Embodying the People
If Proust once proposed that you have to read at least two books by a writer before you can pass judgement, and Nabokov reckoned you ought to read his entire body of work before being entitled to an opinion, then Juan Rulfo fulfils Proust's modest criterion and Nabokov's very demanding one. Rulfo only wrote two books that were published in his lifetime: the short story collection The Burning Plain and Other Stories, and Pedro Paramo. The latter sold around two thousand copies in its first four years, according to Wikipedia, and yet went on to become for many the greatest work of Latin American literature. El Pais in Uruguay asked writers and critics for what they thought happened to be the continent's masterpiece and Pedro Paramo came out on top. It is a book that takes the notion of a ghost town literally after the leading character goes back after his mother's death. It would make sense the book influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez who was no less interested in blending worlds both real and make-believe, but Rulfo's antecedent Jorge Luis Borges, Chris Powers states in a Guardian profile on Rulfo, also thought it was one of the best works of Latin American fiction.
Our purpose here, however, is to concentrate on the short stories. Rulfo isn't so much a pessimist as a brutalist in these tales. He is a writer who doesn't afford his characters the luxury of choosing how to see the world; the universe is horribly harsh. This will incorporate character, landscape, meteorology, religion and nature. "Women sang with falsetto voices in the half-dream of the night: "Come out, come out, souls in torment." And the church bells were ringing for the dead all night until dawn until they were cut short by the peals of dawn." ('At Daybreak') "Because what happened is that Natalia and I killed Tanilo Santos between the two of us. We got him to go with us to Talpa so he'd die. And he died. We know he couldn't stand all that travelling; but just the same we pushed him along between us, thinking we'd finished him off forever. That's what we did." ('Talpa') "So they've given us this land. And in this sizzling frying pan they want us to plant some kind of seeds to see if something will take root and come up. But nothing will come up here. Not even buzzards." ('They Gave Us the Land'). "'Don't you hear that wind?' I finally said to them. 'It will finish you off.' 'It keeps blowing as long as it ought to. It's God's will,' they answered me." ('Luvina')
To understand an aspect of Rulfo's brutalist universe we can think of Albert Camus and his review of Sartre's Nausea. "In the best ordered of lives, there always comes a moment when the structures collapse. Why this and that, this woman, that job or appetite for the future." "The feeling is common to all of us. For most men the approach of dinner, the arrival of a letter, or a smile from a passing girl are enough to help them get around it. But the man who likes to dig into ideas finds that being face to face with this particular one makes his life impossible. And to live with the feeling that life is pointless gives rise to anguish." Yet angst is an existential feeling for which one can claim some responsibility; brutalism suggests instead a milieu of which one is a part. When the narrator in 'Talpa' says, "I know now that Natalia is sorry for what happened [for the death of Tanilo Santos]. And I am too, but that won't save us from feeling guilty or give us any peace ever again", there is less the deep guilt of a choice made, than guilt as an added misery to one's hopelessly prescribed existence. Near the beginning of 'Talpa' the narrator reckons: "...during those days when we had so many difficult things to do - when we had to bury Tanilo in a grave at Talpa without anyone to help us, when she and I, just the two of us alone, joined forces and began to dig the grave...so that he wouldn't keep on scaring people with his smell so full of death" we feel the force of the milieu next to the weakness of the self. Rulfo would invoke this feeling of helplessness when interviewed. According to Power, Rulfo, when he was young, would stay in the house reading because he didn't want to risk getting shot if he went out. Brought up partly in an orphanage, both his father and uncle were killed after the fallout of the Cristero Wars, a religious response to the atheist Mexican revolution (1910-1920) that Rulfo was born into in the middle of 1918.
Even if some of Rulfo's stories are set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution, this indicates less self-determination than the determination to survive. Brutalism meets survivalism in 'The Burning Plain', with the story narrated by one of revolutionary leader Pedro Zamora's cohorts. The story isn't interested in revolutionary progress but in skirmishes fought to the detriment of anybody's well-being. The story is more Goya than Marx, with vivid images of horror rather than liberation and freedom. "We felt the bullets pepper us, heating the air all around us. And even the rocks we hid behind were shattered one after another as if they were clods of earth." "It was unusual if we didn't see one of our men strung up by the feet on just any tree along the road. They stayed there too until they got old and curled up like untanned hides. The buzzards ate their insides, gutting them, until they left just the shell." The narrator himself ends up in prison, but not for revolutionary activity: "I got out of jail three years ago. They punished me there for a lot of crimes, but not because I was one of Zamora's men. They didn't know that. They got me for other things, among others for the bad habit I had of carrying off girls." Sure the narrator ends up with a good woman, "the finest and best woman in the world - the one who was there, outside the jail waiting..." A child has come out of their pre-prison union, too but he "was just like me and with something mean in his look. He had to get some of that from his father." A story that begins on revolutionary action, ends on genealogical repetition: this isn't a tale of amelioration and progress, but of another potential killer. The wife, however, thinks not. "But he's not a bandit or a killer. He's a good person." "I hung my head" the narrator says the closing line of the story. Whatever positive virtues the son might end up possessing are unlikely to come from the father. Will he be no more than a survivor too?
