not reside in its rather prosaic plot nor in its characterization. Most of the French criticism of its 1963 performance in Paris during the International Theater Festival was adverse; the reviewers termed it boring—an insipid examination of conscience.17 But, narration has never been Arreola's forte and since his design is primarily satirical, the characters of the play must be flat and unattractive. At the same time, the French critics failed to recognize Arreola's universalization of profound moral problems faced by all men: the question of guilt as an element of existence, the contrast between façade and self, and the confrontation of self with its judge. Likewise, the play shows conceptual ingenuity in its modernization of a classical subject in the context of present-day psychology. Arreola's subtle mixing of the old and the new, his felicitous blending of imagination and reality not only characterize Confabulario but also sustain the dramatic momentum of La hora de todos. Arreola exhibits particular talent for the creation of the non-verbal aspects of the stage, as demonstrated by the sound effects, lighting, music, pantomime, and choreography of the retrospective episodes. Although somewhat weak when viewed as literature, the play would be much more successful as a theatrical experience. The most effective element, even in script form, is the character of Harras. He weaves a mesmerizing spell and manifests the same devilish personality and linguistic manipulation which are the fascinating and bewitching qualities of Arreola's prose.

“Farsa de circo,” the subtitle of Tercera llamada,18 suggests the play's affinity to the “pure,” scenic effects of the Theatre of the Absurd, and two internal references (pp. 96, 139) classify the work within this mode. Various elements serve to corroborate the validity of this designation.19 As a montage, Tercera llamada exhibits no coherent plot line; emphasis falls on the discordant human condition rather than on a series of narrative events in logical progression. The oppressive, circular structure offers no positive moral nor any solution to the distressed situation which the play portrays. Arreola eschews rationality in the spheres of action and dialogue. Much of the activity becomes a meaningless, purposeless, and futile gesture—the best extended example being the mad photograph-target practice scene (pp. 88–94). the unexpected satire on the medical profession includes several passages which devalue language as a means of expression. These sections consist of lengthy plays on words, suffixes, accentuation patterns, and several pornographic, nonsensical, and set phrases (pp. 130–31, 134–35). The destructive use of mental clichés, particularly those of Biblical origin, comprises a principal source of farce. Comical effects also arise from the physical representation of the psychological world of fantasies and myth, exemplified by such episodes as the cuckold's metamorphosis into a bull. The mock-epic finale symbolizes the birth trauma of man's emergence from the Mother Archetype, a take-off on the “drainage pipe” dream of separation anxiety recorded by present-day psychiatrists.20 However, this superficial slapstick clothes a somber vision which the laughter serves to mitigate.

The epigraph provides an enlightening point of departure for interpretation of the “chaotic” character of Tercera llamada. It takes the form of a palindrome, “Adán sé ave, Eva es nada” (p. 74). This epigram synthesizes the themes and techniques that define the dramatic movement of the work. Far from a flippant manipulation of words, Arreola's palindrome consists of a witty play on concepts. Both it and Tercera llamada focus on being as isolation and incompletion; the vehicle in each instance is the couple locked in the age-old conflict of the sexes in which woman represents the corporeal and man, the spiritual. Likewise, the rhetorical device evokes the milieu of Genesis and the patriarchs of mankind; thus introducing the background of the drama.21 From a contemporary perspective, Tercera llamada reinterprets human history22 according to ancient scriptural legend minus the positive aspect of future redemption and fulfillment. The palindrome foreshadows the negative tonality of Tercera llamada in that the first “hemistich” rises by mentioning a winged animal and implying elevation to the celestial plane, whereas the second segment falls since the final stress lies on nada. At the same time, the word ave prefigures the play's central motif—the paloma. This last symbol cannot be tied to one meaning; it varyingly stands for divine presence, salvation in the sense of completion, the male's high-flying spirit, the ideal, the loved one, conjugal affection and fidelity.

Besides reading the same backwards as forwards, Arreola's palindrome shows a markedly balanced structure because it is doubly reversible, both in the total phrase and in each “hemistich.” This formal organization correlates to the circular, contrapuntal, and duplicating nature of Tercera llamada. In the play, multiple meanings of various words, symbols, and actions converge to produce a complex and often hermetic pattern. Almost all scenes begin in the same fashion and the final image echoes with only slight modification the initial vision. Each internal division prefigures future units and usually reverts to previous segments as the play constantly shifts back and forth between a series of verbal and non-verbal elements. Angel's brief ad speech (p. 102) previews his extensive sales pitch (pp. 109–112) as a modern Lucifer. Marido fondly recalls the innocent game in which he posed as the bull Angel fought in the Garden of Eden. Several units later, a radio series transmits a portion of “Pueblerina” (Confabulario, pp. 97–99). The next segment takes up the thread of the burlesque bullfight as the male characters mime “Pueblerina” and Marido becomes the metamorphosed lawyer of the story. During the early stages of Tercera llamada, Angel recites “El soñado” (Confabulario, pp. 80–81) in abbreviated form. Narrated in first person by an unborn child who symbolizes the monstrous, formless animosity produced by married life, the story anticipates the birth of Marido and Blanca's offspring in the closing moments. The most important internal duplication occurs approximately midway through the drama. During the third division which pretends to center on reality, the actors performing Tercera llamada use their own names although they conserve the personality and condition of the characters they portray. “Life” reproduces the fiction that the audience has been observing up to this point. Angel and Blanca even take seats among the spectators and she appears to watch as the action returns to the stage. Blurring the distinction between the real and the artificial, this duplication makes the farce on stage more acceptable.

The preceding discussion demonstrates that the disjointedness of Tercera llamada is merely superficial. As patterns, the palindrome and the play approximate mirrors which invert but reflect sameness. The dramatic tension exists between the tenor (the theme of disharmony) and the vehicle (the unity of impression in chaos). As a composite characterized by obsessive repetition, Tercera llamada suggests that all beings are synonymous and that human history is a pathetic cycle of futility and isolation. In this sense the title takes on meaningful proportions: regardless of the individual the chain remains constant and inevitable.23

Tercera llamada animates an essential conflict which in one form or another predominates Arreola's creative endeavors. It integrates into one artistic work his diverse theoretical assessments and imaginative portrayals of man's defective lot based on the Platonic myth.24 The dramatist has speculated that individual imperfection derives from an irreconcilable separation of the sexes. He contends that “el ser humano era un bien común unitario, completo y bisexual. … biológicamente la mujer lleva una carga mucho mayor que el hombre; el hombre parece, digo parece, haberse quedado en el espíritu, en el lote de la materia que vuela. De allí existe esta especie de necesidad de arrebatarse uno a otra la parte que le ha tocado después de la división.”25 However, Arreola consistently takes a witty approach when translating dry concept into art. “Cláusula III,” “soy un Adán que sueña en el paraíso, pero siempre despierto con las costillas intactas” (Confabulario, p. 21),26 could have replaced the palindrome as epigraph to the play. Three stories suggesting the intimate connection between the relationship of the sexes and the problem of being are direct, miniature precursors of Tercera llamada. In “Eva” (Confabulario, pp. 94–95) the contemporary representative of the ancient prototype forgives man and accepts the seducer by envisioning the matriarchal hypothesis in grossly common terms. Eve states that man, be he husband or lover, is the Son who has mistreated his Mother throughout history “Tú y yo” (Confabulario, pp. 133–34), recited at the conclusion of the play, situates the origin of the sexual confrontation in the Biblical progenitors. Contrary to Genesis, the terrestrial paradise was not a place, but Eve, from whom Adam expelled himself so that his spirit could exist. Love and reproduction are deemed frustrated attempts to restore the lost state of perfection. “Homenaje a Johann Jacobi Bachofen” (Confabulario, pp. 17–18) infers that male dominance and spirit have no chance for triumphant survival over the female's earthy nature.

Tercera llamada projects into physical terms the correlation between sex and metaphysics. The geometric design uniting Blanca, Marido, and Angel superficially assumes the shape of the classical love triangle. Since names or designations identify the characters, they are obviously masks, not individuals of flesh and blood. Blanca represents the Biblical Eve of man's fall from grace and the Mother Archetype. Arreola evokes various visual and musical analogies between her and George Bizet's Carmen,27 thus suggesting the female par excellence characterized by seduction, earthiness, and treachery. Nonetheless, the chromatic link between her name and the concept of purity plus her intermittent identification with the paloma cause the coalescence of the ultimate and ordinary levels of reality within Blanca. Her name also lends itself to innumerable plays on the noun blanco, usually connected with Marido's attempts to literally and figuratively hit the bull's-eye.28 Marido consistently fails in every endeavor to attain his goal, be it amorous or spiritual fulfillment. His efforts are often symbolized as shooting at a dove. Envisioned as the Hunter, Marido attempts ritualistic, blood sacrifices of expiation. He achieves an apparent triumph when he impregnates Blanca. Although mysteriously a virgin, she receives the announcement of impending birth from Angel, converted into a fatuous gynecologist who vulgarly mocks Saint Gabriel. The babe's similarity to Christ associates Marido with Joseph but has one ominous flaw. Angel proposes that the child be called Abel. The implied cyclical pattern crushes the hope that a new generation offers evolution and eminence.

The absence of a true name and a shifting identity reduce Marido to a dependent function. His childishness serves to establish Blanca as his Parent. Besides Joseph, Arreola incarnates other weak Biblical patriarchs in Marido. The introductory handshake between the protagonist and his rival becomes an infantile contest of strength. However, this parody resounds with deep implications. Jacob's struggle with the angel (Genesis 32:22–32), in which the divinity assailed him without apparent reason, results in a victory for mankind. As a consequence of his symbolic struggle, Jacob won grace as the transmitter of the spiritual heritage.29 On the other hand, Marido physically loses his confrontation. In Arreola's rendition, pardon and favor continue to elude Marido, and through him, all humans. Tempted by Angel's appearance as a charlatan peddling “Vita-Anima,” an erotic potion of apple juice concocted from the sap of the Tree of Life, Blanca persuades Marido to “sin” and try the wonder drug. This burlesque New Fall causes Marido's disillusionment since the liquid turns out to be a worthless chemical compound. Whereas Adam attained damning knowledge, Marido and his progeny cannot partake of the fruit of immortality.

Angel, Marido's Nemesis, actually fulfills seven different roles and his various personalities serve as makeshift divisions of Tercera llamada. His protean nature derives in part from a humorous mixing of the usages of the word ángel as a term of endearment, as a masculine name, and as a messenger of divine communication. Arreola employs a mathematical symbol in conjunction with the adversary as a vague reference to the archangels of the celestial hierarchy. However, his intention is ironical since the number seven is a mythological allusion to integration. Angel's demonic personality isolates him from literary and religious tradition. The only element he shares with the classical portrayal is his masculine essence. Far from protective or sublime, Angel appears as extremely pedestrian.30 However, he approximates the divinity conceived of as Jehovah when he orchestrates the birth of the child. Marido and Blanca, converted into statues, observe the event from their pedestals. By this inversion of the sculptor's art, Arreola turns life into stone and suggests the permanency of the human lot. Through the immobility of form, Marido and Blanca become an exemplary couple, just like their Biblical counterparts. While Blanca suffers Eve's punishment of difficult and painful childbirth, Marido models his pose on Giovanni da Bologna's “Flying Mercury.” Nonetheless, he fails to sustain Mercury's balanced, graceful stance insinuating flight.31 Marido's pathetic lack of equilibrium emphasizes man's inability to reach the perfection of spirituality.

Because of the stage directions, the child implicitly takes on the characteristics of Rodin's “Age of Bronze,” which symbolizes the awakening of human conscience and the initial triumph of reason over bestiality.32 In this respect the newborn one represents the potential for excellence and his hands form an open, perfect rose. Nevertheless, he depicts man's inevitable failure and is directly compared to Rodin's “Prodigal Son.” The boy frees an invisible dove but another child, perhaps a mere projection of his future self, shoots at the bird with a slingshot. The drama comes full swing as this final action repeats the beginning when a child from the audience (Angel, still unidentified) distracted Marido with the same weapon. The coalescence of Angel and child implies that both divine and human elements intervene to convert Marido into an impotent pawn. As before, circularity drives home a very bleak view of human destiny. As Saint Michael, Angel ends the play by closing the gates to the Garden of Eden and taking on the true function of an archangel, that is, revelation. Man remains cut-off without the means of integrating himself into a totality which gives meaning and purpose to existence.

Arreola attempts in the prefatory directions to devaluate his script and thereby establishes the pre-eminence of the tonal effect. These instructions introduce the aura of improvisation and the recurrent efforts to break down the pretense of art and link the action on stage with the experience of life. The pattern of internal duplication, the impression of a series of mirrors inevitably repeating the same conflict, suggests that the present is a fatal reflection of the past and that all individuals share the same limitations. The sporadic references to annihilation as a consequence of man's inhumanity to man, the verbal nonsense, and the cliché-twisting all fit into the primary framework of disharmony and disintegration.

Tercera llamada reveals some striking dramatic gains when compared to La hora de todos, above all, an evolution toward a more universally valid image. Harrison Fish, while definitely a type, has little to say to us as a representative of man. Particularity of place and time deforms and limits him as a character. The trite criticism of twentieth-century materialism based on the American way of life is not adequately counterbalanced by the permanence of the ancient auto mold. Marido, while unable to provoke our sympathy, has much more consistency as a symbol of man's metaphysical reality. In Tercera llamada Arreola moves toward an essential, atemporal, and aspatial conflict faced in daily life and in existence as a whole. He attempts a sense of being, a portrayal of man's unfulfilled state. Both of the plays draw the audience into the development, but Tercera llamada requires more active participation on the part of the public. It is not a given entity but a puzzle to be pieced together through total immersion in the composite. Simplicity gives way to complex symbolism and a multifaceted design of the play, “life,” and metaphysics. Furthermore, Arreola has perfected his potential for non-verbal drama, particularly in such theatrical episodes as the mimed bullfight, the epic gestures of the finale, and the madcap scenes of the doctors and the photograph. The farcical vein serves the therapeutic effect of making the vital experience endurable and it underlines the madness of man's illusion of perfection.


  1. Antonio Magaña Esquivel and Ruth S. Lamb, El teatro en México (México: Ediciones de Andrea, 1958), p. 153, and Angel Flores, Historia y antología del cuento y la novela en Hispanoamérica (New York: Las Américas, 1967), p. 650.

  2. Gaston Baty and René Chavance, El arte teatral, trans. Juan José Arreola (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1951).

  3. Emmanuel Carballo, Diecinueve protagonistas de la literatura mexicana del siglo XX (México: Empresas Editoriales, 1965), p. 370.

  4. In this article I refer to Arreola's stories found in the anthology, Confabulario, 4th ed., Colección Popular, No. 80 (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1966). Page numbers from this edition will appear in the text.

  5. See “La vida privada,” Confabulario, which dates from 1947 and shows an early prose attempt at Pirandellian internal duplication. As audience to a play, society condones the fictional counterpart to a real-life situation which scandalizes it.

  6. Walter Starkie, Luigi Pirandello: 1867–1936 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967).

  7. Magaña Esquivel, p. 154.

  8. The only possible connection arises from the early use of the fish as a eucharistic symbol, Gilbert Cope, Symbolism in the Bible and the Church (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 38, and the protagonist's name, Harrison Fish. More to the point is J. E. Cirlot's summary that “in broad terms, the fish is a psychic being, or a ‘penetrating motion’ endowed with a ‘heightening’ power concerning base matters—that is, in the unconscious,” A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 101. Through the program, Fish must delve into his unconscious as during psychiatric treatment. At the same time, the overt caricature of his animal designation serves to underline the play's preoccupation with dehumanization. Fish represents the prototypical U.S. capitalist who objectifies not only others but himself. He parallels types from Confabulario, including the scientist Arpad Niklaus of “En verdad os digo” and the businessman-narrator of “El fraude,” who cancel religion in favor of material progress.

  9. Demetrio Aguilera-Malta's Infierno negro (1967) also contains a final judgment framework. After death, Hórridus Nabus is condemned by the victims of his racism to return as a Black man to life in mechanized Nylónpolis.

  10. A complete list of works manipulated in Confabulario would be too extensive to cite here. See, for example, “Teoría de Dulcinea,” a one-page simplification of the Quijote: Inferno V, based on the Divina Commedia, and “Los alimentos terrestres,” composed of 53 excerpts from Góngora's Epistolario.

  11. Emmet Simpleton and Bárbara resemble in their pedestrian view characters from Confabulario: Mona Lisa's friends in “Cocktail Party” and the Muse of “Parturient montes.”

  12. La hora de todos in Obras de Juan José Arreola: Varia invención (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1971), pp. 124–37. All subsequent textual citations will refer to this edition.

  13. Francisco de Quevedo, La hora de todos y La Fortuna con seso in Los sueños, ed. Julio Cejador y Frauca (Madrid: Ediciones de “La Lectura,” 1917), XXXIV, 62.

  14. Raúl Leiva draws a spatial contrast, “lo más alto aloja a lo más bajo y bestial,” “Autores y libros,” México en la cultura, No. 301 (26 Dec. 1954), p. 2.

  15. Frank Adams, “Bomber Hits Empire State Building, Setting It Afire at the 79th Floor; 13 Dead, 26 Hurt; Wide Area Rocked,” New York Times (29 July 1945), p. 1, col. 8; p. 25, cols. 1–8.

  16. H. Kuenzel, Lucas Cranach the Elder, trans. Anne Ross (New York: Crown Publishers, n.d.).

  17. Samuel S. Trifilo, “Mexican Theater Goes to Paris … And … A Polemic,” Hispania, XLVII, ii (May 1964), 337.

  18. Tercera llamada ¡Tercera! o empezamos sin usted in Obras de Juan José Arreola: Palindroma (México: Joaquín Mortiz 1971), p. 73. All subsequent textual citations will refer to this edition.

  19. The following discussion is based on Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964). Esslin mentions both of Arreola's French mentors, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault, for fostering this approach to dramatic art. In 1947 Jouvet directed the first presentation of Jean Genet's The Maids (p. 161) and in the same year Barrault produced a version of Kafka's The Trial (p. 257).

  20. Thomas A. Harris, I'm OK—You're OK (New York: Avon Books, 1967), p. 63.

  21. Arreola often refers to the Bible in Confabulario. “De L'Osservatore” distorts the image of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:18–19) and “En verdad os digo” manipulates Christ's parable concerning the rich young man (Matthew 19:16–30).

  22. The setting visually underlines the desire to give a modern outlook to the constancy of human nature. It consists of a condominium incongruously decorated with stuffed, extinct animals and a monument to the Mother, a Venus of Willendorf. In this jumbling of time and in the basic clash, Tercera llamada resembles Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth.

  23. The title, a playful rendition of the last warning, contains an unintentional irony. As Arreola told me, Tercera llamada has only been performed by an amateur group in Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco, the author's birthplace.

  24. The relationship of the sexes forms the most recurrent source of satirical material in Confabulario: a densive treatment of masculine superiority (“La trampa,” “Insectiada,” and “Interview”), blatant misogyny (“Cocktail Party,” “Metamorfosis,” and “Homenaje a Otto Weininger”), ardent misogamy (“El soñado,” “In memoriam,” and “Una mujer amaestrada”) and comical cuckoldry (“Pueblerina,” “El faro,” and “Caballero desarmado”).

