‘Reading El Llano en llamas hurts because it depicts the reality in which we find ourselves in Mexico today’. With these words, the inaugural ‘Cátedra Extraordinaria Juan Rulfo’ kicked off at UNAM. The words were spoken by Clara Aparicio de Rulfo, wife of the late Juan Rulfo. The event and, it must be noted, the presence of so many of Rulfo’s family members, assured a strong media presence as reporters tripped over each other in order to have a few words with the writer-photographer’s widow. Lasting three days, this major conference attracted speakers from all over Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, Japan, England, France and the U.S.A. The bulk of the speakers focused on El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), Rulfo’s only published collection of short stories, the 60th anniversary of which occurred in September of this year. For the purpose of this short piece, instead of attempting to summarise the contents of all 38 papers (the focus was multi-disciplinary with papers on cinema, photography, fiction, economy to name just a few), I prefer to return to the words of Sra. Clara and explore the way in which Rulfo’s work has never been more relevant. As the country has just been battered by a double flank attack by storms Manuel and Ingrid, two of Rulfo’s stories are particularly applicable to recent events– ‘Es que somos muy pobres’ (It’s Just That We’re Very Poor), which focuses on the heart-wrenching effect of a young girl’s cow being swept away by an over-flowing river and ‘El día del derrumbe’ (The Day of the Collapse).
‘Esto pasó en septiembre’ (it happened in September) – these are the opening words of ‘El día del derrumbe’. This story recounts the visit of the Governor to a small town in the wake of a devastating earthquake. The townsfolk recollect the magnificence of the party that was thrown to celebrate the arrival of the self-important politician and his posse (and a geologist). The townsfolk, already devastated by the earthquake, are saddled with the responsibility of staging a massive celebratory meal to mark this auspicious visit. When the time comes to speak, the Governor’s oration takes the form of a hilarious mish-mash of unintelligible, high-falutin’, vapid sound-bytes. The townsfolk seem both bemused and impressed by the Governor’s speech. The meaning of the hollow political jargon proves aloof while the delivery provokes admiration – the preference of style over substance is something that I have seen corrupt not just the political realm but that of the education system in Mexico too. One of the narrators suggests that the earthquake occurred on September 21st. That same day, in the year 2013, saw Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s visit to Acapulco, a city still reeling from the destruction wreaked by Manuel. More a haircut than a president, EPN (as he’s usually known in the Mexican press) is the perfect candidate to replicate the oratorical style of Rulfo’s Governor. Examples of his numerous gaffes abound online. In 2011, at the major Guadalajara International Book Fair, he struggled for more than two excruciating minutes to name some books that have influenced his life. His stumbling, desperate, groping answer included references to ‘some parts of the bible’ and ‘La silla del águila de Krauze’. That novel was, of course, written by Carlos Fuentes and not, as EPN thought, by Enrique Krauze. He recently mistakenly referred to the state of Monterrey (which is a city located in the state of Nuevo León) and, while in Veracruz city called it the state capital – Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz state. (For less amusing examples of his behaviour one might be advised to google his alleged involvement in the murder, torture and illegal kidnapping of countless protestors against state expropriation of lands in Atenco during his governorship of Mexico State). As I write this EPN has returned to Acapulco to address the people of Guerrero, who continue to suffer horrendous hardships. No doubt his address will rival that of the Governor in ‘El día del derrumbe’, if not in pretentious eloquence then, certainly, in the hollowness of his promises.
‘Es que somos muy pobres’ is narrated by the younger brother of a pubescent girl named Tacha. Tacha’s calf has been almost certainly washed away by the river that has overflowed as a result of merciless flooding in rural Jalisco. The girl’s father hoped that the calf would attract the affections of a young man (or any man, for that matter) that would make Tacha his wife on account of the magnificent animal that would be part of the deal. Now it looks as if the animal has been swept away and with it, Tacha’s only hope of a respectful marriage. Her two older sisters, desperately impoverished, fell into the only profession for which they were qualified – prostitution. Now, with Tacha’s dowry calf having disappeared, it seems that her fate is sealed. During the conference at UNAM, Juan Carlos Rulfo (the prize-winning documentary filmmaker and author’s son) filmed me reading a passage from El Llano en llamas. I was asked to read from Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum’s 2012 translation (entitled The Plain in Flames it is a marked improvement on George D. Schade’s 1967 translation). I chose the final two paragraphs from ‘Es que somos muy pobres’. This is how the story reaches its miserable conclusion (translation mine):
And Tacha cries when she thinks that her cow won’t return because it has been killed by the river. She’s here, at my side, in her rose-coloured dress, looking at the river from the gully, crying unstoppably. From her face run streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside her.
I hug her, trying to console her but she doesn’t understand. She cries even more. From her mouth comes a sound like the one that sweeps along the riverbank, making her shudder and tremble all over. Meanwhile, the flood keeps rising. The rotting smell that comes from down there splashes Tacha’s wet face and her two little breasts move up and down, without stopping; it’s as if they’ve suddenly swollen to begin working for her perdition.
Tacha’s tears mix with mud and the stench of rotting fauna. The dirty water seems to stream from inside her, as if she has been physically violated and morally corrupted by the river. Tacha’s lack of power to self-determination in a machista society means she will have great difficulty in escaping the dire poverty into which she was born. When coupled with the merciless destruction of nature that is not indifferent, but actively cruel in the work of Rulfo, her fate is sealed. Unfortunately, the relentless recent flooding in Guerrero (approx. 100 dead and 100 missing so far), the poverty of 21st century rural Mexico (exacerbated by NAFTA) and the pig-headed machismo that still infects every echelon of Mexican society, means that ‘Es que somos muy pobres’ is, 60years after the publication of El Llano en llamas, as poignantly relevant now as it was in 1953.
I’ve lived in Mexico for a non-consecutive total of five years. It is a fascinating place in which to reside. However, like every country, it has its problems. Sra. Clara commented upon the fact that many of these problems, so memorably depicted by Rulfo, still exist. She went on to remark upon the fact that the politicians don’t want to talk about it. That is why we need writers like Rulfo – in Ireland as well as in Mexico. We need writers to show what the politicians, in league with the almost indescribably corrupt media, refuse to show. At home and abroad, we need more Rulfos.
Dylan Brennan’s poetry has been published in a number of Irish and international journals such as Agenda Broadsheets, Poetry Ireland Review, New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, The Penny Dreadful Magazine, Revival Literary Journal, The OFI Press, Arabesques etc. He has also collaborated with the Fundación Juan Rulfo on two of their recent publications El gallo de oro (2010) and Juan Rulfo: Otras Miradas (2010). In 2006 he featured in the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. His first collection, Blood Oranges, was recently published by The Dreadful Press. He lives and works in Mexico.