When thinking of Rulfo's brutalism two comments come to mind. One is Susan Sontag's remark about Pedro Paramo in her foreword to the novel. "Everyone asked Rulfo why he did not publish another book, as if the point of a writer's life is to go on writing and publishing. In fact, the point of a writer's life is to produce a great book - that is, a book which will last - and this is what Rulfo did. No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times." The other is from Donald Barthelme: "In the dialogues with Duthuit, Beckett, as you know, rejects what can be accomplished "on the plane of the feasible", he seems to be asking for an art adequate to the intuition of Nothingness. I don't want to oversimplify his aesthetics, about which I know nothing firsthand, but the problem appears to be not one of announcing truths, or that truths do or do not exist, but of hewing to the intuition, which seems central, and yet getting some work done." (Paris Review) Here we have the book that is so perfect according to Sontag that the writer needn't continue writing, and the work that needs to be done no matter the futility of the effort in Barthelme's take. One needn't go on because what has been done is so meaningful that the masterpiece has already been produced; one must go on because something has to be done however meaningless. But what about an angle that is somewhere in between: that when the work contains within it such a negative account of human existence, would one necessarily wish to continue writing any more? This raises many and varied questions about what literature is for, and plenty of writers and critics will insist that literature's purpose isn't to offer hints of self-improvement but to offer the sort of aesthetic perfection to which Sontag alludes. But what if the internal perfection is predicated on human imperfection; can it appear as though the work ends up not referencing the world but containing itself within its own universe? Yet Rulfo does not seem to be a writer who was interested in generating internally perfect texts, as if a literary mathematics with little reference to the world beyond the work. His fiction isn't only specifically Mexican but also specific to the region in which he lived and worked: Jalisco. In the Beckettian sense Rulfo chose not to go on, but whether this lay in him already achieving perfection, or failing to see a way through to a more ameliorative perspective we do not know. Was it a choice in the Camus sense, or was it that Rulfo found himself creatively part of the very hopelessness befitting many of his characters?
We are perhaps being overly speculative, but let us think of Sartre again and his belief in a literature of engagement. Of course a writer like Alain Robbe-Grillet reacted very strongly to Sartre's ideas (in What is Literature?) in his own claim for literature, For a New Novel, saying that literature's purpose is not to engage but to generate internal systems of literary perfection "For the work of art contains nothing, in the strict sense of the term (that is as a box can hold - or be empty of - some object of an alien nature:..one may say it expresses nothing but itself." This is close perhaps to Sontag's comments about Pedro Paramo. But Sartre believed that while literature, of course, was not a fictional version of pamphleteering, nevertheless he thought it important to know what a writer wanted to say, and believed "art has never been on the side of the purist." Camus might be inclined to agree, reckoning in his Nausea review, "A novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images." "In a good novel," Camus insists, "the philosophy has disappeared into the images", and finds in Sartre's novel this isn't always so. Yet this sublimated philosophy still indicates a point and a purpose.
Can we claim Rulfo was also a writer of engagement, but at the same time someone incapable of creating literature that could ameliorate? As story after story indicates the brutality of the people from his region, why wouldn't a writer want to arrive at silence? It is perhaps a variation on Deleuze and Guattari's claims in Toward a Minor Literature. The writer is creating within an oppressed group, and therefore cannot but help in his or her work in representing the people: "the second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political..." If a French writer, for example, presents the wealthy of France as slothful, arrogant and oblivious, he might feel under no obligation to represent the people politically, and doesn't much care whether he contributes positively or negatively to how they are perceived beyond the page. The self-absorbed lives he presents may happen to lend themselves well to a literature of social progress. The writer might not be writing for this end; however, the negative delineation of one social class can appear to contribute to the social development of the lower classes who might be barely present in the books, but whose existence is implicitly ennobled by the wasteful lives that are shown. Yet this is a minor consequence of writing in a major literature. Did Maupassant, Proust or Gide fret over the representing of a people? But we can read Rulfo's short stories and come away from them believing that revolution is without point, social progress without purpose, and that Mexico is an arid wasteland that might as well be colonized as not. This could be troublesome for someone who doesn't want simply to negate the people.