  25. Emmanuel Carballo, El cuento mexicano del siglo XX (México: Empresas Editoriales, 1964), p. 70.

  26. Another epigram stresses a complementary idea: “Cada vez que el hombre y la mujer tratan de reconstruir el Arquetipo, componen un ser monstruoso: la pareja,” (Confabulario, p. 21).

  27. Many parallels exist between the play and “Carmen.” They share a prototypical triangle: rival-toreador, seductive female, deceived mate. Bizet's José just misses shooting the new lover; Marido only slightly wounds Angel. The bullfight of Tercera llamada ends to the music of Bizet's “La habanera.”

  28. Arreola conscientiously plays with the oral tradition as far as the central motif is concerned. In the closing moments, a popular song is recited: “No salgas paloma al campo mira que soy cazador, / y si te tiro y te mato, / para mí será el dolor, / para mi será quebranto …” (p. 143).

  29. Ralph H. Elliott, The Message of Genesis (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), pp. 170–76.

  30. Arreola's secularized view of angels begins in Confabulario where they are always associated with physical struggle. Man usually loses the battle with a boxer-type: “Boletín de última hora: En la lucha con el ángle, he perdido por indecisión” (p. 21), which Marido recites during the play, and “Una de dos.” In “Caballero desarmado” the celestial agent intervenes directly in human affairs. He dehorns the cuckold-narrator by making him do a flip-flop and later returns the horns, mounted on velvet.

  31. Lincoln Rothschild, Sculpture Through the Ages (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942), p. 176.

  32. Story Sommerville, Auguste Rodin and his Works (London: George Allen & Unwin n.d.), p. 18.

Ross Larson (essay date 1977)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1494

SOURCE: “Expressionism,” in Fantasy and Imagination in the Mexican Narrative, Arizona State University, 1977, pp. 77–88.

[In the following excerpt, Larson discusses several of Arreola's short stories, describing them as efforts to expose “the moral conscience of the individual.”]

Perhaps the most obvious features of Arreola's stories are their stylistic elegance and the extravagance of their action, either of which would be enough to set them apart from the course of the Mexican narrative so long subject to evaluation according to ethical and not aesthetic criteria. Socialist realism values content above form, and encourages direct expression of an impersonal conception of reality. Arreola acknowledges the artist's social responsibility, but he contends that documentary fiction is merely a useless repetition of life and that its task could much more effectively be performed by the newspaper, radio, cinema, or television.

If art is the transformation of exterior reality into aesthetic experience, Arreola is the consummate artist with absolute control over the word—which is for him the material concretion of an emanation from the human soul. He rejoices in the constant accusations that he is manierista, amanerado, filigranista, orfebre, but he rejects the serenity of the ivory tower and specifically urges

una lucha honda y constante en pro de la paz universal. Nadie mejor que el artista para emprenderla y proclamarla. Porque ser artista, no es una disculpa para la inacción, sino más bien un compromiso grave y profundo que no debe ser eludido.

Instead of directing his criticism against obvious national symptoms—poverty, illiteracy, and political corruption—Arreola attacks the malady at its source: the moral conscience of the individual. His story “Informe de Liberia” (1959) deals with unborn children who refuse to enter this world. “Flash” (1955) reports on a mad scientist whose patriotic invention, an atomic “absorber,” has ingested a large number of his fellow countrymen together with the railway train in which they were traveling. “En verdad os digo” (1952) presents us with another scientist whose power of invention is greater than his sense of morality. He earns a fortune with an ingenious project to construct a machine capable of passing a camel through the eye of a needle. “Baby H. P.” (1952) is a sort of Leyden jar fitted with a harness, which is designed to convert a baby's tremendous energy into electricity. The idea seems both grotesque and frivolous, but at bottom it is quite serious. What Arreola wants to suggest is, first, that the baby could electrocute itself (physical annihilation) and, second, that blind utilitarianism will annihilate man spiritually.

Such a depreciation of moral values necessarily implies the failure of religion and, in “De L'Osservatore” (1962), we have a notice from the Vatican newspaper advising us briefly that, at the beginning of our Era, Saint Peter's keys were lost in the suburbs of the Roman Empire. The finder is asked kindly to deliver them to the reigning Pope because for more than fifteen hundred years no one has been able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The concrete indications of the period (more than fifteen centuries ago), the setting (in the suburbs of the Roman Empire), and the religious context when taken together suggest Constantine, who established himself in Byzantium in A.D. 313. It will be recalled that, following his conversion, Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official state religion. Thus penetrating below the surface of the (apparent) caprice, we can discern some aspect of Arreola's personal vision; in this case, his conviction that, at the moment of instituting the Church, Christianity lost its validity (the keys were lost). Arreola returns to this theme in a recent story, to which he gives an English title, “Starring: All People” (1967), and which he offers in homage to Cecil B. De Mille. Here the history of the world is presented as an incomplete and mediocre movie that failed with both the public and the critics. The star actor, Jesus Christ, reveals to us in an interview that he is dying to go back to remake the film and give it a happy ending, but his father is still withholding his permission.

Arreola's philosophy of life is most adequately expressed in “El guardagujas” (1952), a Kafkaesque story concerning a fantastic railway system with only some sections completed, but where it is possible to buy tickets for any destination. No one knows what trains are running or where they are going. At any moment a train might arrive at the edge of an abyss where no bridge has been constructed. In such a case, the passengers dismantle the train and carry the parts to the other side, there to rebuild it and continue their journey. According to Arreola, this is what life is like: a series of absurd chance occurrences to which every man should surrender himself. In the same way, the moles of “Topos” (1952) yield to the attraction of death, leaping into the holes that lead to the fiery center of the earth. “La caverna” (1952), where one wanders in fear and trembling, is a vision of the final unknowable nothingness. But even as we are drawn to the universality of death, so we seek to lose our individuality in woman. Hence “Topos” and “La caverna” can also be interpreted satisfactorily as symbolic of the sexual experience.

For the existentialist, nothing matters more than the authenticity of his choices and the personal relationships he achieves. The natural hope that through sex a complete communion is possible becomes an obsession in Arreola. He confesses that “la percepción de la mujer … ha sido el leitmotiv de mi existencia.” Recently he composed a list of the women who have played a decisive role in his life, not just lovers but also teachers, relatives, and writers. The list stands at seventy-two names. On the subject of woman, Arreola has always expressed himself with bitterness, an attitude which his one great love affair (1953–58) served only to reinforce.

“El soñado” (1949) is a narration in the first person by what seems to be an imaginary or unborn child, but is in fact the monstrous thing that two people engender just by living together. It is not literally a child but a presence, an ill feeling, an animosity, an indifference. Arreola does not conceal his resentment and disillusion. Reluctantly he acknowledges the impossibility of love, but he attaches part of the blame to man for he falsifies the nature of woman. “Una mujer amaestrada” (1955) gives us a tragic vision of marriage; a mountebank grotesquely exhibiting his wife to the public and making her perform clumsy dances and feats of simple arithmetic as if she were a trained bear so that the spectators will share his opinion of this marvelous woman. The female plastic robots of “Anuncio” (1962) “Parábola del trueque” (1955) represent woman as a mere tool for the sexual satisfaction of man. But it is woman herself who accepts all these conflicting roles that man invents. At one moment she is asked to be a goddess, then she is a maid, then a devil, and then a mother … Arreola is not anti-feminist and his conclusions distress him since they blasphemously attack his scared concept of woman, which is more or less as follows:

Necesito abrazar en la mujer el árbol de la vida, creer que estoy ligado a la vida universal, que ya no hay individuación; que la mujer es, en este momento, la puerta de escape hacia el todo. La mujer que nos trajo de la universalidad a la individuación, es también la puerta del paraíso. Reingreso de la individualidad al todo. Por eso en el amor existe ese perderse, dejarse derivar como en un río.

It is worth noting parenthetically that Arreola is overcoming his disillusionment with woman. He sees the history of civilization thus far as characterized by its masculinity and he considers it a failure. The only possible salvation for humanity, he now believes, is through woman and a new feminine orientation in life.

Because Arreola's work is full of humor and irony, he has been regarded as a jester interested only in novelty and in amusing or scandalizing the reader. Indeed Arreola is a formalist and a virtuoso of the Spanish language, but almost never is he trivial or gratuitous. On the contrary, his themes are profoundly human. He employs elements of his own personal drama to express, in fragments, a vision of man's existence. Arreola's concise style together with his intuitive technique produce incomprehension on the part of the public. His meaning is never obvious or easily accessible, but it always exists—between the lines.

The famous polemic, then, which arose from the indignation and outrage surrounding the publication of his first works misrepresented Arreola's position, but it did serve to vitalize Mexican letters for more than a decade. The arreolistas proclaimed the supremacy of art, an essentially intuitive faculty, over all national and political considerations. Their mentor taught respect for aesthetic values and demonstrated how literature could be raised above the merely regional and circumstantial. (pp. 79–82)

Floyd Merrell (essay date September 1983)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6453

SOURCE: “Los de Abajo, La feria, and the Notion of Space-time Categories in the Narrative Text,” in Hispanofila, September, 1983, pp. 77–91.

[In the following essay, Merrell compares Azulea’s Los de abajo and La feria, discussing how both works relate to each other in terms of space and time.]

The objectives set forth in this paper include: (1) a brief inquiry into the notion of a priori formal and esthetic categories, (2) an analysis of Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo and Juan José Arreola's La feria based on considerations of space and time as conditioning factors governing the generation of prose literature, and (3) further speculations concerning the possibility of employing spatial and temporal categories to explicate and interpret narrative texts in general.


According to Kant's theory of knowledge, in spite of man's incessant striving for the absolute, he is, due to his own internal limitations, destined to perpetual frustration. His limitations are determined by invariant a priori categories of thought which impose logical constraints on his knowledge of the external world.1 In the present century theoreticians in diverse disciplines have expounded on the Kantian notion of an a priori foundation of human thought; that is, knowledge derived from self-evident propositions rather than experience. Jean Piaget develops an elaborate “epistemological psychology” which is in part based on Kantian presuppositions.2 However, he does take issue with the “static mechanism” built into Kant's apriorism.3 While Kant's epistemology provides an invariant schema of human mental structures, Piaget's genetic epistemology entails a developmental account of man's cognitive faculties. Moreover, unlike Kant, Piaget's a priori categories take into account a phenomenology of praxis; that is, the notion that action on the part of the subject while in contact with his concrete circumstances plays a role in the evolution of a priori mental structures.4 The logical necessity of the structures of intelligence are never given prior to experience but they form themselves “at the end of an evolutionary operation which partly depends on practice and experience.”5 Hence, according to Piaget, the chief error of Kantism consists in having regarded the a priori categories of thought as ready-made from the beginning of development. Dynamic functions rather than static invariants must be sought out to verify the notion that intelligence is a process of structuration.6

Piaget's a priori categories stem from the idea that after a given individual's cognitive faculties undergo the essential evolutionary stages, the final mental structures he possesses are the same for all people in all societies.7 This may be a plausible hypothesis when considering, as does Piaget, the logico-mathematical aspects of cognition. On the other hand, if we are to inquire into the possibility of a priori conditioning factors governing the generation of esthetic constructs, we cannot limit the individual and culture to a closed system of categories.

The neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer provides an array of evidence to show that a basic set of operational invariants underline all cultural forms (i.e., language, myth, art, religion, science, etc.).8 All levels of culture, and all cultures (both past and present) are integrated into a unified system of forms. Human experience rests on a fundamental network of relations which constitute a universal set of operational invariants. Throughout history, the unified system of cultural forms has been constructed by means of these invariants. Although both ontogenetic and phylogenetic advances entail a certain transformational development, the underlying invariant principles remain fundamentally the same. Hence, “Myth, religion, art, language, even science, are now looked upon as so many variations on a common theme.”9 However, while Cassirer's notion of cultural a priori categories is novel, his system of invariant formal operations may be equally as tenuous as Kant's invariant schema.10 Cassirer has nevertheless opened the door to the possibility of a priori foundations of culture which complement the well-known Kantian a priori categories of reason.

The phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne distinguishes sharply between the a priori basis of esthetic forms and formal scientific knowledge. The esthetic a priori must be subjective and concrete, removed from Kant's categories of reason which abstract the subject.11 Whereas scientific cognition implies a reflective operation which may be universal for all subjects as they empirically experience objective reality, esthetic intuition, which is relative to each member of the human speech community, must constitute an apprehension of the immediate. Thus, “Everyone possesses a certain natural geometry, but not everyone is capable of grasping the sense of the tragic, a mythical form, or a moral value.”12 Dufrenne maintains that space and time are universals through which the a priori foundation of both scientific knowledge and esthetic forms operate since they include a continuum of possible experience and define a potential mode of intuition common to everyone. However, esthetic a priori categories in contrast to their formal counterpart, are pregnant with meaning which the object manifests implicity to the subject. Hence the esthetic a priori categories are subjectively apprehended through “feeling” rather than through the abstract mechanisms of formalized intellectual cognition.

The problem with Dufrenne's distintion between esthetic creativity and formal scientific reflection is that a clear-cut boundary between feeling and thought, the concrete and the abstract, subjectivity and objectivity, simply does not exist. While the notion of a priori categories in the arts is tenable only when the inherently rigid Kantian system is superseded by dynamic categorial functions, this does not imply that the sciences are devoid of subjectivity nor that art must be entirely subjective. Scientific discovery does not occur by a process of sheer objectivity nor by a readily determinable mixture of subjective and objective attributes.13 By the same token, the critic should be aware that an artist's intuitions—on the one hand preparation and real-life situation, and on the other from his “feelings” as he creates his art—are arrived at through spatial and temporal categories which constitute a complex blend of subjectivity and objectivity.

It follows from the preceding speculations that the notion of esthetic a priori categories conditioning the generation of narrative texts must: (1) satisfy the demand for open-ended functional variants rather than closed systems, and (2) take into consideration the complex interrelation of reflective thought processes (that which is predominantly “objective”) and intuitive apprehension of the immediate (that which is predominantly “subjective”). In light of these two exigencies, it may be assumed that although the process of conceptualization of narrative texts may be universal for all writers, the actual creation or a given text is the result of the writer's objective and subjective choices from a field limited solely by his psychological and social constraints; and thus it represents an individualized expression. Consequently, I will put forth the assumption that space and time: (1) condition the artist's apprehension of the immediate, and (2) constitute the fundamental entities through which a text is created (a function of the interaction between the writer's present experience, memories of the past, and anticipations of the future). The following section will consist of a comparative analysis of Los de abajo and La feria in order to elucidate the functional role of spatio-temporal conditioning factors.


The central figure in Azuela's Los de abajo14 is Demetrio Macías, a strong-willed rural peasant who is propelled into the Mexican Revolution to defend himself against persecution by federal troops. He gathers around him a small band of peasant revolutionaries which includes an opportunistic young ex-medical student from Mexico City. Aimlessly roaming the central highlands of the country, they plunder, loot, and kill, with little regard for, nor consciousness of, the civil war, that is tearing the nation apart. They enter the mainstream of the Revolution only temporarily when, as an appendage to Villa's army, they help overtake Zacatecas. After this battle a decline sets in and the peasants, having lost their original enthusiasm for fighting, continue only because they feel an inner undefined compulsion to do so. Incapable of articulating their desires nor of speculating on their circumstances, they find self-expression solely through their actions. In fact, the most salient characteristic of Los de abajo “is movement, and movement is revolt against a static condition.”15 The novel terminates when the band finally returns to the point of its origin and is defeated by the federals in a canyon near Demetrio's former home.

La feria16 is an unusual collection of prose vignettes whose length varies from a single line to several pages. These vignettes consist of memories, local folk-legends, legal documents, narrative accounts, brief dialogues, and personal impressions. The fragmented plot occurs during a feria in Zapotlán, Jalisco when the peasants come from surrounding villages and people from all socio-economic levels of the provincial society are temporarily thrown together. After the reader has gained an apparently chaotic array of fleeting impressions concerning the town's past history, its present inhabitants and the diverse activities of the feria, he reaches the unexpected dramatic ending, when some ruffians boldly enter the central plaza and light the fireworks which had been set up for a pyrotechnical display to conclude the festivities. People trample over one another in an effort to escape pursuing rockets, stores and concession stands are ignited, and in less than an hour hardly a vestige remains of the feria.

On the surface it can easily be ascertained that Azuela is disappointed with the general purposelessness and lack of accomplishment of the Mexican Revolution. Pessimism is perceived throughout the novel as the author, doubtful as to the Mexican community's ability to give direction to the social movement, highlights man's failure effectively to solve his most fundamental problems. In contrast, although Arreola refers to the Mexican Revolution only directly, Zapotlán, the focus of his novel, is a microcosm which projects directly to the macrocosmic condition of man. Arreola's humor, satire, and occasional matter-of-fact irony reveal the attitude that nothing was to have been expected from man's endeavors in the first place. This author portrays a townspeople who put forth at the outset their good side, their aspirations, goals, and ideals, only to meet with failure in the end.

Below this surface level of the narration in both novels I will posit the existence of an underlying level which is discovered in the spatial and temporal dimension of the text. This subsurface reality is intimately related to a “world-image” inherent in the two narrative constructs, and by extrapolation, to the “world-image” of each respective author. The existence of this underlying level in prose narrative and the world-image it supports is predicated on the assumption that narrative conditions of space and time cannot be separated from the author's general image of reality since this image is based on: (1) subjective personal experiences of the immediate material world which consists of small islands in the space time continuum, (2) a priori institutions which are meaningless and empty unless applied to spatial and temporal things, and (3) reflection arising from the interaction between past, present, and future. The world-image to be found in a narrative text, therefore, consists of an intricate blend of subjective “feeling” and conscious and non-conscious conceptualization. The task now at hand involves an explication of the world-images in Los de abajo and La feria within the framework of spatio-temporal conditioning factors.

Both novels under consideration consist of a series of narrative fragments (42 in Los de abajo and 288 in La feria) separated from one another by time. The fragments in Arreola's work vary greatly in length and the time element separating them does not represent a linear progression. In fact, past, present, and future are juxtaposed to invoke a sense of timelessness. On the other hand, the fragments in Los de abajo are relatively homogeneus in length and chronologically ordered. The rapidity with which Azuela's narrative fragments pile up produces the illusion of linearization and dynamization. As a consequence action is heightened with a concomitant sense of temporal rapidity completely unknown to Arreola's novel.

If I may propose at the outset that Arreola employs narrative structure symbolically to arrest time and Azuela to dynamize time, there should be an inverse analogy between the two novels with respect to their temporal structure and their action. The peasants of Los de abajo, unable to articulate their ideals or their reasons for fighting, fall into a state of mental decrepitude after each skirmish and they take on renewed vitality only when actively engaged in violent struggle. They are consequently defined not by logos but by praxis. In contrast, the paucity of physical activity in La feria is offset by the omniscience of logos; that is, the creation by means of language of a mental reality and the attempt to map this reality on the physical world notwithstanding apparent conflicts between the two. The predominance of logos anaesthetizes the inhabitants of Zapotlán into a state of physical complacency from which they are unable to rise. Arreola's playful satire, occasional hyperbole, regional witticism, and cynical humor offer a pyrotechnical display of linguistic activity which nevertheless cannot overcome the physical inactivity of the novel's characters. His interiorization by the use of an array of narrative techniques (anonymous narrative, alternating points of view, interior monologue, dramatic monologue, letter narration, and diary narration) “subjectivizes” the outward flow of time in contrast to Azuela, who, as the omniscient narrator, “objectivizes” his characters and gives them physical movement to counterbalance their inner stasis, their communicative poverty.

