Juan José Arreola 1918-
Mexican short story writer, novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, and playwright.
Hailed as Mexico's premier experimental short story writer of the twentieth century, Arreola is best known for his allegorical tales that explore the nature of human existence in a haphazard, dreamlike, and sometimes insane world. He is also recognized as one of the first Mexican writers to abandon realism in favor of fables and parables; in his stories he uses elements of fantasy to underscore existentialist and absurdist ideas and offers readers bewildering yet humorous glimpses into complexities of the human condition. Arreola's short fiction has been compared to that of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Although he is little known outside his native Mexico, Arreola has served as literary inspiration for a legion of Mexican writers who have sought to transform their country's realistic literary tradition by introducing elements of magical realism, satire, and allegory.
Arreola was born in Mexico in 1918, the fourth of fourteen children. As a youngster, he earned such a reputation for his ability to memorize stories and poems he had either read or heard that he was given the job of announcing all public functions in his hometown of Zapotlán. His family's financial difficulties forced him to leave school at age twelve, but Arreola's appetite for reading, memorizing, and reciting continued as he apprenticed for a master bookbinder and printing press. In 1939 Arreola moved to Mexico City to study drama, but his theater career was short-lived because of severe post-performance depressions. He took a job as a secondary school teacher in 1940, the same year his first short story was published in his hometown newspaper.
In 1943 Arreola and a group of literary friends, including the distinguished Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, created their own literary journals, Pan and Eos. The publication in Eos of Arreola's short story “Hizo el bien mientras vivió” (“He Did Good While He Lived”) marked the fledgling writer as an important new voice in Mexican literature. The following year Arreola married. When the relationship ended in divorce soon thereafter, Arreola suffered a nervous breakdown and became seriously ill. In 1945 he left to study drama in France on a scholarship from the French government, but bad health and attacks of depression forced him to return to Mexico City in 1946. For the next few years Arreola worked as a proofreader, French translator, and writer of dust jacket blurbs for Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico's largest publishing company.
In 1949 Arreola produced his first volume of short stories, Varia invención (Various Inventions). Despite its commercial failure, his employer, the Fondo, released a second collection, Confabulario. In 1954 his play, La hora de todos (Moment of Truth), about a man who must sit in judgement of his own life, won the Xavier Villaurrutia Theater Prize despite being dismissed by critics. The next year he released Confabulario y Varia invenció (Confabulario and Other Inventions), which combined new stories with previously published pieces. In 1958 new stories appeared in Punta de plata, and in 1962 Arreola republished all his existing work along with many new stories under the title Confabulario total. Arreola's only novel, La feria (The Fair), a semi-autobiographical work about growing up in Zapotlán, appeared in 1963.
For the next thirty-five years Arreola produced few new works, but his fame in Mexico as a writer of supreme wit and erudition continued to grow. He also earned a reputation for his frequent public appearances on television and interviews in which he would respond with ironic humor and storytelling—and without preparation—to questions put before him. Two books of Arreola's witticisms and reflections were published in the 1970s under the titles La palabra educatión (The Word Education) and Y ahora la mujer … (And now, Woman), and in 1976 he released Inventario (Inventory), essays on life and literature. Throughout the 1980s he appeared on television, resumed teaching, and frequently published stories and essays in Mexican magazines. He lives in Mexico City.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Arreola published three separate volumes of short fiction in his career. He would continuously combine, revise, and resequence those pieces in later compilations. All the stories in these collections exhibit Arreola's trademark brevity, humor, and sense of the absurdity of life. None is simple or straightforward, and the stories often leave the reader with more questions than answers. Varia invención, a collection of eighteen tales, explores the broad themes of paranoia, alienation, love and religious faith, but each is written in such a radically different style that it becomes clear Arreola means to mimic a variety of literary techniques. Confabulario, a collection of over thirty short stories, also displays Arreola's talent for writing in a range of styles, and include stories of magic realism, Kafka-like tales of existential dread and absurdity, fables, and pseudobiographies. Punta de plata, a collection of short lyrical prose descriptions of wild animals that are intended as allegories of the beastly qualities of man, is the only volume that seems to be held together by a strong thematic focus.