This isn't the end of representation, a belief that everything has been done and no aesthetic developments are available to the writer, as John Barth, for example, explores in a 'Literature of Exhaustion'. No, this is a socio-political representative cul de sac that has little to do with the silence of the creatively exhausted; it is closer to the representatively circumspect. Can one keep showing a people in this way? This is speculation of course, but no more so than Sontag's, and there is nothing to indicate that Rulfo saw himself as part of the modernist canon that wanted to produce a masterpiece and allow then for the silence to descend. But Rulfo did dedicate much of his life, after writing The Burning Plain and other Stories in 1953 and Pedro Paramo in 1955, to supporting indigenous people. Though Rulfo was born into the landowning class, for much of his later life he was involved in helping those generally dispossessed. From 1954 to 1957 he was part of the government organization, La comisin del rio Papaloapan, helping the socio-economic situation of those living along the Papaloapan river. From 1962 to 1986 he worked as an editor for the National Institute for Indigenous People. He moved from un-ameliorative literature to organizations that were unequivocally interested in helping the lives of the poor.
There is, of course, a history of literature that is surrounded by silence, a history of writing by writers where the work is somehow contained by the non-writing that borders it. Examples include Arthur Rimbaud, who gave up poetry by the age of twenty-one, and dedicated himself to becoming briefly a soldier, and later a trader in Yemen and Ethiopia, Hardy foregoing novel writing for poetry after Jude the Obscure, Henry Roth and his sixty years of writer's block after Call it Sleep, and Ralph Ellison, who published no other novel in his lifetime once completing The Invisible Man. Perhaps what Sontag says of Rulfo would apply to the other writers as well. Could Rimbaud have written better poetry, Hardy, Roth and Ellison better novels or did they know that their best work was behind them, and they had to escape from the pressure of past glories towards very different projects that could generate new hopes? Each writer would have their own answer to that, or no answer at all. But we can say of Rulfo's work that, in modern media studies parlance, he isn't offering positive representations in the stories, yet the work he did thereafter lay in this very purpose.
There was a debate in the seventies around John Gardner's book On Moral Fiction; Gardner reckoned many contemporary novels lacked a clear moral focus, and numerous writers attacked the book, with John Barth seeing it as an act of literary kneecapping ('The Art of Replenishment') and Barthelme believing in relation to the Gardner debate that fiction is moral but not "moral so much in the way that Gardner conceives fiction as moral. It's the morality of art. And you're not going to persuade me that making art is not a highly moral act in itself." (Not Knowing) Few would have claimed Rulfo was not producing moral literature, and some see this moral reflection coming out of the ironic. Amit Thakkar believes we should read the narrator's remarks in 'Luvina' ironically. As the central character discusses the titular town with his replacement, so he offers numerous pessimistic comments that suggest the place is a hellish backwater. "The people from there say that when the moon is full they clearly see the figure of the wind along Luvina's streets, bearing behind it a black blanket, but what I always managed to see when there was a moon in Luvina was the image of despair always." "Time is very long there. Nobody counts the hours and nobody cares how the years go mounting up. The days begin and end. Then night comes. Just day and night until the day of death, which for them is a hope." Thakkar sees the negative take on the town as a reflection of the teacher's colonized consciousness, viewing his own people as 'Other'. "Thus, what we have in the teacher's words is possibly the evocation not necessarily of a real village but an imprecise 'Other'...that exists only in his mind." (The Fiction of Juan Rulfo: Irony, Revolution and Postcolonialism) Yet many of the other characters who are not outsiders, who are not educated, say similar things about the towns and villages that make up Rulfo's world in the other stories too. When the father says to his son, in 'No Dogs Bark', "I'm not doing all this for you. I'm doing it for your dead mother. Because you were her son. That's why I am doing it. She would've haunted me if I left you lying where I found you", this possesses the same harshness that the teacher applies to Luvina. Much is the case with almost all the other stories as well: these are hellish places to live and die, and whoever might be to blame for the misery, it seems that the horrors are real enough. It doesn't just seem a product of false consciousness, of people failing to see their everyday reality.
If anything one often wonders whether the characters aren't especially lucid about the misery they witness or of which they happen to be a part. "Everything is going from bad to worse. Last week my Aunt Jacinta died, and on Saturday, when we'd already buried her and we started getting over the sadness, it began raining like never before." These are the opening lines of a story that contains misery in its very title: 'We're Very Poor'. We're then informed that this is especially bad news because the corn the father has picked was drying in the sun, and then the young narrator says "and only yesterday, when my sister Tacha just turned twelve, we found out that the cow my father had given her for her birthday had been swept away by the river." When a tree is pulled downstream in Aunt Jacinta's yard the family knows this is the worst flooding for years. As the narrator talks about the cow that disappears down the river that the father had gone to a lot of trouble to get, determined that his daughter would have a little capital to stop becoming a "bad woman like my two older sisters", again we see a pessimistic, hopeless world. The narrator might belong to what he sees as a God-fearing family, but it seems that all around are elements unafraid of God and keen to turn to the bad. At the end of the story, with the cow still missing, even mother nature looks like it will conspire against the sister: "her two little breasts bounce up and down without stopping, as if suddenly they were beginning to swell, to start now, on the road to ruin."