Chronologically, the time during which the action of La feria takes place is relatively brief: a week (or possibly a few weeks, it is very difficult to determine) during the feria in honor of San José, a local saint in charge of protecting the town and its inhabitants against earthquakes. However, the “collective memory” (narration in the form of letters to the King during the colonial period, diaries, decrees, and legends), encompasses a period of over four centuries to illustrate that “psychic” or inner time strives to predominate over chronological time. On the other hand, the action of Los de abajo requires more than two years, while “memories” in the form of yarns, tales of exploits, and recollections of families and children left behind, rarely precede the date of the outbreak of the Revolution to produce the effect of linear time's suppression of inner time.

The characters in La feria look toward the future with undying optimism. Their projects, however, impossible ideals which have little or no bearing on the pragmatic realities of everyday life, invariably terminate in abject failure.17 The mind's unceasing effort to impose its preconceptions on physical reality mirrors a discrepancy between the local inhabitants' (ideal) expression and their (actual) practice. For example, a shoemaker who solemnly declares, “I am a farmer,” and proceeds to let his zapatería decline while working his land, appears more interested in the horticultural methods with which he is experimenting and faithfully documenting in his diary than with the actual cultivation of the soil. A young poet is involved more in the expression of love for his sweetheart than with his actual performance when in her company. When the members of the Ateneo fail to attract a single person to a poetry reading, an ostentatious show of pseudo-erudition, they carry on with undaunted pride in their idealistic perpetuation of culture and the fine arts. Juan Tepano, leader of a group of Indians struggling to recover the lands that were confiscated during the colonial period, appears to be in rebellion simply for rebellion's sake, cognizant of the inevitable futility of his actual efforts.

Although numerous other cases can be cited, the above suffice to illustrate that the characters in Los de abajo, contrary to those of La feria, consciously nurture no such ideals nor plans for the future. Typical of peasants the world over, they are tradition-oriented, firmly rooted to the soil, and adhere inflexibly to conservative codes of honor. Hence after being propelled into the Revolution it becomes evident that they are incapable of identifying with abstract ideals such as “the sacred cause,” “democracy,” “tyranny,” “the oppressed,” etc. which Luis Cervantes the ex-medical student preaches to them. In fact, their extreme localism prevents their being conscious of Mexico as a nation or of the Revolution as a struggle on a national scale directly to benefit the social class to which they belong. They appear to live only for the excitement the moment can offer, to act rather than to articulate or speculate, to live rather than to dream. This emphasis on the present moment serves to de-emphasize consciousness of the past and negate projections into the future, in contradistinction to the predominance of recollected past and aspirations for the future in La feria. When for a short moment Demetrio's thoughts take him back to his wife and young son his memories are so vague he cannot recall the facial features of the boy. And when the revolutionaries begin their trek to the mountains where they lived before the Revolution their exhuberance and enthusiasm appear to be prompted more by the desire for action than by a real sense of nostalgia. In addition, unable to articulate their reason for participating in the Revolution, they nurture few hopes and dream few dreams.

To further illustrate the predominance of the present in Azuela's novel, Demetrio and his small band destroy without attempting to rebuild, in contrast to the villagers in La feria who are incessantly striving to construct, to create. During one episode they sack a lavishly furnished hacienda, carrying away paintings, books, jewelry, a typewriter, anything they can take on horseback, and when further down the trail the items become a burden they are simply discarded. The inability of Azuela's characters to elevate the articulation of their desires to the dynamic level of outer time's linear movement contrasts with the unwillingness of Arreola's characters to transform a static reality through the enactment of their articulately expressed desires. These inabilities are disclosed through the wanton destructiveness in Los de abajo and the futile illusions of constructiveness in La feria. Consequently, while in the first case a “dynamizing” narrative structure parallels the physical activity and contradicts the mental stasis of the characters, in the second case a “stabilizing” narrative structure is commensurate with the characters' static physical world but opposes their mental and verbal agility.

Spatially, the plot of Los de abajo is expansive. Demetrio embarks upon his adventure from a small, enclosed provincial environment toward limitlessness: he appears free to do what he desires at the moment. However, this spatial expansion becomes ultimately circular when the beginning and the end of the novel are contrasted. In one of the opening scenes when Demetrio and his enthusiastic followers are engaged in their first skirmish with federal troops, they are hiding behind rocks along the wall of a large canyon easily shooting the confused enemy below. The situation is spatially inverted in the final episode. Now the exhausted, demoralized rebels are at the bottom of the same canyon, their prolonged spatial trajectory having brought them back to the point of departure, and the federal troops have ambushed them from above. Hence the peasants' verbal limitations, their tradition-bound view of the world, and their immutable behavior patterns are commensurate with the dynamic-yet-static movement through space.

Confined to a spatially limited environment, La feria is non-expansive. Arreola's novel fits into what Sharon Spencer describes as the modern “architectonic” novel; that is, a narration whose essential feature is not thematic nor character development but structure.18 In contrast to the narrative sequences in Los de abajo which at the outset appear to progress spatially, the vignettes in La feria are a juxtaposition of spatial simultaneities. This system of simultaneities “spatializes” the characters since events are reduced to a series of incoherent isolated moments with no regard for temporal frames of reference. Time is even “spatialized” through a sort of spatio-temporal fusion which brings the reader to an awareness that reality is not simple, coherent, and one-dimensional but polyfaceted and chaotic. While on the one hand, this juxtaposition of spatial planes demonstrates a complex nature of reality compatible with twentieth-century scientific views, on the other hand, it stultifies. Arreola alternates point of view to reveal much about his characters' inner lives, their fancies, desires, and ambitions, but this “spatialized” or subjective time, in accord with current notions of the human unconscious, ceases to flow in orderly succession.

In sum, the two novels under consideration present a system of contrasts. Life is alternately viewed in time through praxis (Los de abajo) and in space as simultaneity (La feria). In the first novel space is more or less given and the action is built up in the temporal sequence; but space finally becomes predominant in the final scene where the inverted order of the federal troops and the rebels nullifies progress in time. In the second novel time is axiomatic while spatial simultaneities and differences stand in contiguity to one another; but the “sacred” atemporal existence of the feria reverts in the end backs to “secular” temporality.19

Ultimately, the world-image revealed in Azuela's novel is pervaded by the Western-World “idea of progress.”20 This explains the existential effort on the part of Azuela to dynamize and linearize an otherwise static milieu; but these efforts fail. Demetrio Macías and his troops, struggling incessantly against the federals, are foregrounded from the collective mass and, having become conspicuous, they search for some form of meaning in their relationship with their environment and in their function within the whole of the Revolution.

In contrast, the idea of indefinite progress is simply a relic of the mythical past in La feria. However, the irreversibility of historical time without a faith in progress instills fear since the vertiginous rapidity with which changes occur becomes meaningless and difficult to control.21 For this reason the structure of La feria tends to suppress outer manifestations of temporal linearity. Correspondingly, the inhabitants of Zapotlán, characterized not by their actions but by their verbal, or signifying relationships, represent a hodgepodge of disparate beings who, in spite of their well-articulated projects, remain inexorably in their lethargic material state. They appear free to choose, but choice is exercized primarily on a linguistic level, action remains minimal.

The pattern of contrasts between Los de abajo and La feria is supported by Octavio Paz' allusion to the unity of revolution and fiesta. The Mexican Revolution, Paz tells us, was an immersion into the country's own being, a blind groping for serrated umbilical cords leading to the primordial past. It was a fiesta in the primitive sense; that is, a time of spontaneity when the “profane” order ceases and “sacred” timelessness pervades.22 The Revolution, like a fiesta, was also an “excess and a squandering, a going to extremes, an explosion of joy and hopelessness, a shout of orphanhood and jubilation, of suicide and life.”23 The adventures of Demetrio and his small band are a symbolic return to the primordial massa confusa, a time when habits and customs can be violated, when society potentially frees itself from its established norms and licentiousness becomes the rule. It may be correct to say that in their revolutionary activities the peasants open out, participate, and commune with each other. However, purification and revitalization by means of a symbolic regress to original chaos and freedom inevitably fails. Rather than having been strengthened and elevated to new heights after each encounter, the peasants revert back to a state of listlessness, unable to transcend themselves or the constraints which traditionally bind them.

On the other hand, although Paz defines the fiesta as a revolt, a “revolution in the most literal sense of the word,”24 the feria in Arreola's novel can be no more than an empty metaphor of the Revolution; not a return to the past nor a halting of “profane” chronological time, but an affirmation of the inevitability of temporal succession and of human finitude. La feria portrays contemporary man terrified by history's dynamo and burdened by the accumulation of centuries of culture which, rather than offer him momentary release from his own being toward the diaphanous object of his desires, pushes him forward into a dark horizon. Just as the characters of Los de abajo fail in their symbolic effort to perpetuate the “myth of eternal progress,” so the characters of La feria embark upon a frustrated symbolic attempt to reinstitute the “myth of the eternal return.”


In this section I will move outward once again to consider space and time as conditioning factors in the generation of narrative texts. All texts are made up of a system of concrete “symbol-concepts.” These symbol-concepts, which may be defined as the indices portraying the writer's “world-image,” are manifested in, of, and through space and time. Since space and time, the a priori categories conditioning the creation of symbol-concepts, are amorphous and subject to modification, each work of art may possess its own set of “individualized” symbol-concepts.25 Therefore, symbol-concepts cannot exist, in a Kantian sense, as timeless universals; their formulation is derived from a complex combination of innate capacity, accomodation to the environment, and the creative activity of the mind on the object-world.26 A product of the writer's apprehension of the immediate, his past experience, and anticipations of the future, they are intellectual as well as emotive; that is to say, they are the product of conscious objectivity as well as conscious and non-conscious subjectivity. It follows that a particular set of symbol-concepts may be replaced in the mind of the individual artist by a more profound and complex set. Hence the symbol-concepts may undergo a change in meaning from one work of art to another, or in special cases they may be transformed within a single work; and just as one set of symbol-concepts is replaced by another set, so also the world-image undergoes a transmutation.

Since literary symbol-concepts are created through language, linguistic theory must have bearing on any valid notion of symbol-concept formation. However, we cannot treat language as does the logical positivist who assumes a direct link between linguistic sign-systems and their invariant referents (objective reality).27 We must be interested in the language of literature simply as it is: a cultural form par excellence through which the writer recognizes, organizes, and articulates the world he sees and feels, and consequently produces his own personal symbol-concepts which stand as a “semblance” rather than a “mirror-image” of reality. Moreover, in terms of Chomsky's theory of language, the creation of all literary symbol-concepts might be construed as something akin to narrative competence: the idealized “literary knowledge” possessed by the writer.28 While it is highly probable that symbol-concepts exist in the writer's cognitive framework, the existence of literary symbol-concepts can be verified only in the organized structure of the individual text. This involves the writer's performance: the selection of a finite combination of symbol-concepts from an infinite array of possibilities, and the concrete process of literary creation by use of these symbol-concepts. Hence, while conceding the plausibility of Chomskyan linguistic universals, their equivalence cannot be admitted in the model to be constructed in this paper since literary performance rather than competence is under consideration; that is, the study is of actual rather than ideal texts.

Thus, the model must not only encompass symbol-concepts but in addition their inherent limitations and their potential mutability. I have put forth the assumption that space and time are conditioning factors through which the narrative text is generated. It follows that symbol-concepts existing in the minds of particular individuals in diverse cultures will find contrasting linguistic expression. Cassirer and Mircea Eliade demonstrate how primitive man's conception of heterogeneous space and time not only differs radically from homogeneous Newtonian space and time, but this particular mode of perception is intimately tied to and supports the cosmology governing his very life.29 In addition, Benjamin Lee Whorf observes that the Hopi language is incapable of expressing certain Newtonian concepts of space and time.30 Correspondingly, it has been pointed out that since twentieth century Western World speech and thought habits are coordinated with a Newtonian corpuscular-kinetic universe, it is extremely difficult to imagine the universe of probabilities, indeterminacies, complementarities, and “fields” postulated by modern physics.31 If, as Whorf maintains, the language system in which a particular social group is educated shapes the way the members of that group perceive the world, we might conceivably hypothesize that by analogy, the creation of a different world-image (tantamount to a new thought process) would be contingent on the prior construction of a transformed set of symbol-concepts (or a new mode of expression). However, just as the Whorfian hypothesis that language predetermines cognitive structures has been effectively disputed by the Chomskyans, so the hypothesis that the symbol-concepts generated through spatio-temporal categories precede and totally condition a writer's world-image would, by analogy, be equally erroneous. On the other hand, the relation of language to thought, and correspondingly of symbol-concepts to world-image, is an ongoing process, an incessant movement back and forth from symbol-concepts to world-image and from world-image to symbol-concepts. The world-image is not merely expressed in symbol-concepts, it comes into existence as a result of the dialectical affiliation between the two.32 Every world-image tends to establish a relationship between things, to render the universe comprehensible, to resolve fundamental human anomalies. Thus an analysis of the interaction between world-image and symbol-concepts can begin with an investigation of the underlying level of the narrative text insofar as it is governed by spatio-temporal conditioning factors.33

To extrapolate from the above considerations, since Mexican society in particular—and Western societies in general—was vastly altered between 1915 and 1963, it is logical to assume that the symbol-concepts in Los de abajo and La feria entail a set of contrasts disclosing a binary of world-images. The spatio-temporal indices in Los de abajo reveal an “opening out” into what at the outset appears to be a chaotic but limitless horizon, but they terminate in enclosure. In contrast, the corresponding indices in La feria symbolize a “closing in,” a conservative attempt to arrest temporal acceleration while simultaneously retreating into the inner self.

Praxis is paramount where the actor confronts an environment he believes he can subdue by physical means. However, in Azuela's novel the spatial and temporal indices ultimately reveal one of man's basic limitations; that is, the impossible quest for self-definition and inner meaningfulness through physical action on outer reality. Logos becomes sovereign in our modern world of ever increasing flows of information and communication. In such a world the actor is prompted to force reality into the mold created by his linguistic activity. Nonetheless, the spatial and temporal indices in La feria depict another equally imposing limitation: the void separating the physical world from man's linguistic world. In broad terms, therefore, the world-images revealed in Los de abajo, a novel evincing no overt attempt on the part of the author to universalize, recalls Western man's progressive disenchantment with the social and scientific “myths” which had been propagated since the Enlightenment. And La feria whose author obviously prefers conscientiously to universalize, through the microcosmic portrayal of a provincial city in Mexico, becomes at once: (1) a cynical view of Western World “myths” which have lingered on despite their obsolescence, and (2) a covert statement on Western man's progressive alienation from his environment into a labyrinth of sign-systems which imprison him.


  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. F. Max Müller (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966), pp. 295–384.

  2. Piaget, The Origin of Intelligence in Children, trans. Margaret Cook (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), pp. 1–11.

  3. Piaget, Biology and Knowledge, trans. Beatrix Walsh, (Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 268–345.

  4. Marx W. Wartofsky, “From Praxis to Logos: General Epistemology and Physics,” in Cognitive Development and Epistemology, ed. Theodore Mischel (New York: Academic Press, 1971), pp. 129–47.

  5. Piaget, The Child and Reality, trans. Arnold Rosin (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973), p. 132.

  6. Piaget, Origin, pp. 3–8.

  7. Howard Gardner, The Quest for Mind (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 165–212.

  8. Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1955), I, pp. 73–114.

  9. Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New York: Bantan Books, 1970), p. 78.

  10. I. K. Stephens, “Cassirer's Doctrine of the A Priori,” in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston, Ill.: Library of Living Philosophers, 1949), pp. 151–81.

  11. Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, trans. Edward S. Casey (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 447–48.

  12. Dufrenne, The Notion of the A Priori, trans. Edward S. Casey (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1966), p. 48.

  13. The noted scientist-philosopher Arthur Eddington describes in length how the explanations of the universe provided by the physical sciences are not purely objective operations but partially subjective as well. The Philosophy of Physical Science (Ann Arbor: The Univ. of Michigan Press, 1958), pp. 16–27 & 187–223.

  14. Los de abajo (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1958).

  15. John S. Brushwood, Mexico in its Novel (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1966), p. 180.

  16. La feria (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1971).

  17. Luis Leal demonstrates how the theme of failure gives unity to Arreola's novel. “La feria, de Juan José Arreola: tema y estructura,” Nueva Narrativa Hispanoamericana, 1, No. 1 (1971), pp. 41–48.

  18. Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1971), pp. xx–xxiii.

  19. In primitive societies the function fulfilled by the festival was a rebirth: to rejuvenate oneself by rediscovering the plenitude of life. This rebirth entails a return to the primordial age which appears as “the period or the state of creative vigor from which the present world escaped, with its vicissitudes of wear and tear and the threat of death.” (Roger Càillois, Man and the Sacred, trans. Meyer Barash [Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959], p. 107.) In contrast, the characters in Arreola's novel do not bring about through their festivities a temporal inversion, a return, as in primitive societies, to the primordial past. After the calamitous finale the zapotlanenses are destined doggedly to press onward, reconstructing from the ruins of the feria, and look forward to another year with ever-heightened anticipation when at the end, in commemoration of the same saint on the same day with the same ceremonial processions, etc., the same act of futility will demonstrate once again that in the modern-day world temporal recurrence has been superseded by the invariant conception of temporal irreversibility. See Mauricio Ostría Gonzalez, “Valor estructural del fragmento en La feria de Juan José Arreola,” Estudios Filológicos, No. 6 (1970), pp. 177–225.

  20. The search for a “law of indefinite progress” culminated with the “teleological” hypotheses of Saint-Simon, Comte, and Marx during the nineteenth century. This idea has been a motivating force in modern history, and, even though it has been derided by cyclical historians such as Spengler and Toynbee, and portrayed—perhaps more disquietingly—by other writers such as Ortega y Gasse: (The Revolt of the Masses), Huxley (Brave New World), and Orwell (1984), it has nevertheless been perpetuated in the popular mind to dominate all other recently emerging views of man such as have developed from relativity, quantum mechanics, cybernetics, information theory, and general systems theory.

  21. Concerning this “fear” of time in modern thought and literature, see: Philip Rahv, “The Myth and the Powerhouse,” Partisan Review, 20, No. 6 (1953), pp. 635–48.

  22. The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 47–54.

  23. P. 148.

  24. P. 51. It has been masterfully demonstrated by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens (New York: Roy Publishers, 1950) that the play element in culture is revealed historically through most basic human activities (i.e., law, war, art, philosophy, etc.). Caillois comments that, in addition to Huizinga's hypothesis, there exists a system of common threads between war (or revolution) and the traditional concept of the festival.

  25. Even though on the one hand the symbol-concept is conceived of as the product of an individualized expression, on the other hand and in line with the train of thought established in the first section of this paper, it may also be stated that the process of symbol-concept formation is the same for all writers.

