Book review: “El llano en llamas” (the Burning Plain and other stories) by Juan Rulfo

“¿Cómo que nunca has leído Juan Rulfo?” asked my nephew and intellectual buddy, incredulous that I had never read one of Mexico’s — and Latin America’s — most iconic writers. In another context, such an impertinent question that is actually not a question might arise out of the intellectual insecurity of other people’s taste. But he is close family, and we share many tastes, including the great writers, Jorge Luís Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, who were so inspired by Rulfo. We also share a taste for walking the old streets of our beloved Puebla, Mexico, discussing the transformation of the city and a nation, as well as the a worrisome outlook for a Latin America where we live at two different ends, yet witnessing the same imbroglio of social, economic and political injustice across the region. And it was referring to Juan Rulfo and the history of such injustice that he brusquely encountered my lacuna regarding the iconic Mexican writer, which was sincerely surprising and inadmissible at he same time.

He frog-marched me into his university bookstore and bought me one of the few works of the renowned yet unprolific writer. It was a new edition of the short story collection El llano en llamas (The Burning Plains) in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Juan Rulfo.

I dislike compulsory reading. Traumatized by my youth of force-fed books that contributed nothing to my life, I fervently preach how the books that make a difference find us; we don’t choose them. So I was prepared to put the book at the end of the line of my reading list, but it seemed a shame to spend my time in Mexico not reading a local classic — especially such a measly book at less than 170 pages.

That is when the book found me.

The lyricism of the first pages arrested me, transporting me with the sensual perception of peasants caught between a beautiful yet unforgiving earth and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), and the Cristero War of the 1920s. The sheer power of Rulfo’s vivid poetic prose that made even cruel things beautiful within the shortest of stories that resonate with the textures and flavors of parched lands and cold mountain villages in the disloyalty of night. Astounding it was to encounter a writer who could do so much with less, painting pictures of the injustice within families and villages caught on a timeless land that was bleeding.

If the reverberating prose wasn’t seductive enough, the fact that the narrative could actually take place in today’s contemporary Mexico and many other countries in Latin America struck me, making me feel a little ill when realizing that the violence we live with in Latin America is nothing new and still unresolved, as the chickens and eggs of inequality, injustice and disparity chase each other round and round.

I was pleasantly surprised that The Economist magazine had recently reviewed the work of Juan Rulfo, encountering the same lyricism and contemporary “arbitrary violence” in the his novel Pedro Páramo, as well as how a new generation of Latin American writers have been allured by the simplicity of Rulfo, compared to the region’s great prolix novelists that cast such shadows over world literature.

Framing the context of the Rulfo’s work, my nephew could help but to ignite interest: “No te olvides que la Revolución Mexicana sucedió antes de la Rusa, ¿eh?” he said, reminding me of the global significance of the violent land and agrarian reform that was the Mexican Revolution, which happened even before that of the momentous Russian one that changed the course of history for the world.

It made the few hours’ journey through the book even more profoundly sensual and painful, imagining how Rulfo might have seen his own father executed and his mother’s death that left him an orphan in a ravaged land where he was still able to find beauty in the magical realism that is part of the daily life of an entire culture.

Encontre-se o livro do Juan Rulfo na língua portuguesa como “A planície em chamas”

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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