Many a novelist might write about a person's body rebelling against them, but here it is the mere process of maturity that could destroy Tacha's life. This is almost humorously despairing as Rulfo indicates the odds against someone, where a little bad luck can go a very long way. Humour in fact is never far from Rulfo's work, but equally never present enough to pass for the comic. "And I would have broken his nose if the boss, Don Justo, hadn't appeared suddenly and given me a swift kick to calm me down. He gave me such a beating that I was almost out cold among the rocks, my bones crackling with pain they were so battered." ('At Daybreak') There might be humour in someone saved from a battering by another getting beaten, but the detail removes any comic dimension as the character's bones crackle with hurt.
Perhaps literature's morality is not the same as the one in life, and problems arise when we confuse one for the other. Clearly there are writers more interested in amelioration than others: Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a work that pushes for broader education; many of Dickens' novels the end of child labour, and some of Tolstoy's late work proselytizes for religious faith. Yet is a writer's purpose not to change the world but expand consciousness: to make us see things differently? Maybe social progress will result; perhaps not. "Although in his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets - Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, the brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, the law [Pickwick Papers and Bleak House], government bureaucracy, lethargy and nepotism in Little Dorrit, extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times - it's hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation in any of those areas to Dickens's influence." So argues Professor Malcolm Andrews, editor of the Dickensian, journal of the Dickens Fellowship. If we say that certain working conditions are Dickensian then this gives us language for a perception. Once we have this perception we might want to do something about it, but the writer's purpose isn't to pamphleteer, but to make visible the unknown, unsaid, unthought. Rulfo's focus as a writer would seem to lie in making the Jalisco poor present in literary terms; to ask then for positive representations may seem like a step too far for the writing and yet not enough for the writer himself. The writing, if the writer continues, determined to help the people, becomes idealistic, which ruins the writing, and the writer becomes an ideologue: he is after all in the realm of thought rather than action and thus might destroy his work, rather than doing something about the reality. It was as if Rulfo avoided these twin bedevilments by writing literature that was harshly exploring an aspect of Mexican society, and then doing ameliorative work elsewhere. It allowed him to become in Octavio Paz's words,"the only Mexican novelist to have provided us an image - rather than a mere description - of our physical surroundings" ('Landscape and the Novel in Mexico'), and also a useful figure in the lives of the indigenous people of Mexico.
The sort of ethics demanded of art are perhaps more towards time than towards space: that a book tries to comprehend something of the deep structures at work in human existence, while the ethics demanded of our daily, social and political lives are more attentive to the immediate, the unjust, the transformative. A term like the Dickensian for example thus takes two forms, depending on how we want to use it. If we are discussing the literary dimension it locates a deep structure (a term used by Claude Levi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky in different contexts): the Dickensian as a certain mode of behaviour in the world. Think of the meanness of Scrooge, the sly insinuations of Fagin, the jilted misery of Miss Havisham: these are all archetypal characters in the Dickens universe, and they then enter the world as synonymous figures. Miss Havisham is the embodiment of spinsterhood, Scrooge of meanness, Fagin of insinuating opportunism. But if we're offering a generalized political position we can say that the Tory's welfare policies are Dickensian, Labour's capitulation to the corporate labour market likewise, and so on. The embodiment defines a deep character type that Dickens captured; the political, a general social milieu that can be used fruitfully by those insisting on social progress and not social regression.
Thus Dickens happens to be a great and important writer because he is both a literary giant and a social progressive, however indirectly. If Paz is right that Rulfo provided in his fiction an image and not just a description of physical surroundings, he did so to the detriment of social amelioration. That would take place in his life, not in his work. While Sontag insists that he could stop writing because he had already produced his masterpiece by the time he was forty, then maybe his instinct for social justice could have eventually undermined the books he may then have written. This is conjecture, of course, but speculation we hope that has served a bigger point: the notion of literature that isn't social-realist (as for example Communism expected), committed (in Sartre's formula) nor producing positive representations (as in certain post-colonial formulations), but ethical in its exploration of being, in bringing into existence characters not as a social description but as an aesthetic image.
© Tony McKibbin