  26. I do not presume insight into the degree symbol-concepts are determined by innateness, by accommodation of intellectual structures to environment, or by creative freedom. Each of these determinants has been emphasized by three contemporary theoreticians: the linguist Noam Chomsky stresses the existence of the innate knowledge of universal grammatical structure, Piaget maintains that intellectual structures evolve by means of the complementary principles of assimilation and accommodation to attain a progressive state of equilibrium, and Cassirer stresses the creative of the human mind in “transforming” reality. The scope of this paper prevents me from taking issue with any of these hypotheses. Undoubtedly, however, symbol-concept formation involves an undefined degree of all three functions.

  27. See Jerrold J. Katz, The Underlying Reality of Language and Its Philosophical Import (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 174–89.

  28. See Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1965), pp. 3–15.

  29. Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, II, pp. 83–104; Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), pp. 20–65.

  30. “An American Indian Model of the Universe,” in Language, Thought and Reality (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1957), pp. 57–64.

  31. The problem is exceedingly complex. Werner Heisenberg tells us that natural language is inoperable in describing natural phenomena in accordance with the quantum theory since the mental “pictures” of the sub-atomic world “have only a vague connection with reality, that they represent only a tendency toward reality.” Hence for man to express his concrete, perceivable world in accordance with these scientific concepts which have become the abstract basis of his physical existence, his language must undergo a transformation, the nature of which is to Western man, as to the Hopi for whom Newtonian concepts lie outside his linguistic realm, as yet completely unforseeable. Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 181.

  32. On the notion of the organic unity of thought and language see: Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child, trans. Marjorie and Ruth Garbain (New York: The Humanities Press, 1959); L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language, trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1962).

  33. Along similar lines and in support of the notion that thought and language are dialectically related, Oswald Werner demonstrates how distinctions between the root hypotheses of science reside in linguistic recategorizations. The transition from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican system involves the “invention” of a new world view through the innovative use of language; i.e., a redefinition of terms, the reorganization of lexicon, and the creation of hitherto unknown “lexical linkages.” Hence, a general world view consists of linguistic subsystems such as taxonomies, hierarchies of parts, and linkages between parts, which can be classified in terms of functions and conditions of space and time. (“Cultural Knowledge, Language, and World View,” in Cognition: A Multiple View, ed. Paul L. Garvin [New York: Spartan Books, 1970], pp. 155–75.) Similarly, Stephen Toulmin maintains that scientific theories develop by means of “language shifts” which occur when old terms are used in new ways. Scientific theories, therefore, are formulated in relationship to a world view which includes the new meaning derived from a “language shift,” and hence a new set of theories, emerges. The Philosophy of Science (London: Hutchinson, 1953), pp. 13ff.

Yulan M. Washburn (essay date 1983)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

SOURCE: Juan José Arreola, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 33–35.

[In the following excerpt, Washburn discusses Arreola's Palindroma, observing that its contents are presented with a bluntness and cynicism that departs from the author's earlier style.]

In 1971 [Arreola] published his first completely new title in several years, Palindroma [Palindrome]. In general Palindrome is similar to Arreola's previous books: there is the same distinctive style, the same variety of subject matter and form, and—despite Arreola's good intentions in his 1966 prologue—a preponderance of works outrageously scoring the man-woman relationship. There are also some major differences between Palindrome and the bulk of his previous work. Most of the volume is occupied not by short prose creations, but by a one-act play. Moreover, Arreola's malice and cynicism, which previously had been held in check and merely simmered beneath the surface of his writing, are at times escalated to a pitch beyond that of any previous work. Some of the entries have the character of dirty jokes or leers in an all male barbershop, leers loftily couched in the refinements of scholarship and high, prose art. “El himen en México” [“The hymen in Mexico”] purports to be a medicosociological treatise on the indurate hymen of Mexican women, and concludes with a mocking rhapsody to the “secret membrane,” in which the supposed researcher, now aging, laments that he has not been able to verify personally all of his data. “Receta casera” [“Household recipe”] portrays Arreola's view of the overweening vanity of women and gives suggestions for playing on that vanity to lure them to one's home, where they can either be suffocated or seasoned to taste. “Para entrar al jardín” [“Entering the garden”] begins with an erotic passage—the most suggestive part of which is archly printed on the outer jacket of the volume—which seems to come from a sex manual. At first it reads like a startlingly bold description of how a male should begin sexual penetration of the female, but by the second paragraph it turns into detailed directions for murdering the woman and disposing of the body. Many of the selections scathingly satirize the growing openness about sex that has become modish in recent years and is now one of the focuses for best-sellers and erotic mass magazines; taken as a whole, however, such selections also bitterly mock the unexamined assumption that a fuller sex life will lead ineluctably to fuller happiness.

The change in manner in the short pieces is perhaps what Arreola was referring to when he spoke of a “change in spirit” in his 1966 prologue. Gone is the glancing innuendo, the light stroke of irony. It is as if Arreola had suddenly become a prophet with his eyes flashing on the idolatries of our time. In many of these pieces he plunges into muscular, roundhouse burlesque that is bludgeoning and uncompromising. He sneers at mass values as expressed in athletics, racial prejudice, the movies, the omniscience of science, and sex as a commodity. In a sense, then, Arreola keeps his promise of the 1966 prologue. He is at times more blunt and less subtle in the Palindrome fictions; yet the recondite allusions and provocative obscurities still abound in this anthology.

Arreola's love of words comes out strongly in the palindromes that dot the work. A palindrome, technically, is a bit of language play in which sentences are constructed that read the same forwards or backwards. “Madam, I'm Adam” is perhaps the most familiar and ignoble one in English. Most palindromes merely display verbal skill. Arreola's palindromes, however, toy with a concept as well, usually having to do with women. These palindromes are used to separate the sections of the book—much like the woodcuts in “The Fair”—and are related to the contents of each section. The palindrome which precedes the play, for example, is “Adán sé ave, Eva es nada.” Utterly unreproducible in English, this palindrome means something like “Adam, be a bird, Eve is nothing,” and encapsulates Arreola's view that man is a spirit whose nature it is to soar, even though he can take flight only against the temptation to bury himself in the illusory flesh of woman. The palindrome which precedes the section called “Syntactical Variations” is astonishingly complex. It consists, in fact, of two palindromes and is an invitation from one girl to another that would have fit well into the Greek Anthology.

Sofia Daífos a Selene Peneles:
Se van Sal acá tía Naves Argelao es ido
Odiseo alégrase Van a Itaca las naves
(Sofía Daífos to Selene Peneles:
They're leaving Get it over here, Baby
          Naves Argelao has gone
Odysseus is delighted the ships are going
to Ithaca)

The final palindrome—standing by itself at the bottom of an otherwise blank page at the end of the book—is “… eres o no eres … seré o no seré” (“You are or you are not … I will be or I will not be …”). It seems to be a play on Shakespeare's “To be or not to be,” and is followed by the exclamation, “That is the real palindrome!” which for Arreola sums up all the striving of human life.

The major portion of Palindrome is occupied with a new theatrical piece by Arreola, Tercera llamada; ¡tercera! o empezamos sin usted [Last call, last call! Or we'll start without you]. The play itself is a kind of palindrome in that it begins and ends in roughly the same way, and also works back in time by employing several of Arreola's earlier works. The work is a spectacle depicting in unsubtle fashion (Arreola subtitles it a circus farce) his vision of the agonies of the man-woman relationship, especially in its domestic aspect. The male character is called Marido (“Husband”) and is depicted as a feckless, ineffectual person who is systematically duped by the other characters and by his own confused yearning for the ineffable. Blanca, the female protagonist, is promiscuous, flighty, earthy, and cunning, but she has an occasional hankering for the ineffable herself. Angel, a demonic changeling who plays seven distinct roles, toys with the man and woman. The play strives to present Arreola's version of the man-woman dilemma dramatically, but it is not surprising to learn that up to now the play has been performed but once, and then by an amateur group in Arreola's home state of Jalisco. Even though the work sums up Arreola's consistent views on woman more clearly than any other one work, it is essentially a weak vehicle and indicates that drama is not one of Arreola's strengths. (pp. 33–5)

Paula R. Heusinkveld (essay date February-May 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3019

SOURCE: “Juan José Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty,” in Chasqui, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2–3, February-May, 1984, pp. 33–43.

[In the following excerpt, Heusinkveld examines Arreola's “El guardagujas,” “Autrui,” and “El mapa de objetos perdidos” as modern, existential allegories.]

In this century we have seen radical changes in the genres of literature. The Theater of the Absurd breaks theatrical conventions, and the New Novel differs radically from the traditional novel. This article considers a contemporary Mexican writer whose brief prose fiction, like much literature of this century, defies easy classification. The artistic purpose of Juan José Arreola is clearly not that of a traditional short story writer, who keeps the reader's attention with plot development, suspense, climax and denouement. In many of the brief fictional pieces in his Confabulario, Arreola presents only a static situation, usually of a bizarre or fantastical nature, that leaves the reader groping for meaning. In the absence of a traditional story line, the reader may be only minimally interested in finding out what will happen, if indeed anything will happen at all. The more urgent question becomes: “What can it possibly all mean?”

As George Schade pointed out in the introduction to his English translation of Confabulario, the very title of Arreola's famous volume suggests a collection of fables. Although some early reviewers of Arreola's work interpreted his bizarre fictional creations as mere flights of fancy, critics generally acknowledge a deeper significance in these texts. Seymour Menton was the first to explore beneath the surface of Arreola's fantasies and subsequently discover serious underlying themes, ranging from existential anguish to a warning against modern man's self-destructive potential. Thomas Tomanek has convincingly demonstrated Arreola's indebtedness to Franz Kafka, whose own bizarre fictional creations have been described as modern allegories.

Largely due to the influence of the works of Franz Kafka, critics have begun to re-examine the nature of allegory and to recognize the range of artistic possibilities for this symbolic form in twentieth century literature. “Allegory” has in fact gained acceptance as a critical term applicable to a particular kind of modern symbolic literature—literature which closely resembles the tales of the Confabulario. Despite the widespread acknowledgement of symbolic meaning in many of Arreola's texts, however, no one has yet ventured to study Arreola's works in terms of allegory. This [essay] proposes that indeed most of Arreola's stories can best be understood as modern allegories. (pp. 33–4)

To convey his skeptical vision of the world through allegory, Arreola repeatedly uses symbols that represent human limitations and failures rather than human potential. As symbols of mankind, he chooses animals (as in the selection of Bestiario) and nameless anti-heroes who lack control of their circumstances. Supernatural antagonists and nightmarish situations throughout the Confabulario symbolize the existential dilemmas that modern man must confront. Unlike the heroes of classical allegory, Arreola's anti-heroes never have a chance. In “Uno de dos,” the narrator is overpowered by a maleficent angel who is portrayed as an aggressive boxing adversary. In “Autrui,” the narrator is overcome by a mysterious antagonist with supernatural powers. The narrator of “La migala” is terrorized by a surrealistic insect. The inability of Arreola's characters to overcome these antagonists or supernatural forces represents the impotence of man in all spheres of human existence.

The broad expansive panoramas of classical allegory are replaced in the stories of Arreola by symbolic settings of limited dimensions which confine the helpless protagonist. In “La trampa,” for example, the narrator is an insect trapped in the web of a female spider. In “Luna de miel,” the narrator is trying to escape from a sticky sea of honey. The narrator of “El rey negro” is a black king trapped into the corner of a chessboard. The poet-narrator of “Interview” is confined with the rest of humanity in the belly of an enormous female whale who is drifting toward nothingness. These and other symbols of confinement throughout the Confabulario, convey a vision of man as an impotent creature lacking control of his life or destiny.

Compared to allegories of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Arreola's stores have a minimal amount of action. The only development in many selections is the protagonist's eventual acknowledgement of his inability to act and his acceptance of an impossible situation. In classical allegory there was no place for inaction, since inaction meant impotence. In Arreola's allegories, however, impotence is in fact the message—man's impotence in an alien world. (pp. 35–6)

Arreola's use of allegory can best be understood through careful examination of his treatment of a symbolic journey, a struggle between antagonists, and a quest. These symbols appear in three stories in the Confabulario, “El guardagujas,” “Autrui,” and “El mapa de objetos perdidos,” respectively.

In “El guardagujas,” Arreola addresses the theme of the inherent limitation of the human condition. In this story we find the traditional symbol of life as a journey. This train trip, however, is very different from the journeys of classical allegory in which the hero proceeded confidently of his own free will across expansive panoramas toward a definite goal. The passengers on Arreola's train do not travel under their own power but rather are confined within the enclosed space of a vehicle whose speed, direction, and ultimate destination they cannot control, or even know. The journey on Arreola's train suggests a restrictive view of life: man, like the passengers on the train, is unable to control his own life or destiny.

The protagonist in this story, the stranger, resembles K. in Kafka's The Castle in that he initially declares a specific goal, only to be confounded and frustrated by a bizarre system. From the moment the would-be traveller arrives at the deserted train station, he begins to sense that he is on unfamiliar ground where logic and order have no place.

The stranger seems to be an ordinary man with the logical, realistic expectation of being able to board a train that will carry him to his destination. His dilemma seems realistic enough for the reader to identify with it. Yet Arreola provides no information whatsoever about this character, not even a name. This deliberate vagueness invites abstraction. The stranger could be anyone striving toward a goal.

The odd little switchman, who appears out of nowhere, provides a counterpoint to the realistic expectations of the stranger. While the clear, pointed questions of the stranger represent man's attempt to find reason, the preposterous rambling responses of the switchman suggest the futility of man's efforts to impose logic on an absurd world.

The switchman has never boarded the train. His purpose in the story seems to be that of an ironic observer who must convince the stranger of the necessity for accepting the absurd. (As George McMurray has pointed out [in the Latin American Literary Review, 1977], the switchman must switch the stranger away from his one-track, logical expectations and put the stranger's mind on a different track!)

The railroad company, known as “la empresa,” repersents the outside force or absolute power that supposedly directs human lives. The utter unreliability of the company reflects a twentieth-century world view—that our lives are totally dictated by chance.

Like Kafka's characters, the stranger gradually realizes that he has no control over the direction of events in his life, that he has only one option—to accept or deny his inability to decipher or control this illogical system. In “El guardagujas,” the stranger makes the positive decision to board the train. By the end of the story, he has lost sight of his original goal, T., and has decided to journey toward the unknown X. Arreola implies that we do have one important choice. We can either stand on the station platform, forever, frustrated, or we can follow the stranger's example and board the train, that is accept the absurdity of the human condition and embrace life such as it is.

The noisy arrival of the train and the simultaneous magical disappearance of the switchman provide an appropriate ending for a story that has maintained a delicate balance between the plausible and the fantastic. By blurring the distinction between the plausible and the impossible, Arreola forces the reader to step back, like a detached observer, to seek an explanation for the apparent absurdity. At this point the reader should be able to discover other levels of meaning.

One critic, Luis Leal, has observed that “El guardagujas” can be interpreted simultaneously on at least three meaning levels: as a brilliant satire of the Mexican railway system, a biting commentary about Mexican government and society, and as a philosophical statement about the human condition. This juxtaposition of apparent realism and fantasy is Arreola's primary method of hinting at multiple meaning levels in texts throughout the collection.

Arreola's symbols become much more negative when he focuses on the human limitation that he considers to be most responsible for unhappiness on this earth, man's inability to relate to his fellow-man and his consequent isolation. In “Autrui,” which Arreola has cited in an interview with Emmanuel Carballo as a key story of the collection, our fellow-man is represented as a terrifying, omnipresent foe. The narrator of this story (who symbolizes mankind) relates in anguished tones his persecution by Autrui, an insidious, undefined presence which exercises supernatural powers to confine the narrator within an ever-diminishing space. As a result of Autrui's pernicious designs, the helpless narrator finds himself in a surrealistic maze of blind alleys and is later mysteriously trapped in a room which seems to be shrinking. Unable to defend himself against his invisible foe, the narrator comes to an ignominious end without ever asserting his own identity. He ultimately finds himself boxed inside a hexagonal capsule no larger than his body, at which point be begins to putrefy.

The blind alleys, the tiny room, and the hexagonal capsule in this story are all powerful images of confinement. Like Sartre, Beckett, Kafka and others, Arreola has placed his anti-hero within a constricting space, a graphic protrayal of man's entrapment within certain limitations.

The name “Autrui,” from the French “autre,” or “other,” is the key to the story's meaning. As Arreola explained during the same interview with Carballo, Autrui's dogged persecution of the narrator represents the unavoidable imposition of our fellow-man upon each one of us and the consequent restriction of our freedom of movement:

Se trata de la acotación de nuestro espacio vital por parte de nuestros prójimos, que nos ciñen hasta que nos dejan reducidos a la cápsula fisica de nuestro cuerpo. El único espacio de que disponemos verdaderamente es el espacio de nuestro cuerpo. Y por esto, este hombre que pensabe en cosas grandes se pudre dentro de su cápsula. Se le pudre el yo.

The story reaffirms Sartre's existential dictum that “hell is other people” and conveys the paradoxical dilemma that, because of man's inability to communicate with his fellow-man, he withdraws into himself, only to be consumed by self-destructive alienation. The story implies that man's alienation is devastating to the self and causes even more anguish than the lack of free will or human mortality.

In this story, just as in “El guardagujas,” Arreola blends realism with fantasy. In this case, however, he uses a realistic format—that of a diary—to convey totally surrealistic events. The diary form in itself inspires belief. The precise language and the frequent use of preterite verbs reinforce the impression that the narrator is presenting an accurate account of his daily activities.

Yet the narrator implies that the physical, day-by-day persecution described in his diary is symptomatic of a longer-lasting, insidious persecution of a non-physical nature. In the opening lines of the story, the narrator expands the time frame to include his entire life, thus facilitating allegorical interpretation:

Sigue la persecución sistemática de ese desconocido. Creo que se llama Autrui. No sé cuándo empezó a encarcelarme. Desde el principio de me vida tal vez, sin que yo me diera cuenta.

These clipped sentences, almost spit out as if the narrator has been running, create the impression that the life-long metaphysical persecution of Autrui is just as devastating as the immediate persecution described in the diary.

The total effect of this incongruous use of a diary to relate surrealistic experiences is unsettling. In “Autrui,” as in “El guardagujas,” the reader is left hovering uncomfortably between the realistic and the impossible. Once again, Arreola has presented realistic and fantastic elements in a juxtaposition which creates tension and forces the reader to seek an underlying meaning.

Both “El guardagujas” and “Autrui” use symbols common in traditional allegory—that of a journey and a struggle between two antagonists, respectively—to convey negative ideas. The stranger in “El guardagujas” has no control over the direction of his life. The narrator of “Autrui” is consumed by alienation from his fellow man. A third symbol common in traditional allegory—that of the quest—also appears in the Confabulario to convey a message typical of a twentieth century world view.

