Rulfo, Juan 1918-1986
Mexican short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and photographer.
Considered one of Mexico's most notable authors, Rulfo established an international literary reputation on only two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, published within three years of each other in the 1950s. His fiction depicts the lives of people in the arid lands of central Mexico. Although local in their settings, Rulfo's works transcend contextual themes to explore universal, metaphysical, social, and political questions.
Rulfo was born in central Mexico in the Jalisco region. During his early childhood, the war of the Cristeros took place. A political uprising of the Catholic clergy against the Mexican government, this event and its repercussions became a recurring theme in his later work. In the 1920s both of his parents died and Rulfo was sent to an orphanage where he remained until 1933. After a brief stint in university, he became an immigration agent. At work, a colleague encouraged his writing, which resulted in the 1945 publication of his first short story. Soon after, he founded the literary journal Pan with prominent Mexican writers Juan José Arreola and Antonio Alatorre. In 1952 Rulfo received a fellowship from the Centro de Escritores Mexicanos, which allowed him to finish his collection of short stories, El llano en llamas, y otros cuentos (The Burning Plain, and Other Stories.) Following favorable critical reception, the fellowship was renewed, enabling Rulfo to complete his novel Pedro Páramo, published in 1955. A second novel was begun but never published. His later nonliterary work consisted of editing history books and working with various government agencies, primarily one that studied and attempted to alleviate the problems of Mexico's indigenous population. Rulfo later wrote film scripts, published as El gallo de oro y otros textos para cine (The Golden Cock and Other Film Scripts.) In 1970 he was awarded Mexico's highest literary honor, the Premio Nacional de Letras, and he received Spain's Premio Príncipe de Asturias in 1983. Rulfo died in 1986.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The short stories in The Burning Plain are set in the harsh countryside of the Jalisco region where Rulfo was raised. They explore the tragic lives of the area's inhabitants, who suffer from extreme poverty, family discord, and crime. The title character of "Macario," for example, is an orphan raised by a neurotic foster mother. The narrative voice reflects the boy's thoughts as he sits alongside a drain-pipe at night, carrying out his foster mother's instructions to kill the bullfrogs, whose croaking disturbs her sleep. "Nos han dado la tierra" ("They Have Given Us the Land") depicts the results of the government's land reform program for four poor countrymen who have been given a parcel of land. They march across a barren plain to reach their property, which is located too far from any source of water to be of any use to them. "La noche que lo dejaron solo" ("The Night He Was Left Alone") tells the story of a man pursued by federal troops who kill his family members when they cannot locate him. The content and, in some cases, the narrative technique of these stories have been perceived by critics as precursors to Rulfo's artistic achievement in his novel: both works share a bleak, essentially hopeless view of the lives of their characters.
Rulfo's literary reputation is based on only two works, the short story collection The Burning Plain and the novel Pedro Páramo. Both garnered high critical and popular praise, first in Mexico, where Rulfo received a national literary prize, and then abroad, where his work is a component of virtually any course focusing on twentieth-century Latin American literature. Though some commentators have categorized him as a regionalist writer, many critics have acknowledged that his work transcends strictly regional concerns, embodying universal themes of dispossession, loneliness, poverty, and alienation.