The tales in Varia invenciónand Confabulario deal with the problem of existential angst, pessimistic portrayals of human possibilities, and make obscure references to literary genres and historical figures. “Peublerina,” about a man who wakes up one morning with bull horns growing from his head, echoes Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Arreola's stories are typically cryptic, as if readers are expected to use their puzzlement to think more deeply about the story's implications. In “El discípulo,” a story about a young artist who asks his master for advice on becoming a better painter, the teacher draws a rough outline of a woman, which he declares beautiful. Yet as he sketches in more and more detail he becomes less satisfied with the outcome. In the end the teacher rips the picture in half and throws the pieces in the fire. The best art, Arreola is apparently saying, is not detailed but only offers the barest outlines that the viewer must complete for himself.
Arreola's most famous short story, “El guardagujas,” is a puzzling tale about a man who wishes to take a train to a certain location, but upon arrival at the station is told by the switchman that his chances of ever seeing a train—let alone of ever arriving at his intended destination—are very slim. The switchman tells how in some places the train tracks are nothing more than chalk lines, and how elsewhere no bridge exists so that passengers must take the train apart and carry the pieces to be reassembled down the line. The passenger eventually becomes so confused that he forgets where he intended to go, at which point the switchman and his toy lantern disappear into the distance. Like most of Arreola's stories, “El guardagujas” can be interpreted in a variety of ways—as a allegory of the pitfalls of the Mexican train system, an existential horror story of life's absurdities and human limitation, and the author's desire to laugh in spite of the insanities of the world and human interaction.
With the exception of the pieces in Punta de plata, Arreola's stories are most remarkable for the writer's mastery of a variety of literary styles. Some stories read like essays, others like diaries or confessionals, and many are based on obscure works from various countries and periods. Plot and character development are usually minimal, with tension created by a series of confusing occurrences or mental crises. Like those works of the absurdist or existentialist writers with whom he is compared, the short stories of Arreola invite a range of interpretations.
The reception of Arreola's first collection of short stories, Varia invención, was disappointing. Not only did the volume fail commercially, but what little critical attention was paid to it tended to stress that the stories had little to do with Mexican politics or social conditions. This was a complaint that continued to be levelled at his works, as Arreola's stories show more concern with unraveling the mysteries of the human condition than offering social commentary on Mexican life. The first volume of stories did, however, raise Fondo's estimation of Arreola, and their publication of Confabulario, with its similarly rich array of subject matter and literary genres, established Arreola as an important Mexican short story writer. The short stories in Varia invención and Confabulario have been compared to the writings of Kafka, Camus, and Jorge Luis Borges because of their thematic similarities. The critical commentary on the second volume was sparse; while they drew praise for their imagination and humor, many commentators did not understand or appreciate Arreola's nonrealistic literary technique. His use of fantasy also again raised the charge that conditions in Mexico demanded a more realistic appraisal of Mexican life and social inequalities. Punta de plata, the collection of allegorical stories based on the physical characteristics of animals at the zoo, was warmly received for its descriptive, lyrical prose.
Despite having established a sure literary standing at home, Arreola remains almost unknown outside Mexico. Scholarly appraisal of the stories in English is limited. The translation of his Confabulario total into English in 1964 prompted a few English-speaking critics to praise his subtle descriptions and wry humor, and a few commentators since then have offered appraisals of his work. Most tend to discuss the meanings of and influences that can be detected in the stories, particularly “The Switchman.” In Mexico today, Arreola's fame has as much to do with his arresting public personality and ability to narrate stories at will—either from memory or extemporaneously—as it does with his written work. Many of his supporters bemoan the fact that Arreola's limited reputation is the result of the secondary consideration that literary circles place on the short story genre in general, a form that Arreola finds most suited to his personal and artistic concerns. He is considered one of the pioneers of nonrealistic Mexican literature, and his influence is clearly visible in the works of younger Mexican writers such as Jorge Arturo Ojeda and Hugo Hiriat, who have expanded upon their master's experimental innovations.