In “El mapa de objetos perdidos,” the narrator, representing mankind, purchases a magical map which helps him to find lost objects. His searching, however, scarcely resembles the purposeful quests of classical allegory. To begin with, the narrator's quest is begun in indifference, since he agrees to try the magical map merely because “era domingo y no tenía qué hacer.” His quest, then, is not directed toward any particular goal. Throughout the brief story, his attitude suggests a certain amount of boredom and disinterest. The map itself does not supply directions leading to any specific destination. Instead, it leads the narrator to lost or discarded objects, cheap trinkets which he in turn sells to make a miserable living. The implication is that any ideas, concepts, or beliefs which questing modern man may stumble upon have already been handled and then discarded or forgotten. The occasional “mujer perdida” which the map reveals is of a quality as low as that of all the other objects, worn-out and ordinary.

Although the search is unmotivated and lacking in direction, the map continues to reveal more objects. The narrator speaks of the first trinket he found, an old plastic comb, as “el primer eslabón de una cadena.” The image of the chain suggests continuance, perhaps bondage. Even though the quest leads to nothing of consequence, it draws the narrator almost against his will into a perpetual activity of searching.

Arreola's technique in “El mapa de objetos perdidos” is quite different from that used in “Autrui.” The magical nature of this story is not immediately apparent. The narrator provides very little detail and avoids any sensational description of the supernatural qualities of the map. Yet his repeated denial that the map vendor is unusual alerts the reader, ironically, that something about the map may be extraordinary: “El hombre que me vendió el mapa no tenía nada de extraño. Un tipo común y corriente, un poco enfermo tal vez. Me abordó sencillamente, como esos vendedores que nos salen al paso en la calle.” This introduction to the map vendor is not visually specific enough to indicate a comfortable realism, nor is it fantastic. It simply creates an aura of mystery and draws the reader on.

Even in the absence of blatantly impossible events, this neutral language confronts the reader with a strange world which has an unsettling combination of “elusiveness and familiarity.” To quote Gay Clifford (in reference to a different allegorical work):

The passage's strangeness derives not from exoticism, but from the fact that is so neutral, so indefinite, and yet immediately suggests that it means something important … Part of the urgency comes from the neutrality of the vocabulary … we accept that these things are familiar in some way, even while we sense that they are also remote … We are compelled to read on in order to understand this enigmatic lack of congruity. The worlds of allegory are only half-familiar and they are rarely safe.

In short, when the characters or the action of a story are obviously supernatural, as in “Autrui,” Arreola uses a realistic style. When the characters are somewhat plausible as in “El mapa de objetos perdidos,” the language is vague and unsettling. In both stories, Arreola hovers on the line between apparent realism and fantasy. In both cases, the incongruity between realistic and fantastic elements creates tension and forces the reader to seek a meaning beyond the obvious. He hints at the presence of another meaning but does not reveal what it is.

The three stories discussed here share a number of important characteristics. Each one sustains at least two levels of meaning from beginning to end, and each presents fictional elements to symbolize a set of related ideas. In this sense these stories may be considered allegorical.

At the same time, Arreola's stories convey a negative world view characteristic of this century. On the basis of these representative stories, we may hypothesize that the allegories of the Confabulario have the following characteristics: (1) a skeptical, pessimistic view of the world; (2) an anti-hero who lacks control of his circumstances; (3) symbols that convey man's limitations rather than his potential; (4) a lack of overt didactic intent, and (5) an absence of explicitly stated correspondences between fictional and real meaning levels. Surely these works may be considered as modern allegories.

The stories of Arreola's Confabulario do reveal negative aspects of modern man: existential anxiety, alienation, estrangement, and dehumanization. Yet Arreola's stories lack the bleak despair characteristic of other modern allegories such as Kafka's. Through symbolic characters who accept their circumstances, Arreola obliquely conveys his own acceptance of human limitations. Furthermore, he often lightens his pessimistic message of creating inherently humorous symbols. The absurdity of a railroad company's asking passengers to carry a disassembled train across a gorge makes the reader smile and softens the message about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life.

Taken as a whole, the allegories of the Confabulario show tremendous creative imagination, stylistic versatility, and Arreola's own poetic vision of the world. They represent a skeptical vision of mankind characteristic of this century, yet bear Arreola's personal stamp, an abiding humor combined with a benign acceptance of man's absurd condition. (pp. 36–41)

Theda M. Herz (essay date May 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5524

SOURCE: “Artistic Iconoclasm in Mexico: Countertexts of Arreola, Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart,” in Chasqui, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, May, 1989, pp. 17–25.

[In the following essay, Herz considers Arreola's influence on Mexican writers José Agustín, René Avilés Fabila, and Hugo Hiriart.]

A la virtut presente, mester de clerecía, y a la belleza toda, mester de juglaría. El tiempo es poco y pasa, y a la receta mía sigamos con mesteres, ca son de arreolería.

Jorge Arturo Ojeda, Mester

In 1963, Luis Leal proclaimed that “el desarrollo del cuento mexicano contemporáneo puede dividirse en dos etapas: antes y después de Arreola y Rulfo.”1 Many aspiring, young writers, including José Agustín, Homero Aridjis, René Avilés Fabila, Gerardo de la Torre, Hugo Hiriart, Jorge Arturo Ojeda and Juan Tovar, made their publishing debut in Mester: Revista del taller literario de Juan José Arreola (1964–66). During the '60s, several literary novices composed eulogies to Arreola's tutelage and Ojeda even declared that “toda una época en México se llamará discípula de”2 Arreola. Almost a decade after the 61 publication of Confabulario, Ross Larson offered the following critical delineation of Arreola's pioneering role in the Mexican literary scene:

La famosa polémica … que surgió de la indignación y ultraje en torno a la publicación de sus primeras obras [se le ha tenido por un bufón interesado tan sólo en la novedad y en divertir o escandalizar al lector] falsificó la posición de Arreola pero sí sirvió para vitalizar las letras mexicanas durante todo un docenio. Los ‘arreolistas’ proclamaron la supremacia del arte—una facultad esencialmente intuitiva—por encima de toda consideración política o nacional. Su mentor enseñó el respeto por los valores estéticos y demostró cómo la literatura podía elevarse de lo meramente regional y circumstancial. Aun hoy—como editor de revistas, coordinador cultural, profesor y escritor—Juan José Arreola contin£a ejerciendo gran influencia sobre los jóvenes, los creadores de la literatura mexicana del futuro.3

The concept of Arreola's aestheticism and the concomitant proposition that his legacy is anonymous with the resurgence of artistic (cosmopolitan, intellectual, pure or fantastic) fiction, out of favor since the Contemporáneos, have wide acceptance in the critical community, especially in Mexico. This paper, however, disputes the premise that Arreola “devuelve su prestigio a la literatura literaria.”4 It redefines Arreola's “aestheticism” and assesses his relationship to the literary context of the '60s and '70s by focusing on his and three “disciples” treatment of the most relevant subject matter—the artist, artistry and the classics. Despite his formalist emphasis, Arreola is not an aesthete but rather an iconoclast whose witty transgressions of the literary tradition fomented skepticism about the artistic canon, craft and craftsman. Irreverence concerning creators, the classics and creativity foreshadows the cult of the parodic and of the demiurgic in Mexican literature of the '60s and '70s. This study contends that Arreola's jestful mockery of writers, writing and specific literary words helps set the stage for the upsurgence of the noncanonical and the experimental in Mexican letters. While playfulness, wit and irony appear in the first publications of Agustín (1944), Avilés (1940) and Hiriart (1942), their mature works advance literary antisolemnity and heterodoxy. This article essays, finally, how artistic icononoclasm within the Mester generation relates to other countercultural challenges to literary conventions and to the generalized criticism of the Mexican system during the '60s and '70s.

Not surprisingly, selections found in the issues of Mester approximate Arreola's sardonic modes and tone. The title, Confabulario, heralds a collection of fables (“El amante,” “El prodigioso miligramo,” “Parábola del trueque,” “En verdad os digo”) and is compilation of compositions from the late '40s and the '50s marked the reappearance of the animal story but transformed by satirical ingenuity. Avilés made his literary premiere with “Fábula del pato inconforme” and “Fábula del perico parlante,” metaphorical tales of man's spiritual and intellectual follies. Agustín's earliest text, “Cuidado con el lobo,” writes the legend of Francis of Assisi. Seeing divine benevolence everywhere, the lover of nature awakens the proverbial sleeping lion who, after devouring a lost sheep, returns meekly to drowse at the emaciated Saint's feet. Arreola's penchant for caricature of real and apocryphal intellectuals (Nabónides, Wolfgang Kohler, Giovanni Papini, Sinesio de Rodas) finds a counterpart in the verbal aggressions of Agustín's “Los negocios del señor Gilberto,” a high burlesque sketch of the Mexican cultural vanguard. More in line with Arreola's whimsical fascination with the esoteric and his low burlesque of chivalry (“La canción de Peronelle”), Hiriart's “Las razones de Pedro Abelardo” modernizes the ancient logician, teacher and tragic lover of Héloise. Hiriart's Abelardo suffers impotence rather than castration; his pupil remains impervious to his romantic advances, based on pedantic reasoning which later produces “prodigious” books of logic. Imaginative twists of the learned tradition and mischievous intertextual borrowings (“El lay de Aristóteles,” “De L'Osservatore,” “El ajolote,” “Homenaje a Otto Weininger”) have established Arreola's reputation for tour de force. Likewise, irreverence as subject and as procedure recurs throughout Mester. The rats of Agustín's “Súplica” are purists who devour the works of Dante, Virgil, Petrarch, Bocaccio or Tasso while they eschew the writings of Ionesco and Beckett. Until evolution erases the bias, the narrator, with tongue-in-cheek, proposes keeping the classics on high shelves—under lock and key. Avilés updates and concretizes myth in order to unmask today's malevolent prosaism. In “Minotauro,” the cosmic Beast, managed by a bullfighting firm, decimates the matador ranks. “Mitología publicitaria” reviews three highly successful commercial campaigns for a fashionable, Dantesque cabaret whose patrons engage in self-flagellation, for a swim club whose Sirens draw the clientele away from other establishments, and for a dietary supplement which Harpies advertise on television as the eradicator of overpopulation for its stimulation of cannibalism once food becomes scarce. Agustín's, Avilés's and Hiriart's blame-by-praise, contextual incongruity and mock-documentary style are clear manifestations of the younger writers' early affinity with Arreola's satirical tactics, especially in ingenious reworkings of legends and references.

Arreola's bookish proclivity has received wide recognition. Ojeda, Mester collaborator cum literary critic, describes how Arreola forges “literatura con la literatura … con el empleo de incrustaciones, resellos y amonedamientos … como una reverencia a la tradición y la memoria.”5 Rather than celebrating, however, Arreola deflates the cults of aesthetics, artifice and artisan. The recurrence of three salient modes (caricature of artists, satirical ars poetica, and parody or travesty) demonstrate that in their post-Mester production Agustin, Aviles and Hiriart share Arreola's renovative “flippancy” concerning their craft.

Confabulario contains several bathic homages to European Masters (d'Orléans, Villon, Góngora Da Vinci). “Allons voir si la rose …” exemplifies the series of burlesque biographic sketches. Ronsard's renowned carpe diem lyric (Mignonne, allons voir si la rose”) is turned against the poet; by reductio ad absurdum, Arreola converts Ronsard's botancial metaphors into a prosaic reality: “Ronsard asoló los jardines de Francia en segunda mitad del dieciséis, desflorando de mignonnes y mignonnettes las riveras del Loi y del Cher. … Fue en realidad el mejor coleccionista de rosas vivas, el minucioso herb lario ambulante de los senderos campestres, el cambalachero retórico que daba sonetos madrigales por virgos en flor.”6 By taking as fact other licentious verses supposedly based on Ronsard's personal conquests, Arreola knocks the great artist from his pedestal uniquely stressing the lustful human personality behind the craftsman.

Avilés and Hiriart take literalism and the critique one step further in their apocryphal biographic notes on sculptors who invert the process of immortalizing man in rock giving human form to the inanimate. Peter Stone of Avilés's apocalypse, “Las gorgona el vanguardismo en el arte,” invents an atomic chisel and founds a new school which practices the petrification of models. After speculating whether Cellini based his Perseus on the terror he felt upon contemplating his victim's severed head or, vice versa, if Italian purposefully cut off another's head in search of perfectionism and artistic fidel Hiriart transcribes two versions of “la historia del prodigioso escultor Ryunosuke Gum llamado el Tamarindo.”7 The tragic variant, that Gumba's daughter sacrificed hers palely competes with the satanic explanation that Gumba “mismo arrastró a su la sollozante hasta los horribles calderos y, para lograr la aleación perfecta que, como se sabe precisa devorar una doncella, arrojó a la muchacha al metal líquido.” Hiriart conclusion that the spectacle of Gumba's statue is terrifying; by implication, art itself frightens him because it is both marvelous and monstrous.

“Quién soy, dónde estoy, qué me dieron,” the first selection of Agustín's La mirada en el centro (1977), turns out to be a reprinting of his 1966 autobiography (José Agustín). With tongue-in-cheek, Agustín thus makes his inflated, conversational, adolescent memoir equivalent to fiction. But, he places as much significance on baseball and other trivial experiences as on his “career” in the arts. Moreover, there are numerous self-facetious remarks about his drawings (“idioteces”) and writings (“engendros,” “textículo”). One even finds a comically ambivalent anecdote about Agustín's first encounters with Arreola: “En esos días mi hermana Hilda me dijo fíjate que tengo un maestro en la Escuela de Teatro que es escritor, ¿vamos a verlo? Fuimos. … Regresé después, solo, con dos cuentos y dijo que aguantaban, pero todavía no sé si esos cuentos aguantaban porque mi hermana aguantaba o si en verdad aguantaban por sí mismos.”8 By representing himself as half buffoon/half enfant terrible, Agustín takes to their ultimate consequences his contemporaries' caricatures of imaginary “creators” and Arreola's deflating “life histories” of real writers.

Sardonic representations of creativity often accompany the belittling of the artist as devil or mere mortal for the “full knowledge of the tricks of any trade is only possible for those who are in the trade themselves, and since writers are more voluble than other men it follows that the trade which has been most fully satirized is that of writing.”9 Arreola purposefully opens the original, shorter version of Confabulario (1952) with “Parturient montes,” a modern version of Horace's famous maxim on the boastful artist whose volcanic rumblings produce a ludicrous mouse. In Arreola's gloss, the narrator, “con una voz falseada por la emoción, trepando en un banquillo de agente de tránsito” (67), retells the ancient tale for a menacing crowd. But, recreation becomes dramatization when not the mountains but the narrator, surrendering to authenticity, gives birth. As the incredulous spectators disperse, the I confesses that he is “dispuesto a ceder la criatura al primero que me la pida” (69). The mouse thus goes to an admiring female passer-by who wishes to take it home as a surprise for her cat. While “Parturient montes” has been read as a skeptical epigraph for the following inspired stories which will be read but not comprehended,10 it takes jabs not only at the audience but also at the writer, including Arreola, and at his creative offspring.

Avilés also questions vaulted artistic inspiration. His “El vampiro literario” equates “creativeness” with predation: “Ya en la biblioteca, el monstruo infernal prendió la pequeña lámpara del escritorio y sin mayores trámites tomó libros de Cervantes, Shakespeare, Poe, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, Hemingway … y se dispuso a beberles la sangre para escribir su novela.”11 In “El hombre seleccionado” divine influence permits a mediocre painter to produce live rather than lifelike works. Nonetheless, lacking genius or talent, he mass produces still lifes which create havoc since “cuando llovía mucho, el agua se escurría del cuadro estropeando la pared y la alfombra … invariablemente sus pescados, sus frutas, sus quesos, se pudrían despidiendo pésimos olores” (33). A mock-elegy, “Las musas,” completes “El hombre seleccionado.” While apparently lamenting the disappearance of the deities and in illo tempore when the only poetic task was the simple conjuring up of the goddesses, Avilés renders the inevitable, down-to-earth maxim for aspiring artists: work plus more work, discipline and rigor.

While Avilés debunks mimesis of reality or of the Masters, Hiriart composes a series of humorous critiques and ars poetica which trifle with modern experimentation and elitism. Three musings represent mock-reviews of new arte menor genres which ridicule literary conventions as well as the inventive gamesmanship and deception entailed in literariness. “Nuevos elementos de literatura telefónica” analyzes half-heard conversations and coded messages in which “la intensidad poética y la extravagancia en la erudición pueden llegar a límites de delirio difíciles de alcanzar” (78). “Servidumbre y grandeza del instructivo” concludes that “del género de los instructivos los más deslumbrantes son los deliberadamente contradictorios y confusos porque son los más puros, son los de mayor claridad literaria. Ahora que los espíritus que saben abandonarse a la metafísica prefieren los portentosos instructivos para leer instructivos de difícil lectura … cabe esperar que prospere entre nosotros el cultivo de esta literatura … que tan prudentes e imprudentes disfrutes nos puede proporcionar” (85). Likewise, “El arte de la dedicatoria” catalogues an almost ad infinitum variety of dedications (“conflictivas,” “eruditas,” “comprometedoras,” “misteriosas,” “excluyentes,” “de puro amor,” “contundentes,” “multitudianarias,” “con reconocimiento de culpa,” “para vejar,” “misantrópicas,” “misóginas,” “abstractas,” “disyuntivas,” “zoológicas”) which herald the death of texts: “Podemos pensar que el futuro es promisorio y nos sonríe: el día llegará en que ‘el mínimo homenaje’ o el clásico ‘a mis padres’ impliquen un tratado exhaustivo y vasto, y entonces ya no tendremos ni libros ni tratados, con lo que saldremos ganando en más de renglón, sino sólo amplias y extendidas dedicatorias” (183–84).

Agustín often engages in jestful ars poetica in praxis since he interrupts his fiction with comments on the work as it is being written. “Cuál es la onda” exemplifies his impish aesthetics. Typographic peculiarities draw attention to the text as a written script while the versification of descriptive prose and dialogue visually jar the reader. Asides fly in the face of literary norms, especially the principle of dramatic illusion. The autonomous world of fiction is ruptured by remarks to the readers which often denigrate them:

(Las cursivas indican énfasis;
no es mero capricho, estúpidos.)(12)

Agustín's conversational style and scatological puns challenge normal literary sensitivity:

Te amo y te extraño, clamó él.
Te ramo y te empaño, corrigió ella.
Te ano y te extriño, te mamo y te encaño, te tramo y te
engaño, quieres más, ahí van.


One response to the question posed in the title is the story's saucy enshrinement of the “unaesthetic.”

The play on words in the title of his collected short prose reveals Arreola's own seriocomic intention of challenging the canons of literature. Confabular means, of course, to do something illegal or contrary to the law. While the invented title indicates Arreola's capacity for linguistic innovation, it also implies his tampering with sacrosanct fictional norms. In a series of synthetic parodies which simplify the “Great Books,” Arreola formally imitates and plays practical jokes on several sacred cows of the humanistic tradition. Nonetheless, the stylistic frauds often contain inverted distortions of the mimicked texts' content and thus provide serious speculation on aesthetic values and on the relationship between art and the world. Via title and first sentence, (“En un lugar solitario cuyo nombre no viene al caso hubo un hombre que se pasó la vida eludiendo a la mujer concreta” [37]), “Teoría de Dulcinea” evidences its reduction of the various conflicts of Cervantes's masterpiece to one. Arreola condenses the novel to less than a page and limits its plot and gallery of characters to a solitary antithesis of flesh and blood versus “un pomposo engendro de fantasía” (37) which the protagonist pursues in his readings. Thus, fiction becomes sublimation but equated to evasion of reality or personal fulfillment. Death follows the failure of “la búsqueda infructuosa” (37). Similar to Cervantes's original purpose of satirizing books of chivalry, Arreola's parody of El Quijote debunks the heroic underpinnings of the literary tradition as delusion and deception.

