A Wild, 'Burning' Journey Back To Old Mexico
When I was a kid, hearing someone say "you must read this" actually made me not want to read the book. Here's why: None of the books I read growing up came close to the real-life stories my uncle, Tio Nico, used to tell me -- like the story from the 1930s where the Texas Rangers almost shot his cousin dead along the border; or the one from the 1850s when Indians kidnapped my great-great-grandfather in northern Mexico and brought him to this side of the Rio Grande.
But then, two things happened on my way to becoming a reader in my early 30s: First, I started writing fiction and realized that writing would only ever be possible if I started reading. Then a friend recommended The Burning Plain and Other Stories, by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo.
Originally published in Spanish in the 1950s with the title El Llano en Llamas, Rulfo's collection of 15 short stories takes place across a brutally rugged terrain in the years after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
To read Rulfo's stories is to inhabit Mexico and, in the process, to have Mexico inhabit you. In the story "We're Very Poor," a rural family barely survives a massive flood that takes with it a cow that the father had hoped might someday attract a worthy suitor for his 12-year-old daughter. This daughter, as the narrator tells us, now cries streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside her.
Another story is about a band of guerrillas fleeing from the army's forces, only to be picked off later by vengeful Indians. They hope to break the guerrillas' spines like the rotten branches of the barranca, where they've taken cover.
Rulfo wrote only two books, The Burning Plain and Pedro Paramo, both classics of Mexican and world literature. Though these are thin books by any standard, they are so well-crafted that you realize that each sentence, each line of dialogue, each bit of punctuation had to fight for its life on the page.
I remember taking a copy of The Burning Plain with me to Mexico when I was researching some of the material for my own novel. To say I felt myself transported back to the time of distant relatives sounds overly sentimental. But as I reread these stories, I did have the sense that I was listening to a corrido, or Mexican folk song, describing the injustices and hardscrabble life along the border region and to the south. It reminded me of the real life stories of my Tio Nico.
Take it from me -- someone who didn't start out as a reader -- that you must read The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo.You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
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