Inferno V also parodies the epic mode through synthesis and manipulation:

En las altas horas de la noche, desperté de pronto a la orilla de un abismo anormal. Al borde de mi cama, una falla geológica cortada en piedra sombría se desplomó en semicírculos, desdibujada por un tenue vapor nauseabundo y un revuelo de aves oscuras. De pie sobre su cornisa de escorias, casi suspendido en el vértigo, un personaje irrisorio y coronado de laurel me tendió la mano invitándome a bajar.

Yo rehusé amablemente, invadido por el terror nocturno, diciendo que todas las expediciones hombre adentro acaban siempre en superficial y vana palabrería.

Preferí encender la luz y me dejé caer otra vez en la profunda monotonía de los tercetos, allí donde una voz que habla y llora al mismo tiempo, me repite que no hay mayor dolor que acordarse del tiempo feliz en la miseria.


Arreola's prosaic gloss of the lyrical vision of the Divine Commedy translates inspiration into actual occurrences while it contrasts the fictional world of the poem with reality. One reading of Inferno V identifies the I with Dante. The Italian poet's figurative references to sleeping, dreaming and awakening become physical activities for Arreola's Dante, the man. Confronted with the opportunity to experience his own allegory, Dante refuses and returns to the laborious task of poetic composition. Thus, as in “Teoría de Dulcinea,” literary creativity equals escapism. Another interpretation of Inferno V affords an equally skeptical view of art in relationship to life. The narrator, having fallen asleep while reading the Divine Commedy, awakens to or dreams a duplication of Dante's vision. Invited to live the spiritual voyage into the depth of being, the narrator declines, preferring to read fiction about human experience rather than engage in it. In essence, Arreola's renditions of Dante's and Cervantes's masterpieces disclose the Mexican's doubts about literature because of its artificiality and idealism.

Rather than concentrating on individual “Great Books,” Hiriart and Avilés offer humorous travesties of the masterworks of Western Civilization. Hiriart's “Los signos caligráficos” transcribes Chinese assessments and misreadings of the classics:

En un libro se habla de un delincuente a quien devoran el hígado unos pájaros (llamados endecasílabos), pero el hígado se regenera y así todos pueden seguir apreciando las artes del suplicio. … Otro cuento, también triste y confuso, es el de un noble criador de caballos llamado Odiseo que tiene un caballo enorme como un palacio. Este caballo por amor a su amo se traga sin masticar a muchos soldados. … Se conservan crónicas de los domadores más diestros y asombrosos, los que hacían hablar a la zorra, la tortuga, el león y los sapos (algunos improvisaban en verso). Carecen de interés los diálogos de estos animales, pero es notable la paciencia de domadores como Esopo. … Es costumbre, también, entre esta gente, registrar minusciosamente conversaciones famosas (menos interesantes aún que las de los animales).


By envisioning the humanistic sources of Western Culture, rather than the Oriental, as inscrutable and by divesting works of metaphor and mystery, “Los signos caligráficos” dethrones literary idols and throws doubt on Western literature as the preserve of universal human essence, greatness and meaning.

Avilé's “Menús literarios” envisions the restaurant-library or alimenteca offering “dietas literarias adecuadamente balanceadas.”13 The ludicrous mixing of culinary and literary realms and the play on the proverb, “no sólo del pan vive el hombre,” culminates in literature's metamorphosis into food. A librarian recites today's special:

‘Para abrir el apetito, un aperitivo hamsuniano: Hambre. Luego un coctel de frutas a escoger, entre La cosecha de frutos de Tagore o Los frutos de oro de la Sarraute. Un entremés hecho con páginas selectas de Los alimentos terrestres de Gide. Ensalada de rabanadas bibliográficas. Novela al gusto. Sopa efectivamente de letras, pero tomadas de las obras siempre alimenticias de Faulkner. La salsa picante es Tomato Miller, traída desde los Trópicos y el Pan, también de Hamsun, siempre está doradito. De plato principal, nada más suculento que trozos de la Comedia Humana. Como postre: El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan. Y: Charlas de café. Todo escrupulosamente sazonado con poemas de Mallarmé y gotas de añejo Chateaubriand’.


While “Menús literarios” satirizes reductionism it also represents a very literal spoof on good taste and on contemporary literary giants.

In “Las máscaras (farsa en un acto no muy extenso),” Avilés caricatures the Mexican artistic triumvirate (Paz, Fuentes, Cuevas) in the fictional troika (Guerra, Berriozábal, Culeid). Like Agustín whose “Cuál es la onda” loosely takes on the metaphysical, metafictional and linguistic preoccupations of Rayuela, the classic for the younger generation, Avilés travesties the major motifs of Fuentes's fiction. He parodies especially the epoch-making La región más transparente through a run-on, hyperbolic résumé offered by Berriozábal himself of his new novel:

‘El personaje principal, Quetzalcoatl-De Gaulle, vive simultaneamente dos planos en el subconsciente totalizador: el pasado, en el Gran Tenochtitlan, de donde sale y se pierde no sin dejar antes una leyenda, y el presente, cuando un francés llega a Nueva Utopía para la construcción del Metro y el hallazgo de unas ruinas prehispánicas al cavar los túneles lo enfrenta a su verdadera-y-doble personalidad: los recuerdos afluyen con brutalidad y los brincos de Nueva Utopía a Francia, de la Independencia a la Revolución Francesa, de Juárez a Napoleón III, de la Comuna a la Revolución de 1910 lo confunden y en él choca un conflicto de raza, de culturas, de épocas de idiomas. Al final, transtornado, hablando una mezcla de francés-español-náhuatl, camina por varias páginas de sostenida habilidad idiomática y se suicida con el gas de su encendedor.’14

By mocking works by literary stars of the Boom, Avilés and Agustín indirectly attack the inflated hubris of artists and the pompous pretentions to greatness of their artistic inventions.

By the mid-'60s, however, travesties of the national literary canon begin to flourish in Mexico as a means of satirizing official history, political rhetoric and Mexican culture. Arreola's La feria (1963) mimics the provincial novel and debunks the myth of Modern Mexico. Jorge Ibargüengoitia's spoof of la novela de la Revolución mexicana, Los relámpagos de agosto (1964), deflates the romance of the epic struggle. Ibargüengoitia will later take on la novela histórica and the heroes of Independence in his last novel, Los pasos de López (1981). In a more global, absolute fashion and in anticipation of the student protest movement of 1968, la onda desecrates all norms (social, political, moral, linguistic, cultural) of national identity. Commenting on Agustín, Jorge Ruffinelli suggests how transgressions of literature form part of la onda's confrontational posture:

El ejemplo más curioso lo confiere la literatura, y es un caso de autofagia ya que la literatura se ataca a sí misma, o por lo menos ataca algunos de sus hábitos metatextuales. En La tumba la reverencia ante un hombre como Hegel o Kafka se trueca por una suerte de alusión familiarizadora y de falsa confianza: Kafka es transformado en ‘Herr Kafka’ o en ‘Paco Kafka', Hegel en ‘Herr Hegel', y el narrador, acusado injustamente por su maestro de haber plagiado a Anton Chejov en un trabajo escrito, comienza a ser llamado ‘Chejovín', ‘Chejovito’. Estas transformaciones satirizantes buscan des-sacralizar ese ámbito de la cultura llamado ‘Bellas Letras', o simplemente Cultura con mayúsculas, y en tal sentido las alusiones en la literatura de José Agustín (predominantemente en los dos primeros libros) son innumerables.15

La onda's flaunting of nonstandard devices, exemplified by its use of urban, colloquial speech and the beat/rhythm of rock and roll, as well as its novel, strident subject matter concerning hip Mexican adolescents, drugs and sexual experimentation represent a calculated, flippant affront to the fictional canon as one other element of lo mexicano disparaged by onderos.

Antiauthoritarianism is also an obvious underpinning of caricatures which defrock the artist and jestful ars poetica which deconsecrate artistry. Besides subversiveness, the parodic desacralization of ancient and modern, including national, classics suggests, perhaps more clearly that the other two modes, another underlying principle. As countertexts, parodies also cultivate inventiveness since they are sophisticated linguistic and conceptual manipulations of preexistent works. Such imaginative distortions reach culmination in the literary hoax. Arreola himself executes artistic pranks in texts pretending to have authentic sources which turn out to be nonexistent (“Sinesio de Rodas,” “In memoriam,” “El himen en México”) and in numerous compositions masquerading as nonfictions (“Topos,” “Flash,” “Anuncio,” “Baby H. P.,” “Alarma para el año 2000,” “Informe de Liberia”). These latter, formal jokes are not innocent fun, however, because they expose the universal trend toward dehumanization in twentieth-century technological culture. Ingenious literary tricks which impishly disclose human, societal or national failings have gained currency in recent Mexican letters. Agustín's burlesque of the artist's autobiography (“Quién soy, dónde estoy, qué me dieron”) and Avilés's mock-bestiary (“Zoológico fantástico” [1969]) as well as his pseudo-utopia on political repression in a thinly-disguised Mexico, Nueva Utopía (y los guerrilleros) (1973), attest to the vitality of the formal hoax as satirical tool. Moreover, “novels” by generational cuates, who had no direct connection to Mester, are extended artistic gags which camouflage their serious intent of dissecting national reality. For example, Gustavo Sainz's La princesa del Palacio de Hierro (1974) and Federico Arana's Las jiras (1973) parade as artless oral histories by slangy, inane narrators (a model turned housewife and an ex-rocanrolero). Although they lack any direct evaluative comments, both narratives encourage readers to develop they own reflections on the illiteracy, amorality and alienation of modern Mexican culture.

On one of its many levels, Hiriart's Cuadernos de Gofa (1981) represents the ultimate verbal ruse—a compilation of apocryphal texts about an extinct, fabricated civilization. J. Ann Duncan calls Cuadernos de Gofa the “joyous apotheosis” of the parodic text which, through the reworking of multiple forms of writing (the epic, the detective story, the nouveau roman, acounts of archeological digs, the encyclopedia), invents an autonomous, fantasy world and a new genre that even deflates itself.16 Duncan summarizes that “the mimetic approach in Cuadernos de Gofa does not … have realism as its model but fiction, so that the author transcends mimesis in the creation of an alternate reality, a world where fantasy is so rational and logic so fantastical that the dichotomy is resolved in the unquestionable (sur)reality of the experience.”17

Indulgence of the demiurgic creative impulse becomes one of the dominant trends in Mexico in the '70s when metafictions proliferate. Like Cuadernos de Gofa, fiction-in-the-making mirrors the world of literature and enthrones inventiveness through an exploration of artistic technique and process. In “The Critique of the Pyramid and Mexican Narrative after 1968,” Jean Franco suggests that such literariness represents a response to national trauma in its attempt “to maintain a Utopian space for creative energy.”18 Metafiction's self-reflexivity and aestheticism have an unexpected similarity to la onda's antiliterary posture. Through iconoclasm in subject and procedure, each pursues sincerity and authenticity in art as well as in life.19 Moreover, in the '70s many Mexican works imaginatively combine relevancy and metafiction, iconoclasm and formalism. The narrator of Avilés's exposé on State repression during the 1968 protest movement, El gran solitario del Palacio (1971), is composing the text itself; he remains a frustrated writer seeking elusive truth through language made unreliable by official history which competes with and cancels out eyewitness accounts of the terror. Avilés's Tantadel (1975) concerns the self-destructive hermeticism, the neurotic power drive and the deceptive nature of Mexican machismo plus the paradoxical exposure to communication and truth entailed in the writing as well as in the reading of a lie (fiction). The “sociopathic” speaker, who drives away his lover (Tantadel) by his persistent lying, also doubles as honest author of the truthful account of the broken romance, composed for Tantadel. The narrative ends with a verbatim transcription of its introduction as Tantadel supposedly reads the novel. But, the last reading session turns out to be only another figment of the speaker-author's imagination. The final literary trick played on the real reader demonstrates the pervasive, antisocial deceptiveness of machismo but affirms the genuineness and creativity of aesthetic experience despite its basis in falsehood.

Agustín's El rey se acerca a su templo (1978) transcribes the hallucinations and mutterings of a Mexico City drug addict and the accounts of sexual nirvana told by a bourgeois urbanite. But, the novel blends coarse representationalism with ostentatious experimentalism for it is a mirror artefact. The two novelettes, with separate pagination but with identical covers, title pages and epigraphs, are printed as upside down versions of one another. Typographic and spatial oddities (exaggerated hyphens, abnormal indentions, pages divided into columns) disrupt the narration, calling attention to it as a crafted work. Authorial comments on the text's language are addressed directly to the real reader yet the latter has absolute freedom in choosing which novelette to read first. Thus, Agustín undermines fictional conventions while he furthers artistry and redefines mimesis of reality.

Arreola's relationship to the gamesmanship, irony and innovation of Mexican fiction after the early '60s, especially vis-á-vis la onda, has received little systematic scholarly attention in part because literary criticism takes itself too seriously to assess puckishness adequately, partly because short prose fiction is often viewed as a genre totally separate from the novel. On the other hand, considered the premier exponent of the formalist short story because of his refined style and taste for the esoteric, Arreola has been loosely associated with la escritura, too often viewed by critics as the rhetorical exercise of a baroque, escapist mentality. No attempt is made in this paper to suggest that Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart are servile disciples of Arreola nor that all of recent Mexican narrative derives from Confabulario. Julio Torri long ago condemned “este devaneo de querer concordarlo todo a través del tiempo y del espacio [que] prevalece en la crítica literaria del día, en cuyo reino todo es influencia.”20 Arreola's ingenious, formal subversions of the artistic tradition did, however, mark the successful insertion of ironic poetic license and of fictional insurgency into Mexican letters. In a major portion of their essentially iconoclastic work, Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart, along with other writers, have continued the assault on literary canons in order to preserve creativity and to comment critically on Mexico's reality.


  1. Luis Leal, “La literatura mexicana en el siglo XX–II (1940–1963),” Panorama das literaturas das Americas, IV (Angola: Ediçāo do município de Nova Lisboa, 1963), p. 2037.

  2. Jorge Arturo Ojeda, Documentos sentimentales 1963–1974 (México: Ediciones Mester, 1974), p. 163.

  3. Ross Larson, “La visión realista de Juan José Arreola,” Cuadernos americanos, XXIX, 4 (julio-agosto 1970), p. 232.

  4. José Luis Martínez, “Nuevas letras, nueva sensibilidad,” La crítica de la novela mexicana contemporánea, ed. Aurora M. Ocampo (México: UNAM, 1981), p. 193.

  5. Jorge Arturo Ojeda, ed, Antologia de Juan José Arreola (México: Ediciones Oasis, 1969), p. 12.

  6. Juan José Arreola, Confabulario, 4a ed. (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1966), p. 30. All citations from fictional works will be from the edition first cited in the notes.

  7. Hugo Hiriart, “Variaciones sobre el Gattamelata,” Disertación sobre las telarañas y otros escritos (México: Martín Casillas Editores, 1980), p. 51.

  8. José Agustín, La mirada en el centro, (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1977), p. 47.

  9. C. E. Vulliamy, The Anatomy of Satire (London: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1950), p. 309.

  10. Seymour Menton, “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story,” Hispania, 42 (1959), p. 306.

  11. René Avilés Fabila, Fantasías en earrusel, (México: Ediciones de Cultura Popular, 1978), p. 36.

  12. José Agustín, Inventando que sueño, 3a ed. (México. Joaquín Mortiz, 1975), p. 64.

  13. René Avilés Fabila, Hacia el fin del mundo (México: Fondo de Cultura Económiea, 1969), p. 31.

  14. René Avilés Fabila, Nueva Utopía (y los guerrilleros) (México: Ediciones “El Caballito,” 1973), p. 153.

  15. Jorge Ruffinelli, “Código y lenguaje en José Agustín,” La palabra y el hombre, 13 (1975), p. 61.

  16. J. Ann Duncan, Voices, Visions, and a New Reality: Mexican Fiction Since 1970 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), pp. 210–217. She also enumerates specific works and authors parodied by Hiriart.

  17. Duncan, p. 211.

  18. Jean Franco, “The Critique of the Pyramid and Mexican Narrative after 1968,” Latin American Fiction Today: A Symposium, ed. Rose S. Minc (Takoma Park, Maryland: Ediciones Hispamérica, 1979), p. 51.

  19. Duncan, p. 225, contends that the inclusion of “humor in serious works is related to the modern tendency to explode myths, to reveal realities stripped of appearances, and is hence closely linked with both the political attitudes of these writers and the wish to discard the myth of versimilitude [sic] in literature and to examine the illusion openly.” Duncan also discusses how recent parodic and innovative texts relate to the desire for truthfulness.

  20. Julio Torri, Tres libros (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1964), p. 21.

Carol Clark D'Lugo (essay date September 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4028

SOURCE: “Arreola's La feria: The Author and the Reader in the Text,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 33, No. 1, September, 1989, pp. 57–67.

[In the following essay, D'Lugo discusses the fragmented nature of La feria, its regionalistic aspects, and its universal appeal.]

Juan José Arreola's La feria is a unique blending of regionalism and universality, to the detriment of neither. Its regionalism is most evident in the content: an array of Mexican characters particular to Arreola's native Ciudad Guzmán, formerly Zapotlán el Grande; language replete with mexicanismos so crucial to the text that the translator for the English edition could not bring himself to mutilate the novel by translating certain of them; references to rural life which, although not specific to Mexico in theme (concern for the land, emerging sexuality, local literary groups), in treatment become the quintessence of Jalisco. La feria's universality, on the other hand, can be traced directly to form, for its creative use of fragmentation links Arreola to a family of twentieth-century authors who, through innovative narrative strategies, force their readers into an awareness of the need to work actively with the given text.

Any examination of La feria must take into consideration its fragmented status, for Arreola's treatment of this technique cannot be ignored. While some critics have addressed the issue of fragmentation, however, what has not been fully explored is the special relationship between story and discourse, and the manner in which these two aspects of the novel are reflective of a desired reader response. In La feria, diegetic and discursive elements consistently point toward a designated process for an active reader's role. Throughout the novel, whether reflected in actions, images, or language, one perceives a movement from the individual to the collective, from the microcosmic unit to the whole, thus drawing the reader's attention to the process of unification. As a consequence of the repetition of this technique, one becomes aware of the dramatization of a possible cohesiveness attainable by responding to the author's inducing the reader to work with the fragments to forge a whole, to construct and/or complete the novel that is La feria. To reinforce this notion, Arreola offers his readers a negative example of potential response. He includes as a model of a reader-in-the-text one who remains distanced from that which he would understand. At the same time, this character voices the contrast between an active and a passive reading of circumstance, hence of narrative. While the active reading not only takes more effort, but also reveals a more painful reality, it is, finally, the more satisfactory and fulfilling. It offers a complete experience that provides multiple levels of significance for the reader.

By its fragmentation, La feria calls attention to its status as a non-whole. Yet through elements of story, the text offers its readers an example of a role which will fulfill the novel's potential through their active involvement with the segments. The fragments cry out for unification. Indeed, one might say that in Arreola's novel, on various levels, story represents the dramatization of the desire of its discourse.

John Upton calls La feria “a gallery of voices,” a complimentary phrase as used by the translator, yet also the source of initial disorientation for the reader. In this novel a wide variety of characters speak out in an ample spectrum of discourses. Generally the narration is in the first person, although there are exceptions. The reader is exposed to, among others an Indian tlayacanque who comments on the indigens' claim to the land; a shoemaker who decides to try his luck at farming; a preadolescent experiencing sexual feelings and confessing all; a ladies' man flaunting sexual prowess; a few prostitutes and their madam; a poetess who sells cosmetics as a complement to her erotic verse; assorted shopkeepers; a budding poet recording his efforts to court a young girl; and San José, the patron saint of Zapotlán. One meets the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the experienced sexually obsessed and the innocent sexually obsessed. Characters either speak out themselves or are spoken about; rarely do they speak to each other. Some voices appear with frequency, others surface but once; some are identified, others are left anonymous. Frequently the readers must make their own identification through the content of the speech: references to the narrator's profession; certain peculiar characteristics traceable to one personage; an indication of reciprocity in a relationship about which the reader has been informed from the other point of view; reiteration of language or theme. Complicating matters even further is the inclusion of recorded voices from historical documents, newspapers, even the Bible. The reader's initial reaction is very likely to be that the fragments have been thrown together haphazardly, as Raúl Chávarri comments: “puestas una tras otra, al azar.”

Arreola divides his text into 288 fragments, a self-referential strategy flaunting non-linearity, a lack of respect for traditional norms of narrative continuity. He then further calls attention to this truncated discourse by inserting a variety of vignettes, one for each space between fragments. (pp. 57–9)

Contiguous fragments at times demonstrate the use of perspectivism, that is, different points of view in relation to the same occurrence. Frequently, however, contiguity yields nothing more than spatial concurrence, as the segments seem totally unrelated. In addition, one finds sections dating from Colonial times, the Reforma, and the Revolution intercalated into those of the “present,” the latter not identified by a year, but clearly established as a linear movement from the spring sowing to the autumn harvest and October fair, as reinforced by the farmer's notes and the young poet's diary.

Certain linear coherence within an apparently otherwise unordered discourse, in fact, soon lessens the reader's initial disorientation. For, despite a great variety of narrative voices and forms, certain definite linear episodes are clearly discernible. Arreola himself has identified five: “Los fragmentos componen cuatro o cinco series bastante evidentes. Ellas son las labores agrícolas, la lucha por la tierra, las veladas de los miembros del Ateneo, las confesiones del niño, los amores del joven poeta. …” To this I would add the Licenciado's funeral, important not only for its linear development, but also for its bringing together of story, discourse, and reader's role, as shall be demonstrated below.

Arreola confesses to having had the intention of writing a novel in the traditional manner or, in his words: “puro y extendido, esto es, continuo.” Soon, however, he found himself disillusioned with what he had written; it lacked the rhythm he desired. Recognizing the quality of some shorter sections and relating them to his earlier works consisting of brief pieces led Arreola to an idea for a new approach: “… una idea que se ha vuelto convicción: la de captar mis impresiones del mundo y mis estados anímicos, esto es, las reacciones ante lo que moralmente me acontece, en pequeños textos o relatos que tratan de resumir mi concepción del mundo.” Arreola mixed his creative sections based on his experiences in Ciudad Guzmán with the aforementioned written excerpts from actual documents plus biographical information requested from some of his fellow-citizens and incorporated almost verbatim. The sections are all brief and evocative in some way of life in Zapotlán, with special emphasis on language.

In an interview with Gustavo Sainz, Arreola in a sense justifies his selected discourse by contrasting the twentieth-century author with his nineteenth-century counterpart. As paraphrased by Yulan Washburn [in his Juan José Arreola]: “Arreola says that the twentieth-century writer's mind is simply not the same as that of the earlier writers who developed so many of the techniques that have come to be associated with the novel. The interior of the mind and memory are not made up of long discourses.” Washburn goes on to compare Arreola's fragmented discourse to the sensorial impressions one would experience in a stroll through an actual fair:

He … put his novel together so that it entered the readers' mind in much the same way that the readers would perceive reality if they were walking through a fair: they would encounter people they did not know and would never get to know; they would hear passing scraps of conversation, exclamations, and tones of voice; they would see faces at one point and reencounter them at another, never knowing their names. If the readers were attentive they might learn the stories of a few passers-by. In a sense everything would be a confusion, but it would be a confusion familiar to every reader in life as it is actually lived every day by the consciousness.

Arreola's analogy of the same process is even more provocative, as he makes a comparison between his novel and: “… un archipiélago de pequeños islotes que al fin y al cabo suponían bajo la superficie de los hechos narrados una masa continental. Esto es, la novela probable de la cual sólo he querido dar, finalmente, una serie de puntos o de situaciones agudas.”

Here, without mentioning it explicitly, Arreola touches upon the reader's role, for to reach the “continental mass,” the probable novel requires movement, activity. It is important to note that the author does not impose strict limits on his readers: the outcome is la novela probable, not a clearly defined construct. Arreola does, however, incorporate through story and discourse a suggestion of what type of activity or movement on the part of the reader will initiate the process, beginning with a subtle indication of grouping in the fragments related to the Licenciado's funeral.

Although manifesting multiple narrative voices, segments sixty-four through eighty-three all relate to one occurrence: the death and burial of the usurer. Until this point in the novel, the voices, although possibly speaking about the same theme (land, for example), did not reach out to each other in communication but, instead, spoke in isolation. Speakers were as disconnected as fragments. Beginning with section sixty-four, one finds for ten pages communication among characters as well as cohesiveness among fragments, since each successive segment yields more information. As the multiple perspectives are combined by readers to form a more ample vision, they begin to understand the inadequacy of one point of view. Characters group together, either to bury the Licenciado or to gossip about him; fragments are united into a cohesive whole; finally, readers have illustrated before them tangible evidence that combining certain parts can produce a unit. This piece of story reflects both discourse and reader's participation, making readers aware of the attempts at grouping they have already made in response to the initial incoherence of the fragmented text. The Licenciado's funeral is, in effect, a dramatization of the reader's activity and a confirmation of the positive results attainable through involvement with the text.

Significantly, there are other pieces of story subsequent to the Licenciado's funeral which reinforce the notion of grouping, of going from the individual to the collective. Those who owe money to the deceased speak of forming a debtors' association; some with literary leanings decide to form the Ateneo for cultural exchanges. Gradually, following the story-induced impetus, the reader moves beyond the more superficial level of grouping individual stories (all the confessional scenes; the farmer's notes) to a more profound stratum of artistic composition where other aspects of Arreola's masterfully controlled unity are waiting to be discovered.

Once readers allow themselves to move in and among the fragments, they find that the movement from the individual to the collective is reflected throughout the novel, giving it a cohesiveness which could not be appreciated from a more distanced view. In this sense, the reader's role can be seen in contrast to the vision of the whole reflected by the priest's ascending a nearby hill to view Zapotlán:

Veía el valle como lo vio la primera vez Fray Juan de Padilla, sólo por encima: “Pero yo, Señor, lo veo por debajo. ¡Qué iniquidad, Dios mío, qué iniquidad! Un río de estulticia me ha entrado por las orejas, incesante como las aguas que bajan de las Peñas en las crecidas de julio y agosto. Aguas limpias que la gente ensucia con la basura de sus culpas … Pero desde aquí, desde arriba, qué pueblo tan bonito, dormido a la orilla de su valle redondo, como una fábrica de adobes, de tejas y ladrillos.

It is true that the priest's vision unites Zapotlán spatially and serves as a temporal unifier, joining the priest and Fray Juan de Padilla. The priest's own words, however, indicate the inadequacy of such a distanced vision. From afar, one can appreciate the picturesque quality of the sleepy town. But such a vision is a distortion of reality as the priest knows it; reality, for him, involves the souls of the people, and to know the people, one must be among them and interact with them.

The priest is, in effect, a dramatization of the reader-in-the-text. Contrasting his two visions, one passive from above, the other active and involved, one perceives a direct parallel with the reader's role. Readers of La feria cannot remain distanced from its fragments without sacrificing the dynamism of the novel. They must move mentally among the segments relating the pieces of discourse, characters, and images.

Readers who undertake such involvement will appreciate the unity of La feria. As a specific example, movement from the individual to the collective transcends fragments to yield a cohesiveness indicative of Arreola's controlled artistic vision, both of the novel and of the suggested reader's role. I will examine the more important indicators of collectivity giving special attention to imagery and language. Instead of two hundred candles costing one peso apiece, don Fidencio is asked to construct one massive candle at the price of two hundred pesos. Because of inclement weather, the private funeral oration will instead be published in the newspaper for all to read. The farm laborers join the majordomo is tossing their hats to the ground, where the individual units fall into the shape of a cross. Even sexual pecadillos are spatially unified in the infamous Zona de Tolerancia. Through language Arreola reinforces the reader's awareness of unification, as he has a character comment on the new arrangement: “Más vale tener un lugar de a tiro echado a la perdición, que no todas esas lacras desparramadas por el cuerpo de Zapotlán.”

Wording once again emphasizes movement from the individual to the collective with regard to the confessional scenes. At first, the young boy confesses, on an individual basis, to having had thoughts about sex. Quickly the reader is brought to associate the words, “Me acuso Padre,” with the boy's part and thus should be well prepared for the collective confession after the earthquake which begins: “Me acuso Padre de Todo.” The rest of the fragment, the longest of the novel, details a chaotic series of confessed sins which pulls together the towns-people to such an extent that the priests decide a single Ego te absolvo will suffice. Circularity within the mass confession reinforces its unified status: it begins and ends with “Me acuso Padre de que me robé una peseta.” Even more impetus to consider the unity of the confession section is provided by the infrequency of periods of provide closure. Generally, individual voiced confessions are joined by commas, with occasional suspension points or exclamation marks. Mauricio Ostria notes the paradoxical nature of fragmentation's producing unity, precisely in the lengthy confession:

Cada frase es una voz; cada voz un narrador que se relaciona de modo personal—y por lo tanto original—con los sucesos a que se refiere y con el interlocutor. La fragmentación ha llegado, pues, a su máxima expresión. Sin embargo, mágicamente, los fragmentos narrativos se han unido indisolublemente hasta dar origen a un nuevo ser; el ser del pueblo: acontecer colectivo coreado por la comunidad, vinculada en un solo acto, acto de fe personal y comunitario: todo el pueblo es el acontecer, el narrador y el interlocutor. Es ésta una nueva forma narrativa que no ha sido todavía suficientemente apreciada.

Finally, language alone is capable of fostering a sense of collectivity. A reference within the text to “la gran familia mexicana” during the annual celebration of independence may not seem unusual enough to call the reader's attention, but the beginning of the novel clearly announces a sense of collectivity: “Somos más o menos treinta mil. Unos dicen que más, otros que menos. Somos treinta mil desde siempre.” In its privileged position, the first word of La feria is a signifier of plurality: Somos. Significantly, Arreola has stated: “El pasaje que condensa el espíritu del libro es el primero.”

With such an emphasis on the movement from the individual to the collective with people, with objects, and with fragments, it comes as no surprise that there is also unity in theme. Chávarri gives particular mention to death, which he considers a classic theme for recent Mexican novelists. Death is not the most pervasive thematic unifier, however; it does not unite enough of the characters. By far the most thorough and persuasive treatment of theme in La feria is that of Luis Leal, who clearly demonstrates that the thematic unifier for individuals, collectives and institutions is el fracaso: failure. (pp. 59–63)

Leal sums up the multiple failures, linking them with what he considers the critical motif of the novel, the fair: “Todos estos personajes fracasados, todas estas instituciones fracasadas, todos estos santos, reyes virreyes, curas, señores y monseñores impotentes para detener la marcha hacia el fracaso, han sido hábilmente integrados, como en un mosaico, en obra narrativa cuyo motivo central es la feria.” The novel culminates in the fair, and it, too, is a failure. Vandals spill kerosene about the bases of the castillo's platform then quickly ignite them. Interestingly the final narrative voice combines audience (reader) response with the by now predictability of another failure: “En vez de arder parte por parte y en orden previsto por don Atilano, ya se imaginarán lo que pasó. El estallido fue general y completo, como el de un polvorín.” The passage is also strikingly evocative of a reading of La feria. It is hard to read this novel, fragment by fragment, without having one's mind actively attempt to relate parts. This penultimate image would seem to suggest a source for the following description by Arreola: “La feria pertenece al género de los apocalipsis del bolsillo, y por lo tanto es natural que sus páginas recojan fragmentos, textuales o deformados, de la más variada tradición oral y escrita. …”

Arreola moves the reader beyond the fragments through grouping, through imagery, through themes which transcend the segmented discourse. Readers combine and contrast the multiple narrative voices for, to whom are these voices speaking if not to them? There seems to be little consensus among characters, even less communication. The reader must unite these limited, isolated visions (fragments), joining the characters efforts, opinions, emotions, and failures to form a fuller vision of Zapotlán past and present. There is a reality beyond these fragments, alluded to in epigraph:

Amo de moun pais, tu que dardais manifesto
E dins sa lengo e dins sa gesto

F. Mistral

This exerpt in modern Provençal from Calendau by Frédéric Mistral evokes the ultimate reality as the soul of one's country, here used in the Spanish sense of patria chica. Even more crucial in relationship to La feria, however, is the revelation of soul through words and deeds. From each narrative voice the reader is directly exposed to a perspective of it in Zapotlán. There is no intervention, no extraneous person to color the reader's interpretation. To be sure, no one voice, no one character is capable of a true vision of the whole. The only character who attempts to conceive a whole from a singular perspective forms a distorted vision from afar. Not even the author can capture the total reality of Zapotlán, not in narrative description. Arreola must evoke that reality through fragmentation, through pieces of life as represented by words and deeds, and allow the readers to construct their versión of Zapotlán. The totality of these constructions might approach the real.

One reviewer has written of La feria that it cannot be told to someone else, it must be read: “La feria, como tiene el mérito de ser obra para ser leída, no puede contarse. En su corriente de opinión estriba el argumento para cada pasaje. Paso a paso con la vida pueblerina hay que hacer anales para explicarse el espectáculo.” The work is to be experienced. The reader must move in and among the fragments to sense a whole. There really is no need to make a chronological ordering of all events, as the second portion of this passage might suggest. To do so is tantamount to mutilating the text. … (pp. 65–6)

Nor could the author of La feria change discourse without doing irreparable damage to his conception. Arreola has spoken with some frequency of his work as a manifestation of poetry in prose. His reader must therefore be able to receive the work in the same spirit. Any reader who remains passive, waiting to be told a full story, will either give up or dismiss the work as a bad novel, as at least one critic has done: “Arreola ama la vida y ama la literatura. Le falta la idea que le arrastra a escribir la obra que espera, que necesita. Por eso, frente al compromiso editorial, escribe la mala novela, pero honrado, toma las tijeras y corta y recorta hasta dejar el manuscrito en una serie de cuadros sobre la realidad mexicana” (Martínez Palacio).

But this is to remain passive before a very evocative text, to ignore poetic stimuli of this prose. Arreola's own words defend him best. In an interview with Mauricio de la Selva, Arreola comments on poetry but with a clear linkage to his literary production and notion of reader response:

… el poema es una estructura verbal que dizque encierra la poesía, y yo siento que ese hueco formal, por dentro, nos da la sensación, y nos da la sensación porque nosotros lo llenamos, nosotros lo colmamos. El poeta en realidad crea el vaso. Y aquí si hay que citar la boutade de André Gide, que decía: “crea una forma bella, porque una idea más bella todavia vendrá a habitarla”; y esa “idea más bella todavía” es lo que nosotros formamos.

Arreola's appreciation of the poetic nature of his prose becomes even more apparent when he speaks about language:

… ese lenguaje al que aspiro y al que me he acercado alguna vez el lenguaje absoluto, el lenguaje puro que da un rendímiento mayor que el lenguaje frondoso, porque es fértil, porque es puro tronco y lleva en sí el designio de las ramas. Este lenguaje es de una desnudez potente, la desnudez poderosa del árbol sin hojas … Tal vez mi obra sea escasa, pero es escasa porque constantemente la estoy podando. Prefiero los gérmenes a los desarrollos voluminosos, agotados por su propio exceso verbal … El árbol que desarrolla todas sus hojas, hasta la última, es un árbol agotado, un árbol donde la savia está vencida por su propia plenitud.

Arreola sows so that the reader might reap. His work is suggestion, evocation, and the fragmented structure of La feria serves his stated purpose well. Instead of burying readers in excessive verbiage, trying to relay everything about life in Zapotlán, he shows enough respect to allow them to supply the leaves for the tree in an individualized arrangement of a whole. Arreola achieves a shaping of reader response in an inobtrusive way, letting diegetic and discursive elements function within the text in such a manner so as to dramatize for the reader a potential process for unification without an overtly intervening authorial presence. Readers of La feria are indeed privileged: respected for their competence, allowed their artistic freedom, and privy to the experience of Zapotlán through a joint creation. (pp. 66–7)

Stamos Metzidakis (essay date May 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4124

SOURCE: “From Poetic to Prosaic Animal Portraits: Arreola's ‘El Elefante,’” in Romantic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 473–82.

[In the following excerpt, Metzidakis, a professor at Washington University, argues that Arreola's story “El Elefante,” while being built on the foundation of past bestiary poems, constitutes a marked transformation of the genre.]

What shall generally concern me here is the genre known as the “bestiary.” As a codified genre, the bestiary has existed since its first “official” appearance in Le Roman de Renart in 12th-century France. It has taken on many different forms and can be traced to many different cultures. From Aesop to Jean de La Fontaine, and from the French Parnassians to the Surrealists, single portraits of animals have also served as central elements of many literary works outside of the strict context formed by the bestiary. But a striking change occurs in this aesthetic treatment of animals the closer we get to our own time. Following the general shift from poetry to prose visible in most modern Western literatures, the bestiary takes on a whole new look when it assumes—as it does, in the case of the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola—the formally different configuration of a collection of prose poems. This situation gives rise to several critically significant questions: 1) What is implied by this shift from versified poems to prose? 2) In what sense does Arreola's own scriptural practice justify his choice of the prose poem for his animal portraits? And finally, 3) how should our subsequent perception and appreciation of Arreola's modern Bestiario change when we consider his statement that the most important aspect of his writing was his “oblique view of the world?”1

To answer these questions, we first need to look at several examples of what we could call the elephant's “literary history.” This is the most appropriate way to start since, without first appreciating the elephant's aesthetic heritage, we will be hard-pressed to grasp the semiotic and semantic fullness of Arreola's 1958 text, “El elefante.” As Francis Ponge taught us to understand in his influential Le Parti pris des choses (1942), the peculiarly modern view of objects or animals determines to a large extent the particular poetics behind any such literary portrait. If we do not compare modern views of animals with earlier ones, we might erroneously presume modern texts to be totally “original.”

Once the history of the elephant portrait or image is ascertained, however, the originality of Arreola's “El elefante” should find itself, theoretically anyway, in need of re-assessment. A re-assessment of the prose poem's specificity will thus be the inevitable result of a comparative reading of this particular portrait. In questioning the portrait of the elephant as a young image my purpose is less to undermine Arreola's work than to put it in its rightful place within the history of what we think of as modern literary practice.

Many comparative studies of animals that have been described poetically begin with Aesop. The obvious advantage of starting with the Greek bard is that, like Uncle Remus, Aesop furnished a certain segment of the Western literary community with a body of anonymous lore that reflects a widespread communal mythology. We know, in fact, very little about Aesop himself. Instead, what we possess are innumerable adaptations of his fables, mostly in rime, that have been handed down by many generations, in several different literatures. This means that whatever particular animal characteristics we extract from the adaptations themselves can legitimately be considered as common elements of our (Western) society's general poetic view of these animals.

Two of his fables provide us with some interesting details concerning literary elephants.2 In “The Lion and the Elephant,” for instance, one initially finds a cowardly lion, one whose affliction is caused by an irrational fear of the much smaller rooster. No one seems able to console this lion except for a female elephant who comes along as he sits in fear. Besides the sex of this elephant, however, the modern translator of the fable insists on one other feature that appears almost to define the elephant. The feature consists of the constant flapping of her ears:

And since the elephant flopped and flapped,
So busy that she never stopped or napped,
The lion asked why she kept flapping and flopping.
“Ah,” said she, “for me there's no stopping.
See these gnats? If I don't fan them,
They fly for my ears and try to get in them!
[…] When it comes to gnats, I'm scared to death!

Realizing how lucky he is, the lion then reveals to us the proverbial morale to the fable by saying:

… I am as lucky as one can well be
And I am as much more lucky than she [the elephant]
As a rooster is bigger than a gnat.

The elephant, who is larger than the lion, serves thus as a sign to the lion that size is not really the main issue when one deals with emotions like fear. Her large proportions in reality are thereby effectively nullified by the verse so that the poet might instead underscore the relativity of a more “important” abstraction, to wit, fear.

In another fable, “The Elephant's Speech,” the mammoth's sagacity, physical presence, and longevity are what come to the fore as the predominant features of the animal. It begins:

A wise old elephant hoped to move
All of the creatures to change and improve.
So he got up at one of the meetings,
And after the usual grunts and greetings
He gave a long sermon in which he spoke …

As he speaks, certain animals in the audience begin to mock him, or else, to fall asleep, even though they all know that “improvement was their greatest need.” When finished, he resigns himself to nothing the following about the advice he has just graciously offered:

I see that the only ones who will heed it
Are those who I'm happy to say don't need it.

In both texts, Aesop paints a portrait of the elephant as a large, imposing, patient, wise, and sensitive creature, one whose symbolic value to the fables is curiously similar to that of biblical personages like Job and Methuselah. Solid associations between these creatures, their immediate physical environments, and their connections to the past are thus established, both mythologically and poetically, right from the beginning of the elephant's genealogy within the bestiary tradition.

Jumping now over many centuries and cultures, we discover a slightly different portrait of elephants in the fables of Jean de La Fontaine.3 In “Le Rat et l'Eléphant”/The Rat and the Elephant, for example, the rat pokes fun at the larger animal's corpulence and laughs at how slowly the latter moves. He admits nonetheless that the elephant is “de haut parage”/from a great and aged race. Still, he is amazed to observe that “cette pesante masse”/this weighty mass can stir the emotions of people who see him walking down the road, as if a creature's capacity to take up space were directly proportional to his importance and standing in the world:

Comme si d'occuper ou plus ou moins de place,
Nous rendait … plus ou moins importants!
As if taking up more or less space,
Rendered us … more or less important.

In the rat's eyes, such massiveness merely scares children, and as such, should not be privileged any more than his own smallness. Yet, as the end of the fable makes clear, size does indeed matter in the world, for a cat, leaping out of his cage, comes to attack the rat. In less than an instant, the cat proves that “un Rat n'est pas un éléphant”/a Rat is not an elephant.

In another of La Fontaine's texts, the point of size seems every bit as moot as it did in Aesop's fables. At the start of the piece “L'Eléphant et le Singe de Jupiter”/The Elephant and Jupiter's Monkey, we find an elephant disputing the central position of authority with a rhinoceros. Thinking that his physical superiority entitles him in Jupiter's eyes to claim authority over the animal kingdom, the God's messenger surprises the elephant by informing him that, contrary to what we might call his “popular belief,”

… dans le conseil des Dieux,
Les petits et les grands sont égaux à leurs yeux.
… in the Council of Gods,
the big and the small are equal in their eyes

In this case, the elephant's largeness enjoys no particular prestige, and therefore constitutes no good reason for him to think that he deserves any kind of special treatment vis-à-vis the real authorities in the universe.

Regardless of specifics, then, all four of these instances demonstrate, at the very least, that the elephant's physicality, size, age, and behaviour function as potential guarantors of his stature and privileges. These supposed traits act as semiotic markers of the elephant within the world of pre-modern poetry, if not also, in the extra-textual reality of ancient Greece or classical France. What is significant to note in each of these fables, however, is that the traits ascribed to the elephant are little more than convenient pre-texts for the anthropomorphic musings of their authors. Aesop and La Fontaine seem less interested in the reality of the elephant per se, than in using certain poetically-legitimized elephant features to make moralistic points for their readers. In other words, the elephants themselves as literary figures re-present only those communally accepted features that pertain to the ulterior motives of the fabulist. To complete this examination of the poetic prototypes for Arreola's prose poem “El elefante,” we can now consider an even more recent example, Leconte de Lisle's celebrated 19th-century poème barbare, titled “Les Eléphants.”4 Having set his scene in an extraordinarily empty desert, in which there is “nulle vie et nul bruit”/no life and no sound, the Parnassian poet dramatically introduces his elephants into a space where “tout dort aux mornes solitudes”/everything sleeps in mournful solitude. The creatures, described as rugged, slow, and bulky travellers, appear in this desert like huge “masses brunes”/brown masses. As with the other parts of this now-familiar poetic portrait, the head animal in this troop is depicted, as one might have expected, as a “vieux chef”/old chief (my emphasis). His body is “gercé comme un tronc que le temps ronge et mine”/cracked like a tree trunk that time has consumed and devoured. As his companions continue their trek, a thousand aroused insects buzz all around them: “Et bourdonnent autour mille insectes ardents.”

But, at a certain key point of the poem, marked by the important conjunction “mais,”/but, the poet suddenly decides to stop his poetic expansion of the elephants' material existence. He asks, “Mais qu'importent la soif et la mouche vorace?”/What does their hunger or the voracious fly matter? Who cares, he asks, whether the sun burns “leur dos noir et plissé”/their black and bent backs? The only thing that matters to them (and, by extension, to us, implies De Lisle) is that the elephants are dreaming about their long-last homeland, about “des forêts de figuiers où s'abrita leur race”/forests of fig-trees where their ancestors sought refuge. The material present is, therefore, rendered secondary both to the elephants' past as well as to their future. This is why the poem ends with the passing of the animals into oblivion, into the horizon, “comme une ligne noire”/like a black line. When they have completely disappeared from the poet's eye, “le désert reprend son immobilité”/the desert takes back its immobility, and the poem ends.

Turning now to Arreola's text, let us ask whether anything about it sheds light either on this particular portrait of traditional bestiaries, or on the workings on the modern prose poem. Here is the complete text:


Viene desde el fondo de las edades y es el último modelo terrestre de maquinaria pesada, envuelto en su funda de lona. Parece colosal porque está construido con puras células vivientes y dotado de inteligencia y memoria. Dentro de la acumulación material de su cuerpo, los cinco sentidos funcionan como aparatos de precisión y nada se les escapa. Aunque de pura vejez hereditaria son ahora calvos de nacimiento, la congelación siberiana nos ha devuelto algunos ejemplares lanudos. ¿Cuantos años hace que los elefantes perdieron el pelo? En vez de calcular, vámonos todos al circo y juguemos a ser los nietos del elefante, ese abuelo pueril que ahora se bambolea al compás de una polka …

No. Mejor hablemos del marfil. Esa noble sustancia, dura y uniforme, que los paquidermos empujan secretamente con todo el peso de su cuerpo, como una material expresión de pensamiento. El marfil, que sale de la cabeza y que desarrolla en el vacío dos curvas y despejadas estalactitas. En ellas, la paciente fantasía de los chinos ha labrado todos los sueños formales del elefante.


The elephant comes from way back in time and is the last earthly model of heavy machinery, wrapped in its canvas sheath. It seems colossal because it is constructed with pure living cells and endowed with intelligence and memory. Inside the material accumulation of its body, its five senses function like precision instruments. Nothing escapes them. Though because of pure hereditary old age the elephant is now bald at birth, frozen Siberia has given us some woolly examples. How many years ago did the elephant lose its hair? Instead of trying to figure it out, let's all go to the circus and pretend we are grandchildren of the elephant, that childish grandfather who now sways to the rhythm of a polka …

No. Let's talk instead about ivory, that noble substance, hard and uniform, which pachyderms secretly push with all their body's might, like a material expression of thought. The ivory, which protrudes from the head and develops in the vacuum two curved, bright stalactites on which the Chinese with patient fantasy have carved all the elephant's formal dreams.5

In the first place, one cannot help but note that all of the essential attributes found earlier come together in “El elefante” to form a clear mental image of the elephant: old age, a connection to the distant past, massive size, even intelligence. Yet, unlike the pre-modern fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, Arreola's text immediately insists on the physical basis of any abstract concepts which earlier writers attributed to the elephant. Although he “viene desde el fondo de las edades”/comes from way back in time, the poet does not jump to the typical poetic “conclusion” that he is thereby endowed with the human quality of wisdom. Rather, he first underscores that he is

el último modelo terrestre de maquinaria pesada, envuelto en su funda de lona.

the last earthly model of heavy machinery, wrapped in its canvas sheath.

The concrete term “funda”/sheath, through its phonemic repetition of the abstract temporal concept of “el fondo (de las edades)”/[literally, at the bottom or end] (of the ages) thus establishes a close connection between the concrete and abstract from the very start. It functions as a formal model that will be copied throughout the rest of the text.

The next sentences then develop this connection by stating that the elephant only “parece”/seems colossal, because the elephant is “construido”/constructed with living cells and is endowed with intelligence and memory. The five senses are described as “aparatos de precisión”/precision instruments, as if to expand on the notion that the elephant only seems to be a colossal, animate object. The hyperbole constituted by the phrase, “nada se les escapa”/nothing escapes them, merely exacerbates our problem in visualizing a real, credible, sentient being that might be used as a pre-text for a poet's anthropomorphic musings and myths about elephants, such as we saw in the previous versified portraits. In this instance, the abstraction of mechanical infallibility is fused with the elephant's actual sensorial apparatus. After this, the question of the animal's age begins to intrigue Arreola, not as a sign of the mammouth's intelligence, but as a significant feature in itself. We learn, for instance, that Siberia has provided us with “algunos ejemplares lanudos”/some woolly exceptions to what we could call a “poetic” rule, the rule that equates an elephant's baldness in non-prose poems with human old age, and consequently, with sagacity. One can hardly imagine a need to underline such exceptions in the other kind of versified poem we have heretofore examined. In those poems, the aim was to make of the elephant what earlier bestiaries made of all animals: non-human figures with human traits.

So, when Arreola asks rhetorically how many years ago this creature lost its hair, we realize that his prose poem no longer really concerns itself with the traditional connections between age, baldness, and wisdom. Instead he says,

En vez de calcular, vámonos todos al circo y juguemos a ser los nietos del elefante, ese abuelo pueril que ahora se bambolea al compás de una polka …

Instead of trying to figure it out, let's all go to the circus and pretend we are grandchildren of the elephant, that childish grandfather who now sways to the rhythm of a polka …

The elephant's mythical past is thereby effectively negated, leaving only the raw fact of his ridiculous material presence within our collective vision of him. What interests the poet now about the animal is his reality, his reality as viewed and experienced anew, that is, as it might be perceived innocently and “objectively” by little grandchildren. The second paragraph makes this point even more forcefully. Beginning with the single word, “No,” Arreola turns his back on abstractions like wisdom and mythical pasts and suggests that instead of talking about them, we should talk about ivory (“marfil”). Why ivory? In all probability, because this substance is the most obvious concrete, un-abstract feature about the elephant. As we all know, elephants are often killed just for their ivory, showing how insignificant the elephant's other so-called attributes are in reality. Even the elephant's thought, perhaps the most abstract quality found in any living creature, is reduced in this prose poem to his ivory tusks, which protrude “como una material expresión de pensamiento”/like a material expression of thought.

In case we still did not fully appreciate the extent to which Arreola's modern animal portrait represents a prosaic transformation of the poetic, his final sentence metaphorizes the elephant's thought-turned-ivory into even harder, more concrete objects, “dos curvas y despejadas estalactitas”/two curved, bright stalactites. Whatever dreams the elephant might be poetically imagined to have are described as “sueños formales”/formal dreams (my emphasis). These formal dreams are simply carved on these stalactites, as if they were mere objects. The image of the stalactite, reminiscent of one of the most influential French Parnassian collections, Théodore de Banville's “Les Stalactites,” could not be more appropriate, as it turns out, to this prose poem. For, in essence, what it conjures up in the mind of the comparatist is the ghost of Parnassian aesthetics, Art for Art's sake. Indeed, Arreola's text represents in no uncertain terms a modern version of this same aesthetic, because of its emphatic insistence on the sculptural, chiseled aspect of poetic portraits. One thinks here of the scriptural advice Théophile Gautier gives to fellow poets in his famous 1857 Parnassian “manifesto,” the last text of his collection Emaux et Camées titled “L'Art”:6

Sculpte, lime, cisèle;
Que ton rêve flottant
          Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant
Sculpt, file, chisel;
May your floating dream
          Be fixed
In the resistant block

In this sense, Arreola's prose poem serves as one of the cornerstones of a new type of bestiary, one that looks at elephants and other animals objectively, for themselves, if one prefers. It is a bestiary that takes the side of things/“le parti pris des choses,” as Ponge puts it, not the side of poets who previously used them as textual springboards for anthropological, sociological, and philosophic speculations. Thus, Arreola's prose poem, like other modern prose poems, functions as a prosaic concretization of that which, in poetry, is generally left abstract. Reversing Suzanne Bernard's universal prose poem formula—which states that prose poetry results from the poetization of the banal7—one can, therefore, say8 that instead of poeticizing the banal, this prose poem banalizes the traditionally exploited poetic attributes of the elephant. Another way to express this is to say that it concretizes the poetic abstraction to which the elephant traditionally gives rise.

Provided this reading is correct, we might then even choose to take seriously the concreteness of the signifiers in Arreola's prose poem themselves. Could it be that the actual words of this text form visual signs, on yet another textual level, of the thematic transformation of abstract into concrete already established? If so, we could at that point read the prose poem as an instance of a kind of “concrete poetry,” one of the most modern of all literary genres. Thus, from the first letter of the text, V, to the notable repetition of elongated consonants such as d, f, l, p, and q in words like “desde,” “fondo,” “edades,” “pesado,” “maqunaria,” “marfil, “paquidermos,” even the word “elefante” itself, Arreola's text illustrates, quite literally, the concreteness of the animal portrait presented here. For all of these graphemes suggest visually, and to varying degrees, not only the elephant's head, legs, and trunk, but also his curved tusks, which the poet, as we have seen, is quick to describe and emphasize.

Consequently, one might reasonably assert that these multifarious textual concretizations of poetic abstractions are what constitute the true semiotic import of “El elefante” as a modern prose poem. By extension, they are also what permit us to suggest that the modern bestiary takes its distance from more traditional ones, precisely on the basis of analogous phenomena found in other animal portraits. When Ponge, for example, reveals9 that some of the aesthetic success of his portrait of the oyster (“L'huître”) depends, in his opinion, on his utilizing several adjectives which end in the letter cluster “âtre,” like the words “blanchâtre,” “opiniâtre,” and “verdâtre,” we understand that modern prose poems often play with this very concrete, pictorialist dimension of a text. In Ponge's work, the circumflex accent in the French word for oyster serves as a visual icon for the oyster itself, and generates, as it were, other words whose primary function is to describe, mimetically, this same animal.

In this respect, we realize why it is possible, indeed, desirable to say that the semiotic functioning of all concrete features in modern texts, of whatever type, and on whatever level one wishes, cannot be fully appreciated unless one takes into account this further stylistic possibility, since such a possibility seems to inhere in a host of deliberately modern works. Arreola's “El elefante” succeeds as a prose poem because it expands, both thematically and formally, upon the key word forming its title. As one critic has suggested with specific regard to Ponge,10 the semantic and graphemic potentialities intrinsic to the single signifier “elephant” can thereby be said to have given rise to an entire text. In the final analysis, therefore, this idiosyncratic animal portrait underscores more than earlier poetic texts appear to have done the immense, perhaps even boundless, linguistic richness of the bestiary qua genre. Moreover, by assuming the modern form of a prose poem, Arreola's elephant finally demolishes the naïve illusion that everything that could have already been expressed through the literary use of animals—or of anything else, for that matter—has already been expressed.


  1. Quoted in Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (New York: Dell, 1976), p. 596.

  2. These fables are found in Ennis Rees, Fables from Aesop (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 86 and 110, respectively.

  3. Our two examples come from Jean de La Fontaine, Oeuvres, ed. Henri Regnier (Paris: Hachette, 1884) tome II, pp. 285–289, and tome III, pp. 309–312, respectively. All translations from the French are mine.

  4. Leconte de Lisle, Poèmes barbares (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), pp. 164–65

  5. Juan José Arreola, Confabulario total, 1941–1961 (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1961) 37. The English translation comes from Confabulario and Other Inventions by Juan José Arreola, tr. George D. Schade (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964), p. 16.

  6. Théophile Gautier, Emaux et Camées (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), p. 150. The loose, unrhymed translation from French is my own.

  7. See her Le Poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu'à nos jours (Paris: Nizet, 1959), especially pp. 444–46.

  8. Along with Barbara Johnson, who makes this very same theoretical point in her “Quelques différences anatomiques des textes” Poétique, 28 (1976): 450–65.

  9. In Entretiens de Francis Ponge avec Philippe Sollers (Paris: Seuil, 1970), pp. 111–12.

  10. Michael Riffaterre, La Production du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1979), p. 267.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165


Burt, John R. “This Is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola's Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source.” Hispania 71, No. 4 (December 1988): 806–11.

Burt examines how Arreola uses the image of the railroad both literally and allegorically in “El guardagujas.”

Menton, Seymour. “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story.” Hispania XLII, No. 3 (September 1959): 295–308.

Menton, a professor at the University of Kansas and a friend of Arreola's, explores the links between Arreola's work and world literature.

Washburn, Yulan M. “An Ancient Mold for Contemporary Casting: The Beast Book of Juan.” Hispania 56 (April 1973): 295–300.

Washburn discusses how Arreola's Bestiario is linked to the literary tradition of the bestiary.

Additional coverage of Arreola's life and career is available in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113, 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 81;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; Discovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Hispanic Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 38.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial



Arreola, Juan José (Short Story Criticism)